Over three hundred years ago, Blaise Pascal observed, “All of the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber” (Pensées, 39). Pascal attributes this inability to our love of endless amusement, which distracts us from our doubts, worries, and discontent. And so, for most people, “The pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible” (40). Now, even if Pascal overplayed his hand, the point he makes echoes the value that Scripture places on silence.
Isaiah records one of God’s invitations to be quiet: “Thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’” (Isaiah 30:15). God invites his people to be quiet and connects that quietness to strength, rest, and finding our home in him. On the other hand, Isaiah warns, “The wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt” (Isaiah 57:20). The wicked rage like an ocean in a storm, unable to be still.
Therefore, those who want to avoid the unhappiness that Pascal describes and pursue the stable satisfaction that God promises learn to practice the habit of quiet.
Quiet Soul, Quiet Mouth
What is quietness, according to God? First, biblical quietness is not simply a lack of noise. External silence is often part of the habit of quiet, but true quietness goes much deeper. Biblical quietness refers primarily to a quiet demeanor or quiet heart — a restful silence of soul — because often a noisy mouth is the overflow of a noisy heart.
Thus, Proverbs says the wise man both restrains his words and quiets his soul (Proverbs 17:27; 29:11), his outward silence matching his inward peace. But the fool is loud and restless, a lover of noise (Proverbs 7:11; 9:13). Moreover, because we are body-soul creatures, what we do externally affects us internally and vice versa. So, the habit of quiet involves cultivating inner quietness by creating rhythms of outer quietness.
Second, biblical quietness does not negate the need to speak. Scripture places a high premium on well-timed words (Proverbs 25:11). There is a time to be zealous. There is a time to speak with unction and conviction. There is a time to herald from the mountaintops. There is a time to declare, “Thus says the Lord!” And there is “a time to keep silence” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Our Default Volume: Loud
The need for quiet is not new to the modern age. Man’s default volume has always been loud. Four hundred years before Jesus, Plato lamented that most people live “a distracted existence” led in circles by the songs and sounds of society (The Republic, 164). And earlier still, David expressed the need for silence by saying, “I have calmed and quieted my soul . . . like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131:2).
Distraction, from within and without, is not novel, but modernity has amped up the volume. We live in a society that often hates quiet, one in which the loudest hearts are awarded the largest platforms. We are besieged by the newest news, harried by busyness, drowning in noise, endlessly accompanied by devices of endless distraction. And even if much of the content we consume is good, it is always on. Too often, we know neither inner nor outer quiet.
Yet wise men have always celebrated silence. Some 150 years ago, Charles Spurgeon said, “Quietude, which some men cannot abide because it reveals their inward poverty, is as a palace of cedar to the wise, for along its hallowed courts the King in his beauty deigns to walk” (Lectures to My Students, 64). Indeed, the King did hallow those halls. King Jesus created rhythms of quiet during his time on earth. It was his custom to create space to be alone with his Father (Luke 22:39).
How will we hear birdsong, that symphony of the Father’s care for creation, if we are never quiet? How can we attend to God’s still, small voice whispering wisdom in his word if our hearts never stop murmuring? We have a great need for silence.
Call to the Deeps
Imagine life as an ocean. Waves constantly toss the surface of that sea and assault the shore — waves of sound, waves of worry, waves of work and entertainment, waves of deadlines and events, waves of stubborn children and sinful parents. Waves, waves, waves. And yet, peace is never far off. Even the mightiest waves that march across the face of the ocean cannot disturb the water 150 feet below the surface. Peace ever reigns in the deeps. And it is to those deeps God calls us through the habit of quiet.
Spurgeon enjoyed those depths. He knew from habitual experience the “pleasure of solitude” that Pascal speaks of. In one of his lectures to aspiring pastors, Spurgeon delivers this perennial advice:
I am persuaded that . . . most of us think too much of speech [and action], which after all is but the shell of thought. Quiet contemplation, still worship, unuttered rapture, these are mine when my best jewels are before me. Brethren, rob not your heart of the deep sea joys; miss not the far-down life, by for ever babbling among the broken shells and foaming surges of the shore. (Lectures to My Students, 64)
We are often blown and tossed by waves, beaten and battered by the pounding breakers of life, because we fail to dive below the surface with God. We rob our hearts of deep delights because we never stop babbling.
Yet for Spurgeon, the speech and action that we spend so much time thinking about flower from the leaf mold of a quiet heart. And the rewards of that quietness are unfathomable, in the fullest sense of that word — inexpressible rapture, awestruck worship, treasure to contemplate, the far-down life. Oh, and deep-sea joys! Surely this is enough to motivate Christian Hedonists to be still before the Lord. Indeed, God is magnified when we are silently satisfied in him.
Handful of Quietness
Seeing how high the stakes are, the question naturally arises, “How do I practice the discipline of silence?” How do we seize what Ecclesiastes calls “a handful of quietness” (Ecclesiastes 4:6)? Whole Christian traditions have been devoted to nurturing a life of calm contemplation. But I will simply offer two suggestions.
First, sometime this week, set aside fifteen minutes to create external quiet in order to cultivate internal quiet. Pascal’s advice to stay quietly in your own chamber is a good place to start, but inner rooms don’t have a monopoly on silence. I recommend taking a walk in the woods. Few places resonate more with God’s presence and songs of silent praise. Or get up early enough to watch the sunrise. Quiet abounds when most people sleep. Or if all else fails, don some noise-canceling headphones. Whatever you have to do, create spaces and rhythms of stillness.
Second, practice the discipline of silence on Sunday morning. This may sound paradoxical, but remember the primary goal is a still heart, not a lack of sound. How often do you sit in a worship service with a heart closer to Plato’s “distracted existence” than David’s weaned and quieted soul (Psalm 131:2)? Don’t miss the far-down life enjoyed in Christian community by harboring a babbling heart. Instead, let your worship overflow from satisfied silence before God (Isaiah 14:7). Sing loud from a quiet heart. As your pastor heralds the word of God, calm your soul and put away your phone. Don’t be distracted by lunch plans or tomorrow’s work or endless waves of worry. Be quiet to enjoy the deeps.
Perhaps Pascal did not overstate his case. We do forfeit much happiness when we refuse to practice the habit of quiet. After all, our Lord bids us, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). And when we do so, he will quiet us with his unfathomable love (Zephaniah 3:17).