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In the Beginning Is Silence

Why Christian activity should start with non-activity.
In the Beginning Is Silence
Image: Heads of State

In his 1983 Templeton Prize address, Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.” This reality, of course, has bled into the 21st century, and we even see bloodstains in the church.

Christians have not forgotten God as much as set him on a shelf while we attend to more urgent business, like growing churches or preaching hope or fighting injustice. These are all righteous in their own way, of course—except when knowing and loving God becomes an afterthought or a means to an end.

This is not a new temptation. Paul talked about it in relation to the love of neighbor. But it applies even more to our love of God: We might speak in miraculous tongues or with prophetic truth to power, we might have the faith to move the culture, we might sacrificially serve the poorest of the poor—but if we don’t love God, it is nothing (1 Cor. 13:1–4). Why did Paul bring this up if the Christians of his day weren’t so tempted?

Fall is the activity season. As the school year gets underway, families put all sorts of plans and routines in play. Churches gear up their manifold programs. And this being an election year, activists set campaigns into motion. It’s our time of year.

It’s long been recognized that a distinctive feature of American Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is our activism. Certainly, there is the activism of deeds—opening food pantries, starting Bible studies, joining political interest groups. But words are deeds as well, and as such, we speak biblical truth in season and out, from the pulpit or lectern or social media platform, “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

Unfortunately, we live at a time when the words of Christians sound like nothing more than “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” In some cases, this signals that we have forgotten God, so that people fail to hear and see the Holy One in us. In other cases, our words are simply lost in our present clangor of social noise. As such, we’re tempted to just shout louder and louder, to engage in more frenetic activity, so anxious are we that people hear and see Jesus.

The paradox is that Jesus is usually found not in a rock-shattering wind, or in earthquakes and fire, but in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). The great deeds of God are often accompanied with the quiet, gentle whisper—from before Creation (where the Spirit hovered silently above the waters) to the Crucifixion (where God is scarily silent as the world is being saved) to the great silence after the opening of the seventh seal in heaven (inaugurating the final Judgment).

The lesson is as old as it is obvious, but so important is it that we must never tire of reminding ourselves: Our deeds and words, if they would be more than clanging cymbals, need to grow out of silent adoration of our Holy God. “As long as we are at the center of the action, we feel indispensable,” Richard Foster once put it. “But genuine experiences of solitude undercut all the pretense. In the very act of retreat we resign as CEO of the universe. We entrust people into the hands of God.”

Whatever we call it—“having devotions” or “quiet time” or “morning prayer”—there are dozens of ways of going about this. But we risk turning this non-activity into yet another religious activity if we fill it with the noise of our words, plaguing God with our needs and petitions or mindlessly repeating liturgical prayers. Some, if not most of that time, is better filled with silence and attentive listening, usually with Scripture as our guide.

The Spirit continues to hover over the face of our deep, wishing to create us anew in Christ. What will finally make a difference in our world is helping individuals and a culture remember the One they have forgotten. The more we listen in quiet adoration to the forgotten One who reveals himself in his Word, the more he will conform us to the image of his Son. And then our words and deeds will be filled with the “pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15).

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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