In our fast-paced culture of instant satisfaction and the breakneck speed of change, we often neglect working towards quietness and having a stillness of heart that looks in the face of noise and says, “I am at peace.” The words listed above are often foreign to us; uncomfortable, even. As we become more and more accustomed to noise, silence becomes even more foreign.
We can not escape the noise and busyness that surrounds us. As appealing as it may be at times, we do not live in a monastery where silence is sacred and solitude is praised. So our challenge is to embrace a lifestyle of peace and quiet from within and impose it on our surroundings, rather than allowing the noise of external forces to dictate the attitude of our hearts. Stillness becomes a lens through which we view and live in the world and it directs how we respond to life’s challenges and struggles.
It is safe to say that I’ve been wrestling with peace. When the Bible talks of peace, what does it mean? I’m finding the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Frederick Beuchner helpful, but the practical consequences have yet to yield fruit. Nonetheless, I will share some thoughts I’ve gleaned along with questions I’ve yet to answer.
Solitude is not as concerned with physical seclusion as it would appear. The most effective and the most biblical kind of solitude comes not from our surroundings but from a Spirit-empowered, Christ-like peace that is countercultural and against the desires of our earthly bodies. Merton writes that it is “not an absence of men or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul. And this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing.” Simply escaping noise is not the solution. If it were, the only way to quiet our hearts would be to live in some form of isolation or a lifelong retreat from noise. Therefore, this peaceful contentment is not dependent on external silence. Rather our quietness is the same in interruption as it is when left undisturbed.
Which brings me to my first practical dilemma. How earnestly I seek this solitude but how quickly it leaves when my “silence” is interrupted! How impatient I become when I am disturbed from my thoughts! When something intrudes on “my time” I respond as one who is grieving the loss of precious quiet instead of one who carries peace from within. What this reveals is that my solitude is not inner-solitude but still dependent on external environmental factors to produce inner-silence. I have yet to learn that quietness comes from within. Beuchner writes in Whistling in the Dark that “Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still.” When my hearts is quieted, I begin to hear things we would have never heard before, even in the midst of others and surrounded by noise. This is the goal of solitude: to be and to be still. What I mean by this is that our existence is defined by stillness in all that we do. We live our lives as all people do, but we do them with a kind of stillness that is unique. Otherworldly, even.
I believe at our core, we are resistant to rest. We rebel against it. Some of this may be cultural and environmental conditioning, but I believe it is an issue of the heart as well. When a heart is at rest, it is on the verge of spiritual cultivation and that may not be the most comfortable season to begin. It is not natural to be still.
In Isaiah 30, the prophet describes the Lord’s displeasure at the rebellious nature of his people. The basic issue was that the people were making plans that did not come from God and they were relying on their own wisdom, power and directives to carry out their own purposes. That sounds a bit like you and I, if we are honest with ourselves. In Isaiah 30:15, the Lord states:
In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.
Quietness and trust proceed and interact together. I believe one of the reasons why we rebel from rest and quietness is because it requires trusting something other than ourselves and we do not like to admit that. We rebel from quietness because it will force us to reflect, to be still and to acknowledge our own weakness and brokenness. There have been times in my life where I have deliberately and adamantly avoided quieting my heart because I knew the consequential discomfort that would follow. When this happens, I’m clinging to my own powers rather than Christ. My trust is placed in something unstable, and there is no way to rest in that.
Israel’s issue with rest was wandering trust. It is our issue as well.
Peace, then, can not be passive. For peace to occur, there must be some heart-directed action towards the True Peace. With this engagement comes a trusting of his power, a reliance on his might, and a violent surrender of all that is burdensome, wearying and cause of worry. I use the term violent to communicate that there must be a death warrant placed on fear and anxiety in the face of the peace of Christ that guards our hearts and minds (Phil 4:7). Peace and stillness can be disruptive and uncomfortable at first because it is a shifting of reliances.
