By Michael C. Mack
“Your inner life is like a banana tree filled with monkeys jumping up and down.”
When I came across this sentence in an article by Henri Nouwen, I chuckled. Then I was convicted. I know those monkeys personally.
I regularly go to a park to get away from the noise and busyness of my everyday life and to spend time with God in quiet solitude. This experience is often frustrating; I have attention deficit disorder in my attempts to focus on God. On one recent getaway, I desperately wanted to quiet my mind and discern God’s will about an important decision.
As I hiked along a path by a lake, I thought about when my wife and I take walks together. Just another distraction, I figured, but I stayed with it. Sometimes Heidi and I must get away from the cacophony of a home with four teenage kids and their friends, a dog, and a hamster so we can talk without interruption. I also considered the times when Heidi and I would walk at the park or sit on a dock by a lake and neither of us would say a word. We just enjoyed spending time together.
It seemed God were softly saying to me, “Drop your agenda and plans, Mike. What I want is for you and me to spend the day together.”
Worshipping Without Words
I enjoy worshipping God in silence. I’ve battled the monkeys in the banana trees and I’ve learned, mostly by trial and error, about the awesome—and I use the word literally—experience of simply being still in God’s presence.
Before sharing some of what I’ve learned, I need to define “silence in worship.” Silent worship does not necessarily mean the total absence of any sound. It means giving my full, undivided attention to God—being still in my mind and heart. I can experience silence while sitting next to a creek with the cadence of the water splashing over the smooth stones. I can enter into silent worship in a church service as well, with the ambient sound of a guitar or organ.
When I come into the presence of the all-powerful, all-consuming creator and sustainer of the universe, I am left speechless. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk may have learned this when God declared, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let the earth be silent before him” (2:20).
When we worship, as when we pray, God does not require ornate words—in fact, he doesn’t require words at all! God is spirit, and so our worship requires neither specific physical places nor expressions. We worship him in sprit and in truth (John 4:24). Before we can express our praises aloud, we must first worship God in our hearts. This is critical so we don’t fall into the trap that both Isaiah and Jesus warned about: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8).
Silence Is Golden
In our culture we need a break from all the ruckus and racket to hear the gentle whisper of the Almighty (1 Kings 19:12). As one writer put it, “Silence is pregnant with the living presence of God.” When I get alone with God and give him my undivided attention, he gives me—and I can’t explain how—his undivided attention. As my Daddy, he bends down, looks me in the face, and listens to me.
Silence teaches us, perhaps forces us, to wait on God, trusting him and learning to live on his timetable rather than our own. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” said King David (Psalm 37:7). This isn’t easy. Some of us may even fear what we’ll hear in prolonged periods of silence. “I think silence can bring us to places we want to be . . . and sometimes don’t want to be,” said Aaron Crane, worship minister at Clifton Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Matt Giebler, senior minister at Greenwood (Indiana) Christian Church, says, “Our avoidance of silence can sometimes hamper our listening to God.” How can we recognize the voice of our Shepherd if we never quiet our hearts long enough to listen for him (John 10:3-5)?
How to Silence the Monkeys
How do we calm the monkeys in the banana trees of our minds and hearts? Can we simply “be still” in a society that does not value stillness? Let’s face it: our world surrounds us with noise; in fact, we attempt to drown out the noise with earphones and digital audio players—more noise! To tune in to God, we must learn to tune out all the clamor and clatter, and we can learn to do this in our private as well as our corporate worship. Because sound, both good and bad, is such a part of our world, including our church services, we must become counter-cultural. Here are five simple ideas to get started.
Flip the off switch. Turn off the radio in your car, the TV sets in your home, and the audio player while exercising. Mute your phone and computer during your quiet time. You can get to all your notifications later. Become accustomed to stillness in your life. This is indeed counter-cultural!
Be patient. The monkeys rarely stop jumping up and down right away. I’ve found that waiting is essential. That’s why a five-minute quiet time doesn’t work well for me. I must regularly set aside hours to be alone with God in a quiet setting. As I practice tuning out all the voices in my head, I begin to tune more into God. It’s then that I can truly begin worshipping him. Silent worship may feel unnatural at first. You will probably feel like you should be doing something; that’s a natural response when you first try worshipping silently. Don’t give up!
Surrender. To be quiet with God, I have to relinquish control of all the stuff on my mind and to-do list. I simply try to obey Jesus’ words: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Be intentional. Climb out of any ruts you’ve fallen into. Plan times of silence in your personal worship. If you lead worship in your church, begin adding times of silence into what you are already doing.
Relax. If you haven’t experienced silence in worship before, this may not come easily. The monkeys may not stop clamoring right away. It’s OK. Try again another time. Experiment with what, when, and where works well for you.
Silent worship is about one thing: communing with God and God alone. There’s a time for shouting and singing and clapping our hands and the clashing of symbols, and there’s a time for reverent silence.
Silent worship is a paradox. When I come before God in silence, with the recognition of whom I’m worshipping, my silence breaks out into shouts of praise! I cannot contain—even the monkeys in the banana trees can’t disrupt—the words and the songs that then overflow from my lips.
Michael C. Mack is a freelance writer in Pewee Valley, Kentucky.
Shhh! . . . Resources and Tips for Fostering Quiet in Your Life
Get some earplugs. Car alarms will buzz, coworkers will whine, and construction will happen—so be ready to have some quiet in spite of your surroundings.
Practice quiet in small everyday ways. Turn off the TV and read for the evening. Have 10 minutes of no-talk time at the end of a stressful day. Ban talking during morning coffee.
Practice mental quiet. Make sure that just because your mouth is closed your brain doesn’t kick into high gear, planning your week or worrying about work.
“Practicing Silence in an iPod World” by John Young