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Developing the Use of Silence in Prayer

Are we spending enough time listening to God when we pray? By Sarah Bingham

Prayer image RGB stockWe live in an increasingly noisy world. Twenty first century Europeans rarely experience silence. Yet in exercising faith, silence has always played a role. After his dramatic showdown with the priests of Baal, Elijah needed fresh vision to carry on. His encounter with God came not in all the noise and drama, but in ‘sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV). Habakkuk calls the earth to silence in response to his vision of what God will do (Hab. 2:20).
Too often, all our teaching about prayer focuses on speaking to God, rather than listening for His voice. Prayer as conversation or even prayer as sitting quietly in God’s presence seems to be off the Baptist discipleship agenda. Other traditions seem equally ill at ease with the practice; within the Anglican liturgy in use in the mid seventies, the phrase ‘silence may be kept’ occurred. This intrigued me; it often seemed that silence was kept only if the service was not ‘running late’! No one ever explained what was meant to happen in the silence, or why it might be kept.

Troubles and trials come upon us as we age and mature and I gained more insight into what Paul meant when he said the Spirit could pray in and through us without words (Rom. 8:26). I also realised, finally, what the silences in the Anglican service were for – to allow reflection a
nd listening for the Spirit to speak directly to us internally.

I decided to spend 15 minutes every day over the college vacation ‘Son bathing’ . My intention was that it would not be a time of speaking, but of quiet openness, with no agenda. Initially, I found it very difficult to ‘still’ the internal monologue of inconsequential thoughts, or thoughts relating to specific issues in my life. This undermined my desire to hear God’s agenda rather than impose my own.

However, I had read the Cloud of Unknowing whilst at London School of Theology and knew that the author suggested the use of a short phrase as a means to set distractions aside . I also knew of the prayer practice of turning hands down to symbolically release things or put them aside, and to sit with hands up as a symbol of being open to receive from God. I combined these two elements to aid both an external, physical focus and an internal, emotional focus, hoping to permit a whole ‘spiritual’ focus on God alone.

I would, therefore, turn hands down as I exhaled and mentally said (e.g.) ‘fear’ and turn hands up as I inhaled and said (e.g.) ‘love’. This lessened the extent to which I was setting an agenda, more so when I used the actions without words. In his book Praying with our Hands, Jon Sweeney suggests

Praying with our hands is a way of practising mindfulness. It can give stability to our spiritual lives...When words don’t say adequately what we mean, our hands might be able to show it .

A number of issues arise from reflecting on this practice, including:
  • should every believer meet God regularly in silence, is it integral to prayer?
  • how can believers be helped to explore silence communally and individually? Does silence work differently for different people?
  • how do we know when silence is our best response? What if God’s response seems to be silence?
  • how do we each balance spiritual practices necessary for our personal relationship with God, with requirements for work or study purposes?
In this article, there is not space for comprehensive exploration of those questions; however I offer these brief comments as a ‘starter for ten’.

If we believe that we follow a God who speaks, we must, like Samuel, be able to recognise God’s voice and respond by saying ‘speak, LORD, for thy servant hears’ (1 Sam. 3:9). The greatest implicit reason given by the Bible for believers to pray using silence is their need to hear God’s voice, even as the prophets did. . Ideas for gaining familiarity with using silence in a group context can be found in Yaconelli’s Contemplative Youth Ministry or Scripture Union’s Prompting Prayer.

The main method is to outline the purpose of being silent, to define a period of silence and try it, and to then allow a time for sharing or feedback. Some, in silence, will see a picture or unfolding scene; another may find a Bible verse springs to mind or a word of knowledge comes to them. Others may receive a profound sense of peace, comfort or contentment. For some, fear may prevent such engagement – in silence, we confront both God and ourselves, but facing the fear may be the best thing to do.

Sometimes in relationships, shared silence reveals the depths of trust and intimacy that have been achieved . Job’s friends did their best work in bringing comfort when they purely came and sat with him (Job 2:11-13). It was in speaking that they went wrong. Some things are too deep for words.

Followers of God do experience times when God seems silent and distant for extended periods. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the dark night of the soul’. God’s seeming absence can be a time of refining faith, of deepening trust and developing our relationship with him. Taking away ‘consolation’ from our relationship means we are forced to depend purely on God and seek him for himself, rather than any comfort, blessing or gifts that we might receive from him. In groping around in the silence, we may indeed find him for himself (Acts 17:27).

A common saying is ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t’. We may try different methods or patterns of prayer, of Bible Study or worship within our personal walk with God, but we also need to be honest enough to admit that what works for one may not work for another.

Finding the balance of work and play, worship and rest, may be a lifelong task, because when we have found it, our life will move on and the balance point will change. Perhaps this is a reason for celebrating the metaphor of life as a pilgrimage; until we reach our final destination, we will need to keep moving on and experience new terrain, new vistas, new people and new challenges. 

Sarah Bingham

Formerly a teacher, then Scripture Union Evangelist, Sarah Bingham is a second year MIT at Spurgeon’s College and Minister of East Worthing Baptist Church.

This article appeared in
Baptists Together magazine

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