Clinton Manley

The Difficult Discipline of Joy: What Keeps Us from Seeing God?

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Perhaps you’ve encountered this famous line penned by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins aimed all of his poetry at helping people see that we live in a world drenched in divine delights — a world that everywhere reveals the glory of God. That is a wonderful reality, but for the child of God, the wonder goes even deeper.

For the Christian, the glory revealed in the world is not the glory of some generic deity; it is the goodness of our happy Father. “The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord” (Psalm 33:5 NASB). And so, the pleasures we experience in the world are paternal pleasures. The beauty of the world is our Father’s smile in stuff. And, wonder of wonders, our Father delights in our delight in his gifts. Like a happy dad on Christmas morning, the Father of lights lavishes on us all things richly to enjoy so that we might be happy in the Giver of all good things (James 1:17). Who then could resist reveling in the pleasures of God?

We do — daily! Like fussy children, aren’t we often too greedy or self-focused or distracted to enjoy our Father in his gifts? Consider yourself for a moment. Did you enjoy the sunrise this morning? I’m not just asking if you saw it. No, did you marvel as the sun vaulted the horizon? Did you delight in the fanfare of light and color? Or maybe you’re not the “outdoors type.” In that case, did you find pleasure in a cup of coffee? Or the comfort of a good pair of socks? Or the smile of your child? Did you really attend to any of our Father’s gifts?

As you can see, there is a reason C.S. Lewis called enjoying God the difficult discipline of hedonism. Joy is hard work, but eternally worthwhile. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito” (101). And pleasures are his footprints, reminding us that he is here. “Pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibilities” (121).

So, if Lewis is right, if we can nowhere evade the presence of God, then how do we so often — consciously or unconsciously — evade the pleasures of God? How are we so easily distracted from enjoying our Father’s gifts? Lewis gives three reasons well worth pondering.


Lewis starts with low-hanging fruit: greed. Why? Because greed corrupts the pleasures of God by seizing them in degrees, times, or manners outside of God’s design. We are all prone to wander into those wonderless sins.

Greed is a scaly beast. It stashes and hoards and sleeps on treasure. Greed is always hungry, always demanding more. Lewis calls this the demand of Encore. That fatal word encore knows no boundaries. It recognizes no proper times or rhythms. It always overeats. It loves to say “just one more.”

Unfortunately, almost all of our consumer society aims to allow us to demand encore in a voice that cannot be gainsaid. And the dragon fusses — and fusses loudly — if the demand is denied. Yet Lewis doubts that God ever fulfills this desire for encore. “How should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once” (35). Ironically, the demand for encore is too easily pleased! God wants to give more than we desire to get. How many present pleasures do we render rotten by demanding again and again what God once gave?

But greed does not always announce itself in fire and destruction. Perhaps the sneakiest form of greed comes when we use God’s gifts without enjoying them for what they are, giving no heed to what Lewis called “the quiddity” of things (Surprised by Joy, 244). When we indulge this form of greed, we force honey to school us about wisdom without ever actually tasting the honey-ness of honey (Proverbs 24:13–14). We order birds to soothe our anxiety without ever delighting in bird-ish beauty (Luke 12:24). We close the sun into the classroom of theology without ever basking in his sunny glory or his Eric-Liddell-like delight (Psalm 19:5). We should delight that things are before we seek to use them. As Chesterton once said, we must take fierce pleasure in things being themselves. Here there be pleasures the dragon never knows.

“God is eternally, graciously, stunningly generous with his pleasures.”

God is eternally, graciously, stunningly generous with his pleasures. The daily sunrise says so. And as Thomas Traherne — who was one of Lewis’s great inspirations — points out in his book Centuries, we are not yet nearly as happy as he means us to be. What an antidote to sticky fingers, the itch for encore, and the pragmatic misuse of God’s good gifts!


