What is the role of solitude and silence in our efforts to follow the living Christ who leads us by his Spirit into the future the Father dreams for us?
For me, those twin disciplines have been indispensable. Through them, the Lord has–time and time again–enabled me to see what otherwise would have been totally unclear to me.
The Sound of No-Sound
There’s a fascinating story told in the book of 1 Kings. The great prophet Elijah has just completed his victorious showdown over the prophets of Baal (ch. 18). In the wake of the victory, the evil king and queen of Israel–Ahab and Jezebel–commit to redoubling their efforts to silence the prophet (ch. 19).
Elijah fears for his life and flees into the wilderness, where he eventually comes to hide in a cave on Mount Horeb–the very same mountain where Moses first met Yahweh, the God of Israel.
A voice comes to him: What are you doing here, Elijah? (v. 9) Yahweh, it seems, is bent on wrestling the narrative out of Elijah. Tell me, in your own words, what you are afraid of… why you are running… what you think you see happening.
Elijah instantly obliges, with a rather self-pitying version of the story:
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too (v. 10).
From Elijah’s perspective, he is alone, faithful to God, standing against the world. And frankly, he’s had enough. The prophet, it seems to me, is looking for some kind of vindication for this self-pitying narrative and perhaps also permission to step out of the call. Yahweh replies: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (v. 11a).
And this unforgettable scene:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper… (vv. 11b-12)
The Hebrew for “gentle whisper” is fascinating: Qol d’ma-mah daqqah. “Qol” means “voice” or “sound.” “Daqqah” means “low” or “thin.”
So far so good: thin sound…
But that word d’ma-mah… This is where it gets crazy. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament describes the meaning of d’ma-mah like this:
…the cessation of a strong movement of air.
It’s literally THE SOUND YOU HEAR WHEN SOUND HAS CEASED. The sound of no-sound.
The text of 1 Kings 19 goes on to say that when Elijah “heard it”–the sound of no-sound in which Yahweh was curiously present–he pulled his face over his cloak, had the encounter with God that he needed–an encounter that totally reframed his circumstance–and from there was sent back to his life with new clarity, perspective, and direction. He rejoins the mission–the effort to see wayward Israel come back to God.
Learning to See With Kingdom Eyes
The story resonates with me on so many levels. As a born-and-raised charismatic, my default mode of prayer has always been getting-after-it “spiritual warfare” type prayer. Contending is my natural habitat.
And yet, as the years have gone on, I have learned the value of a different kind of prayer. The prayer that happens only in solitude and in practiced silence, where the “earthquake, wind, and fire” both outside of me AND, importantly, inside of me are stilled, and I am brought to a place of watching, waiting...
Watching for God. Watching with God. Learning to see with spiritual eyes. Sitting comfortably in the sound of no-sound.
It’s in that place, more often than not, that God has given me kingdom vision. I see what otherwise would have been unable to see. I hear what I otherwise would not have been able to hear.
Because I got quiet. And waited. Waited like the Psalmist: with my “whole being”… More than the watchman waits for the morning (Ps 130).
Solitude and silence teach us to see with kingdom eyes.
A Year of Listening
In late 2015, while serving at our church in Denver, I began to feel a bit of disorientation of soul around our church and my role in it. I knew I needed to get quiet. On New Year’s Eve 2015 I decided that 2016 would be a year of listening. I wanted to run, like Elijah, into the wilderness to listen. But alas, with a wife and four kids and a church to pastor, that was impossible.
So I did the next best thing: a total social media fast, coupled with no blogging. Radio silence. It felt scary, but right. So right. Off the grid for a whole year.
Not more than a few days later, a friend of ours sent me this email:
As I am listening to and watching God this morning, an image of you comes to my mind so I want to pass it on to you.
I see you standing alone and darkness is all around. You are not inside or outside. You are in a place where there is no such thing. The darkness is God ordained and you are quietly listening for Him while being comfortably in it.
For a moment all of your senses are quietly resting. You are standing still waiting for Him. Then I see glowing footprints begin to appear in front of you. I see the print of a right foot and then a left foot as if an invisible person is walking in front of you leaving a glowing trace for you to follow.
I see you step out into each step that is made even though darkness is all around. Each imprint made is a place to put your own two feet one at a time. When your right foot steps into the first glowing print, life comes into you.
As you place each foot into the glowing prints in front of you your body begins to illuminate with light from the inside out. First your feet are illuminated…then your ankles and upward. I see light racing through your circulatory system until your whole frame is aflame with radiant light.
When this happens…the glowing footprints disappear and you create glowing footprints of your own. I see other men standing in darkness waiting now. I see you leaving glowing footprints in front of them. They step into these prints and follow them.
“The seen need is not the real need.” I sense that God is unplugging you from normal routines. I hear the words, “The steps of a righteous man are ordered by the Lord.”
2016 will be a year of divine traction for you as you step into his steps. He will order your steps. This divine darkness will clear the circuits so that simplicity clarifies the order of this year.
That was about all the exterior confirmation I needed. The darkness is God ordained and you are quietly listening for Him while being comfortably in it. That became the effort of the year. To “quietly listen” while being “comfortably in” the dark place.
To describe to you all that happened that year–both in my own soul and around me–is beyond the scope of this post. But I can tell you this: my friend’s email proved true. As the year wore on, the Lord slowly but surely reframed the entire entire circumstance for Mandi and me, and then gave us all the confirmation we needed to walk forward.
Scary as all heck. Counterintuitive in the extreme. Not at all what I would have expected. But we knew God was in it. So we followed.
An Army of Prophets
Do you know what I dream of? Do you know what I think our times require?
An army of prophets.
Not a business-as-usual church, but a people willing to go into the “wilderness” (wherever they can find it) in order to step back just far enough to see their lives and the times that we are living in with fresh eyes, with kingdom eyes, only to be sent back into their lives with fresh courage for obedience.
Henri Nouwen once said that the “mystical” and the “revolutionary” are two sides of the same coin (The Wounded Healer, p. 19). Contemplation and action forever belong together. They are indissolubly linked in the person of Jesus, who lived fully before the face of his God so that he could live fully in the midst of and for the sake of his fellow man.
Are we willing to go there? Are we willing to disengage often enough and for long enough periods of time that we can see and hear in a way that the moment we live in demands?
Are we willing to take the injustice and pain and brokenness of the world before the presence of God, letting him speak a creative word to us over it? Are we willing to take our little lives and bring them before the face of the Lord, letting him position them anew in the great sweep of his redemptive work?
Are we willing to “watch” with Jesus, letting him touch our hearts with divine ache for others?
Then and only then will we be the people Moses dreamed of when he said: I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them! (Num 11:29)
Engage the disciplines of solitude and silence. Find the time and space to get away. Early in the morning. Late at night. In the middle of the day. If you’re single, take advantage of some of the freedoms your life affords. Go on extended prayer and solitude retreats. Do it with others if you need to. If you’re married, ask your spouse for help in doing this–for permission to draw back here and there to hear God’s voice.
There is more for us, all of us, if we’ll go there. And the world will be better for it.