The Spiritual Direction of Silence

“We’re going to fall into silence. And whenever you feel ready, pray out loud and break the silence, and we can start talking.”

I was sitting down with my friend Tricia for spiritual direction. I had spent almost nine months away from formal church leadership, and so, for the first time in nearly ten years, I felt like I wasn’t sure at all what growth in my faith was supposed to look like. 

It no longer looked like reading more books to make sure every jot and tittle in my theology was filled out. It was no longer about the next prophetic word I could hear or the next miracle I could see. All I knew is that I wanted to keep loving Jesus as best I could in completely unfamiliar territory, and I needed someone’s help to do it. 

So there I sat, in a room with Tricia, who was studying to become a spiritual director, as a single candle flickered on the side table next to us. “It’s just a physical symbol that Jesus is actually here with us,” she explained. “Now, let’s fall into the silence.” 

And so we fell.

 Silence has always felt a little bit like the ocean to me. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes captivating, and yet also, sometimes so vast and expansive it would terrify me from swimming in it for too long. 

After spending twelve years in New York City, one would assume you’d eventually get to the point where you’d be trying to cultivate every shred of silence you could possibly muster, as there are only so many times you can be woken in the middle of the night by the same old car alarm pattern every single New Yorker has memorized by heart. You’d think that in the midst of days of subway brakes shrieking at you and jackhammers pounding away on every block that you’d come to treat silence like water in the desert — to be treasured, sought out, and savored. 

Yet, really, I think I just became more and more scared of silence. How else could I explain my absolute compulsion to fill all the time with something, anything? Books, music, podcasts, Netflix-on-mute-but-at-least-the-pictures-are-still-moving, scroll-scroll-scroll-through-your-Instagram-feed-like-a-maniac...

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit still. 

And I couldn't tell if it was this same compulsion that bled into my spirituality, or if that was already there anyways. 

I mean, let’s be honest. My particular traditions, the streams that I am a part of, they both put the value on words, noise, and activity being the greatest determinant that you faith was actually growing.

My Reformed tradition puts the benchmarks on how well you are catechized, how much you can adhere to historical creeds, how many theologians you can quote. What classics have you read? What BT’s or ST’s have you gone in-depth with? The five sola’s, five-point Calvinism, complementarian-without-being-sexist, committed-to-the-Bible-without-ignoring-textual-variants. Precision with words is the name of the game for the Reformed faith.

My Charismatic tradition benchmarks were different, but no less centered on words and activity. What words of knowledge have you received? What testimonies do you have? What conferences have you gone to? What prophetic words are you cultivating? Have you heard the latest Bill Johnson revelation? Did you know who prophesied over me that I would change the world? Words and the fury of sound still feel like the main currency here too. 

So what happens when the sound, all of a sudden, stops?

When you don’t want to read anymore? When you unsubscribe from all your sermon podcasts, from Redeemer to Bethel? When you stop listening to worship music all the time?

What does that say about your faith?

Like some old Buddhist saying, if your faith is making a sound but no one is around to hear it, is actually still growing?

I suddenly felt completely spiritually unmoored. I was plunged into the depths of the ocean of silence, and I absolutely feared that it meant that either I was abandoned by God, or that I was about to lose my faith. How else could I explain the silence?

The transition wasn’t easy at all. The restless days, feeling like I should be at some prayer meeting tonight to prove I’m not “backsliding,” were not easy to navigate.  My instinct was to go in the other direction.  I signed up for a conference.  I tried reading even more.  I tried to watch more sermon videos, to "keep up the testimony," you know?  

Nothing helped.  Nothing had that familiar crackle of energy of when the Spirit is breathing on something.  

I questioned everything.  Had God abandoned me?  Did I do such a bad job that He's now left me behind?  Had He passed my prophetic inheritance on to some other more deserving person?  Had I failed so much as a leader, as a husband, as a Christian, that now I was disqualified from it all?  Had He cast me away?

And, worst of all, I knew that no theological explanation was going to save me from the existential spiral I found myself in.  And no reminding myself of all the prophetic encounters I've had would alleviate the confusion.  I just felt utterly lost, shipwrecked in the sea of God's silence.

And so, I sat with Tricia, no sound, no fury, no noise.

And you know what I found? 

That corny little symbolic candle suddenly preached to my heart the truth. Jesus was, in fact, here, in this very moment. And even though I sat in a room, doing absolutely nothing, not praying a prayer, not asking for revelation, not doing anything but literally sitting there… Jesus was there. He was there. He was there. 

That tiny little stream of truth felt like it instantaneously flooded into all of my supposed barren fields. All the spaces I had once thought were empty and vacant, I suddenly realized, they weren’t. Jesus was there. And He's here..  Oh my God, You're really here.

The silence goes beyond simply waiting for sound, waiting for God to speak, as if words are the only thing that could possibly carry along His spirit of revelation. It’s in the silence that you learn that God is actually so all-encompassing that somehow, the absence of any sound, any word, any communication at all, is in fact a revelation itself. It was undoubtedly in the silence that David learned to cry out, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In the place of quiet contemplation, you connect with the idea that every single place you were secretly terrified that God was absent or refused to go to, is in fact filled with His presence. 

The prize of silence is that you learn an intimacy and communion that extends beyond the previously well-worn roads. It teaches you that if God can actually be found off the beaten path in secret, He actually can be found off the beaten path millions of other places of your life. You see that if God actually even fills the absences of your life, there isn’t actually anything that’s truly empty. If He somehow even spills over into the pages you thought you left blank, then what can’t He do? Where can’t He go? 

Yes, this is, undoubtedly, a mystical, contemplative, experiential knowledge. It’s one thing as a seminarian to affirm the idea that God is omnipresent. It’s another thing to affirm the promise of God that He is the ever-present help in time of trouble. And thus, it’s a wholly other thing entirely to sit with oneself, and become present enough to the point that even silence, nothingness, emptiness, are all just opportunities for you to commune with God as well. 

And for that, you have to fall into the silence for yourself.