According to Lewis, the wrong kind of attention also distracts us from the pleasures of God. He explains that this kind of attention subjectifies pleasures. It turns from the sunrise (the object) to try to see what’s happening in me (the subject).

We’ve all had the experience of turning inward to grasp a feeling only to have it slip through our fingers. I suspect this dynamic is often at the root when Christians struggle with assurance. A saint looks inward to find evidence of faith and discovers faded footprints in the sand because his gaze has left the object of faith. He has ceased to attend to Christ.

Pleasures, just like faith, are object dependent. When you stop looking at the sunrise to ask, Am I really enjoying it? you lose the whole pith and pleasure of the sunrise. Thus, self-focus, the wrong kind of attention, can gut the pleasures of God. This scoliosis of the soul can be traced right back to the garden, which led the ancients to call man homo incurvatus in se — man bent in on himself. So, how do we become unbent?

Ultimately, only the Spirit of God can rip our attention off self and rivet it on God. But Traherne provides a way to act that miracle: lose your “self” in wonder. “When you enter into [God’s world],” Traherne writes, “it is an illimited field of Variety and Beauty: where you may lose yourself in the multitude of Wonders and Delights. But it is a happy loss to lose oneself in admiration . . . and to find God in exchange for oneself, which we then do when we see Him in His gifts, and adore His glory” (9). Childlike wonder crowds out selfishness and makes room for divine pleasures to enchant us to God.


Finally, Lewis warns that inattention is the greatest enemy to the pleasures of God because, over time, we fail to see what we see. Like an old bungee cord, our senses become slack — our vision veiled by familiarity. What we once enjoyed with assiduous attentiveness soon fades to the background like art on a hallway wall. Traherne warns us, “The most beautiful object being always present, grows common and despised. . . . Were we to see it only once, that first appearance would amaze us. But being daily seen, we observe it not” (65). In our fallen state, the current of human sensibility ever drifts toward this negligence.

Let me try to prove this. Have you walked past a tree today? Did you see it? If you’re like me, you didn’t even notice. But what a fantastic work of the triune imagination. This star-powered wood-tower becomes a pillar of Eden in summer, a heaven-high flower in fall, a snow-robed statue in winter, and a living signpost of hope in spring. Just imagine a world without trees! Yet we observe them not.

Just here, the poets are so helpful because, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge explains, poetry aims to “give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . by awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us, an inexhaustible treasure” (Biographia Literaria, 208). Poetry — perhaps preeminently — arrests our attention and helps us savor the pleasures of God.

The Psalms do this so well. These inspired poets awaken us to men that bear fruit like trees (Psalm 1:3), to the sun that runs across the sky like a giddy bridegroom (Psalm 19:5), to the moon and sundry stars that hold court at night (Psalm 136:9), to wind heaped up in heavenly storehouses (Psalm 135:7), and, of course, to the sea, that fathomless playground of Leviathan (Psalm 104:26). In this theatre of glory, we shall never starve for want of wonders. If we had but Spirit-opened eyes, we would out-awe the angels. “The real labor,” according to Lewis, “is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake” (Letters to Malcolm, 101).

The pleasures of God are good — in the full, fat, dripping sense of the word — but they require work. Joy is indeed a difficult discipline. Greed, self-centeredness, and the relentless pull of inattention constantly creep in and cut us off from divine delights. Therefore, Traherne exhorts us, “Apply yourself vigorously to the enjoyment of [God’s world]” (63).

The Disciplined Imagination: How to Stay Sane in School

Seminary is often good but rarely safe. An ever-present danger stalks the corridors of higher education — the looming threat that you will know much more and be much less. This danger is a kind of insanity — a shriveling of the soul — that finds potentially fertile soil in propositions, paradigms, arguments, and facts. That is not at all to say theological education should be avoided. But if reason consumes a man’s heart, if his imagination atrophies, then he may know more facts about God but enjoy him less. That means God’s glory is at stake in our sanity.