Seek peace and stillness of heart. Fight the rebellion from within that says, “Embrace noise” and “Keep up the pace.” Slow down. Listen. Learn. Be comfortable with the sound of silence, the stillness of a moment, the peace in all circumstances. This is the only way to find peace and rest, for our peace comes from Christ and his victory over death and the hope of his coming to make all things right.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col. 3:15-17).
I am one of those people that will genuinely overlook a piece of trash on the floor and not see it for hours. Then when I notice it, I’ll forget to deal with it and it will remain on the ground. But I’ll notice if the books on my desk have been moved or rearranged. If I really look inward, what I focus on externally is what I value internally. Do I care about the trash on the floor? Certainly. But not as much as I care for the books on my desk. It is quite simple, really.
This got me thinking: What else do I overlook?
So I’ve been thinking about that for a few weeks, and most likely overlooking other things in the process. Here are a few honest conclusions:
1.) I overlook the poor by worrying far more about my own finances.
2.) I overlook my own sins while judging others for doing the same thing.
3.) I overlook people for the sake of “ministry.”
4.) I overlook my family for something that is “for their benefit.”
5.) I overlook ways I waste time but want others to carve out time for me.
The short stories Flannery O’Connor have been nurturing my soul lately. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor tells the story of a swindler named Tom Shiftlet who meets Mrs. Crater and her deaf daughter Lucynell while wandering in the countryside. She convinces Mr. Shiftlet to marry her innocent daughter and as a wedding present, Mrs. Crater grants Mr. Shiftlet the keys to the car along with some money for a honeymoon. Driving away on their trip, Lucynell and Tom stop in a restaurant. When Lucynell falls asleep on the counter, Tom sees his opportunity and leaves her there. He leaves with the money Mrs. Crater gave him for their honeymoon and in her dead husband’s car.
After picking up a hitchhiker and having an argument turn south leading to the hitchhiker jumping out of the car, Tom revels in his self-righteousness:
Mr. Shiftlet felt that the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him. He raised his arm and let it fall again to his breast. ‘O, Lord,’ he prayed. ‘Break forth and wash the slime from the earth!’
Here is a man who has done a terrible thing, but feels no remorse. Rather, he overlooks his own sin and sees the sins of everyone around him, further expounding on his earlier rants about how bad the world is now.
I’m sure you know where this is going. This reminds me of a story in Luke 18 when a Pharisee and a tax collector both go to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee sees the tax collector and says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). And the tax collector, standing far from the fold, beats his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (18:13). The Pharisee was not really praying, he was using prayer as a means to puff himself up in front of others. We can easily identify this for what it is.
We love to read stories in the Bible and imagine ourselves as the ones doing what pleases the Lord. I believe this is further evidence that we are often unwilling to admit how broken we actually are. I think we are often completely blind to the state of our spiritual health. Or decidedly blind, take your pick. The effects of the Fall are all around us and they within us as well. But I would contend we act more like the Pharisee than the tax collector on most occasions. This is the battle that wages within us. There comes a point in time where we must admit that, to borrow O’Connor’s phrase, our slime is what needs washing. And this particular point in times because a continued practice of spiritual discipline. We can overlook it and even ignore it, but when we come to a place of honesty and vulnerability, we see what we are. However, it is far easier to look at others and think of what they must do, what they are doing wrong or what they should have done. When we investigate our own hearts, we see that everything they do, we do the same.
This seems a bit depressing, quite honestly. But I do believe there is a silver lining to this. The more actualized our perception is, the more we see and come to understand even a little more of the depths of grace and mercy. How can we dwell on the grace of God if we do not think we need it? When we see that we need it, it is beautifully mysterious and changes the way we live and forms us to be as God intended. How can we experience the love of God if we truly believe that sinners need it far more than we do? When we live in this place of conviction, of living as one who is loved and redeemed, Christ takes his rightful place as priest and king of our hearts, the Spirit continues His work within us and the Father is glorified.
This is why I think one of the greatest prayers to pray is:
Jesus, have mercy on me.
Jesus, have mercy on me.