Know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for Himself: the LORD hears when I call to Him. When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. (Psalm 4.3-4)
Childhood fascinations with faith and film collided when, at seven or eight, I first watched The Nun’s Story (1959). Although Roman Catholicism and cloistered life were foreign to me, the picture’s piety touched me on a level unlike any movie I’d seen before—and very few since. I’d noticed nuns on the street and heard about them from playmates. Yet the depiction of their devotion floored me. Upon entering the order, the heroine (Audrey Hepburn) and other postulates are briefed on convent life, including the “Rule of Silence—interior and exterior silence” ridding one’s mind of idle distractions and thoughts. Having never heard such a thing, along with other customs I picked up from the film, it seemed worth a try. To my parents’ dismay (on many levels), I pinned a towel to my head like a veil, made the Sign of the Cross at every turn, and spoke only when spoken to. The role-play ended when my father sat me down and told me, “Son, it’s time to end this. You’re not Catholic. You’re not a nun. Nuns are girls, and”— his greatest concern—“you’re not a girl.” While I didn’t like it, he had a point.
Following that brush with sacred quietness, interest in contemplative silence eluded me, largely due to lack of exposure. As you may know, Pentecostalism (my faith background) is a noisy tradition. Instead of emptying our minds to listen, we were constantly raising our voices in prayer. And there are benefits to vocal prayer. Articulating one’s faith indubitably strengthens it. What’s more, audibly expressing needs and desires to God alerts one to false motives, pride, and vanity tucked into the requests. What goes missing, however, is silence’s cleansing power—a thing I only recently discovered by attending my present church’s monthly Taizé prayer service.
Modeled on the ecumenical monastic community in Taizé, France, the service builds to a 15-minute silence, as everyone sits together, alone in prayer and meditation. The quarter-hour feels like an eternity and an instant. I usually lose a few minutes to thinking about not thinking. Gratefully, such thoughts quickly grow tiresome. My mind rests as silence washes over it. Anxieties and ideas I seldom ponder surface, yet stillness puts them at ease. It becomes a presence that speaks assurance and peace to my innermost being. In the cleansing, I’m reminded troubling concerns belong to the world. Though they affect me, they’re not part of me. The same realization sits at the heart of Psalm 4.
Save It for Later
Signed by David, who notes it should be accompanied by strings, the song finds him holding three conversations at once: one with his God, another with his people, and a third with himself. A rift between the monarch and his subjects apparently inspires the anxious tone at the psalm’s outset. (Resurging idolatry in defiance of his rule is implied.) David begins with a prayer we all pray when dispiriting problems disturb our peace. It’s me again, Lord. “Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer,” he writes. (v1) He all but says, “You’ve helped me with this kind of stuff before and I’m sure You’ll show me how to handle it. Still, I need to know You’re there and listening.” With that, David turns to his nation, asking, “How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for Himself; the LORD hears when I call to Him.” (v2-3) The dejection (“Why are you doing this?”) and assertiveness (“You know God listens to me”) tell us how distraught David is. His mind won’t rest. He’s unable to sleep.
David’s experience in similar dilemmas proves its worth in wisdom he offers his people—and himself. “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” (v4-5) This is advice we frequently hear and rarely heed. When troubles plague our waking thoughts and cloud our perception of what’s best to do, it’s best we do nothing. If we’re uncertain what we should say, talking about it certainly won’t help. From the sound of it, something has shaken Israel’s faith. In a panic to rationalize and remedy the situation, it’s talked its way into disobedience. David grants thinking about the problem can’t be avoided. But it can be corralled. “Save worrying for later,” he counsels, “when you’re alone and quiet—when silence can cleanse your mind from trouble that comes from the crazy, confused world outside, and guide your thoughts to peace and assurance residing within.”
Pondering in silence sounds like the worst possible means of easing anxiety, particularly in an overly anxious age hounding us about suppressed emotions and denial. We spend hours talking about our problems and talking to others about theirs. If it helps—and sometimes it does, though not as reliably as we’re told—negativity we breathe into the air nonetheless poisons our perceptions and dims the brightness of future expectations. By and large, thinking we can talk our way out of troubles talks us into paralyzing pessimism. David observes this phenomenon in verse 6: “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!’” (Again with the talking!) While they fret over what they don’t have, David’s silent pondering clears his mind to reconnect with abiding joy, peace, and assurance obtained by trusting his Maker. He verges on gloating as he closes in verses 7 and 8: “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.”
How nutty is it that the very thing David suggests our talkaholic culture resists most? What he calls “pondering in silence,” we disparage as “obsessing"! All that reflects, however, is how grossly we underestimate force silence accrues when prayerfully approached. Entering silence to listen rather than talk transforms obsessing about troubles we can’t prevent or control into accessing strength we possess by faith. We say to God, “It’s me again. I know this is an easy matter for You, because we've gone through similar situations before. I just need to know You’re there and listening. Now I’m going to quiet myself to hear what You want to say.” If we start there, silence clears thoughts and anxieties muffling the hushed Voice that imparts calm and confidence and anchors our souls. Chaos surrounding us loses its influence over us once we renew access to sacred joy, peace, and assurance abiding within.
We welcome silence to cleanse our minds of anxiety about troubles we can’t prevent or control so we can access peace and assurance we possess within.