But what is sanity? Well, one philosopher defines sanity as “a proportion with reference to purpose” (Ideas Have Consequences, 54). In other words, the sane mind is the balanced mind — what Paul would call the sober mind (2 Timothy 4:5). The sane man is stable — clearheaded, set in soul, poised to act. Insanity, on the other hand, never finds its feet. The insane man fixates on the peripheral and forgets the bull’s-eye. He is unstable.

With that in mind, how does one stay sane in seminary? Or more broadly, how can a Christian cultivate holy sanity in higher education of any kind? Below are five insights gleaned from wise men and refined through experience.

1. Feed Your Imagination

By and large, modern education aims to impart knowledge as a means to practical results. It concerns itself with facts and techniques, practices and paradigms. It tends to chunk and divide, to parse and separate. It prefers the objective and the prosaic. The rational mind, what C.S. Lewis calls “the natural organ of truth,” is the prime instrument for this kind of education (Selected Literary Essays, 265).

However, Lewis recognized that the imagination is “the organ of meaning.” It synthesizes and unites, systematizes and unifies. The imagination sees the forest without forgetting that it’s full of trees. In fact, you can see neither the trees nor the forest without the imagination. As Mark Twain said, “You can’t rely on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” And so, sanity in school relies on an imagination in focus. Without a disciplined imagination, education will leave you with a pile of facts and no way to unite them into a cohesive view of reality.

I don’t mean to imply that reason is not important. It is! But it’s also fraught with danger. As G.K. Chesterton asserts, “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. . . . I am not . . . in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger [of insanity] does lie in logic, not in imagination” (Orthodoxy, 17). Reason is dangerous because, as Wordsworth put it, reason “murders to dissect.” Thus, when reason dominates theology, you are left with a neat stack of propositions and no person left to worship. Reason alone without imagination cannot produce balance or wisdom. As Gandalf says to Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” (The Lord of the Rings, 259).

So, if your goal in school is to be more like Gandalf than Saruman, cultivate your imagination. Feed it good stories. Baptize it in the word of God. Let it loose on the world. Carve out time to keep your imagination both disciplined and childlike. Read, listen, watch. A holy imagination will keep you sane.

2. Embrace Mystery

Education is rightly concerned with reducing mystery. However, too often, we mistake clarifying mystery with eliminating mystery. The former is healthy; the latter is lunacy. Chesterton — that champion of paradox — warned, “Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity” (Orthodoxy, 31).

Therefore, learn to love mystery. It is a gift given by God, a good part of our creaturely limitations, and theology is about putting mystery in its proper place. Mystery humbles us — it brings us back to earth and sets us firmly on the Rock. As Augustine said, when we try to “gaze at light inaccessible,” especially in “the holy scriptures in their multifarious diversity of form,” God uses it to wear Adam down (The Trinity, 97). Mystery chisels away at the man-exalting pride that makes us think we can know all things. And it remedies the mad hubris that knowledge so often breeds (1 Corinthians 8:1).

So, let us not imagine that our schooling can eliminate mystery. Thank God, it doesn’t! Biblical mysteries do not disappear when revealed; they deepen and become richer. When Paul unveils the poetic mystery of Christ and the church, it doesn’t suddenly become mere prose (Ephesians 5:32). It becomes a new and wider ocean to swim in — a whole heaven to enter and explore. Greater still, the Trinity is an inexhaustible source of joy-producing wonder — a mystery we will marvel at for eternity (1 Corinthians 2:9). Mystery will keep you sane.

3. Be Prone to Wonder

Most classes aim to equip you with empirical knowledge — bits of information obtained by a method and verified by the senses — a good goal in its place. But accumulating facts rarely throws wide the door of wonder. And wonder is the well of a sane soul. Knowledge as such is not an end in itself. We want to see glories, behold marvels, awaken wonder. We aim, in our studies, to recover a childlike astonishment at the world God has made. As Chesterton said, “The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder” (Tremendous Trifles, 7).

One way to reawaken this wonder is to stay omnivorously attentive to creation. The Psalms beckon us, again and again, to see God’s works and stand in awe. Perhaps the best biblical example of this pursuit is Agur, the author of Proverbs 30, who had a posture of mystic wonder and happy humility. He attended closely to eagles, rock badgers, ships on the sea, serpents, and sex. And what did he find? They were too wonderful for him! When is the last time anything was too wonderful for you? Wonder will keep you sane.

4. Awake to Magic

We live in an anti-magic age. After all, we are “enlightened,” and most classrooms sit in the shadows of that “light.” Modern education often teaches us to “reflexively experience the world as unmagical,” as Paul Tyson writes (Seven Brief Lessons in Magic, xi). However, this “disenchanted” view of reality is false. It’s a lie — a modern myth. The world is thick with magic, rich with enchantment, and soaked in glory. We need to regain our sensitivity to the true magic of God. We need to become disenchanted with modernity’s disenchantment. In a sermon, C.S. Lewis reminds us,

Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing [the] shy, persistent, inner voice. (The Weight of Glory, 31)

This kind of sanctified magic is indispensable to our sanity. Tyson defines magic as anything outside of measurable, material, mathematically modellable reality. “Magic is concerned with the shimmering cosmic meanings . . . that lie just below the surface of the apparent” (Seven Brief Lessons in Magic, 8). Magic is what causes us to wonder at the world and find meaning within it.

Therefore, whether you call it glorious or supernatural or numinous or miraculous, come alive to the magic of God. He spoke reality into being — creation is his en-chant-ment (Psalm 33:6–9). So, on a snowy night, go watch the tiny ice castles float down from the heavens to drape the world in white. On a spring morning, go watch the raucous sunrise God is spinning into being. Sit and observe a squirrel battle in the backyard, advancing a generational nut feud. Be reminded that trees are star-powered, water-fed wood towers. Pay attention, and the spell of God’s words will quickly enchant you. Magic will keep you sane.

5. Love What God Loves

Finally, remember that before the modern era, education in general (and seminary especially) aimed at shaping right desires. Augustine named this ordo amoris — ordered loves that regard all things according to their true value. Here is the ultimate aim of education: well-ordered, balanced, stable affections — knowing and feeling, seeing and savoring. Knowing serves as a handmaiden to godly affections.

Classical education expert Steve Turley summarizes the educational vision from Plato to Lewis:

The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things. . . . Students thus encounter the manifestation of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in every area of their lives, sanctifying the senses and imagination alike with a synthetic vision of the glory of God. (Awakening Wonder, 105)

Sanity consists in loving things as God loves them. If insanity is the imbalance of a soul, then sanity is its harmony. Holy education holds this aim in the crosshairs: holy, joyful sanity. We want to love what God loves. Hate what God hates. Forgive what God forgives. Laugh at what God laughs at. Enjoy what God enjoys. Mock what God mocks. That is holy sanity and the aim of all good education. Ordered loves will keep you sane.

To borrow the words of the Lord of Education, if you gain a degree in school and yet forfeit your soul, what does it profit you? If your imagination atrophies, if you lose a taste for mystery, if your wonder wanes, if you become disenchanted, and if your loves are disordered, what have you gained?

May our triune God help you cultivate holy sanity in all your studies so that you might love him with a whole soul.

The Magic of Great Stories: And How They Lead Us to God

Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a lost child wandering in a wood, who stumbled across a path lined with signposts. Strange and wonderful names adorned these signs, names like Phantastes, Beowulf, Harry Potter, The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Return of the King. The child, guided by the posts, set out along the path. By way of many adventures, they led him through the Dragon’s Den, into the foggy Foothills of Longing, and finally up to the Peaks of Joy, where he caught a glimpse of a far green country under a swift sunrise. He now lives happily ever after, pursuing that path to the heights he was made to explore.

This is the tale of many men and many women — those who have heeded the signposts of story on the path of life. Followed faithfully, this path can lead to the heights of happiness, what the poet calls “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). C.S. Lewis perhaps best articulated his adventures on this road. He began the trek as a hardened atheist, but along this path of good stories, God led him to Jesus. And though he has long since passed beyond our vision, happily heeding the invitation of Aslan to come further up and further in, we can glean much from his journey.

Lewis champions all kinds of stories — fairy tales, myths, fantasies, biblical narratives, allegories, even histories — as God-given means of leading men and women Godward. And other Christians, like Tolkien and Chesterton, heartily agree, attesting to the enduring value of stories for both believers and unbelievers. So, how exactly do good stories serve as signposts, guiding us to the God we were made for?

Through the Dragon’s Den

First, good stories can guide us through the dragon’s den. Lewis once said that he wrote fairy tales because they allowed him to steal past the watchful dragons that stand guard over our hearts (On Stories, 70). Tolkien took the image one step further and argued that stories can also steal from those dragons. Tolkien recognized that, often, the more we see things, the less we see them; our eyes become hooded with the film of familiarity. For Tolkien, this leads to a kind of draconic possessiveness. We lay hold of things, claim them as our own, lock them in our hoard, and then cease to look at them. We become unwatchful dragons.

Thus, we need what Tolkien calls recovery — a renewed sense of wonder at the world. We need someone to raid our “hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds” (On Fairy-Stories, 68). As it turns out, stories make excellent burglars. Like the warm breath of Aslan, good stories restore life to things that inattention has long since turned to stone.

Good stories, especially good fiction, create opportunities for us to come to grips with reality. As Chesterton might say, myths parade before us sheep with golden coats to astonish us that ours wear robes of white. Fairy tales brandish wooden wands sprouting magic spells so that they might land on us with wonderful weight that our branches cast leaves. Stories conjure up hoary Ents to remind us that our trees too are giants, telling ancient tales of earth and sky. Good stories signpost the riches of creation.

When all these gigantic treasures are dragged back into the Light, foiled by fantasy, they can awaken in us what Chesterton calls the ancient instinct of astonishment and dazzle us into gratitude. This impulse to give thanks acted as a signpost for the unbelieving Chesterton, causing him to realize that thanks must be given to someone. Gifts need a Giver. Magic needs a Magician. Creation needs a Creator.

“Like the warm breath of Aslan, good stories restore life to things that inattention has long since turned to stone.”

Stories can also recover things from the shadowy prison of abstraction. Through narrative, imagination can incarnate what reason excarnates. When you have stood beside Aragorn before the black gates of Mordor and seen the innumerable hosts of Sauron swarming like ants, good and evil cease to be simply ideas. When you’ve basked in the golden goodness of Aslan, you’ve seen a glimmer of the beauty of Jesus. In this way, stories can be radically iconoclastic, ridding our hoard of the little idols of God that we construct and creating imaginative space for the immense God of the Bible.

In short, stories help undragon us. They enable us to taste and see the goodness of good, and so fuel our desire for the God who is Good.

Into the Hills

Thus, good stories can cultivate holy longing. In his autobiography, Lewis recounts how stories often gave him a stab of desire, and in doing so, they served as signposts and foretastes of something “other and outer” (Surprised by Joy, 238).

Lewis knew by experience that the heart of man is haunted by a sense of homesickness — which Lewis terms Joy symbolized by a Blue Flower. Ultimately, Joy is a longing to home in the triune God, a far-off echo of the enormous bliss lost in Eden. Eternity smolders in our hearts, and though we cannot fully snuff out this longing, we do smother it. Part of the tragedy of modernity is that almost everything is aimed at weeding out the Blue Flower. God planted the seed deep in our souls, but we are poor gardeners. Even though all souls thirst for the living God, few of us are ever quiet enough to identify the ache.

But good stories can remind us of the restlessness that besets our souls. Thus, many find their way into the foggy foothills of desire through the pages of great books. You need look no further than the astonishing success of the Harry Potter series to prove this. Harry proclaims to all who have ears to hear that modernity still yearns for something more — something that even the Room of Requirement cannot satisfy.

The best storytellers know how to fuel this holy longing. Tolkien, the maker of Middle-earth, defines a successful story as one that “awakens desire, satisfying it while also wetting it unbearably” (On Fairy-Stories). Jesus himself, the master storyteller, understood this narrative power and so wielded fantasy to this effect, regaling his listeners with tales of buried treasure and quests for legendary pearls.

Lewis’s imaginative mentor, George MacDonald, armed all of his fiction with the stab of Joy. For MacDonald, the best thing good stories can do for a man is “not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him.” And so, in all his subcreation and storytelling, MacDonald made it his aim to “assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. . . . [For] if there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it” (A Dish of Orts, 239–40).

Given this emphasis, it should come as no surprise that when, as an atheist, Lewis first read MacDonald’s enchanting tale Phantastes, he was overwhelmed with a sense of longing, dazzled by what he would later identify as holiness. He recounts, “I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things” (Surprised by Joy, 181). Lewis began to see the meaning of his insatiable longing, the tune of the song of his soul. And MacDonald’s fairy tale served as his alpine guide, leading him ever up.

In good stories, we hear rumors of glory, hints and bright riddles of the Home we were made for. And it is good to be haunted by this yearning, for above the mists of myth and the veil of story lies the goal of all our longing.

Up the Mountain

Finally, when good stories have raided the Dragon’s Den and guided us through the Foothills of Longing, they lead us yet further up. As the horns of elfland sing, for a moment the fog parts, and we are given a stunning vista of happily ever after.

Tolkien names this visionary virtue the Consolation of the Happy Ending, and he held it to be the highest good of good stories. And this happy ending is no mere wish fulfillment. For Tolkien, in a well-told tale, the happy ending echoes the gospel. It does not diminish the reality of sorrow and suffering. In fact, sorrow and suffering set the stage for the story’s most powerful moment.

Precisely here, when the tale turns, when against all odds and all hope evil is overcome, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world” breaks through the cloud of story and lights up the breathless reader (On Fairy-Stories, 75). Tolkien calls this moment eucatastrophe — literally a good catastrophe. And for him, every thunderbolt of eucatastrophe in subcreated stories reflects the Great Eucatastrophes of the incarnation and resurrection, giving us a glimpse of the staggering heights of triune joy.

Who, indeed, can be unmoved when Frodo, after facing the fires of Mount Doom, gets his first glimpse of the Undying Lands? “The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise” (The Return of the King, 1,030). And what attentive reader does not feel the thrill of hope and yearning that jolts the heart at the mere mention of Aslan’s country?

Like Samwise finally returning to the Shire, we may turn the final page of a good story and, with a deep sigh, say, “Well, I’m back.” We may indeed be back, but not all of us. Something remains in the Otherlands. We left a splinter of soul in Lothlorien, a piece of heart in Narnia. We will never be free from Faerie. We carry with us the scent of the Blue Flower. And that homesickness reminds us that we are made for another world.

The magical lands of story can serve as a placeholder for the better country we are bound for (Hebrews 11:16). They can stretch our imaginations further and further in anticipation of our future home — a home that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined (1 Corinthians 2:9). But oh, there have been hints. We have heard echoes. We have caught glimpses. We’ve smelled the Blue Flowers of Eden, and now we can never finally be content with the here and now.

Good stories are signposts — alpine guides leading us up the path of life. Like Lewis, we can follow them past dragons, over hills, and high up into the mountains. In the pages and paragraphs of great tales, we can hear the voice of our Aslan echoing off the mountain walls, bidding us to come further up and further in. Will you heed his call?

Are You Ever Quiet? Relearning a Lost and Holy Habit

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).

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