Sooy serves as an associate editor for the Worldview Church. For an extended introduction, visit www.marksooy.com.
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
From him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
My fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2)
The concept of silence in the spiritual life of the Christian has always intrigued me. This may be a result of my natural disposition to read, learn, study and think – all of which are internally motivating and satisfying. Yet, as I continue to consider ideas of worship, both personal and corporate, I see more and more the need for the deliberate practice of silence. We live in a noisy world, and even to find a quiet space is difficult.
A.W. Tozer wrote about this idea of silence, but not in a way that I had expected when I came across this passage regarding music:
"There is a notion widely held among Christians that song is the highest possible expression of joy of the Lord in the soul of a man or woman. That idea is so near to being true that it may seem spiritually rude to challenge it. However, it does need to be brought to the test of Scriptures and Christian testimony.*
As you can imagine, Tozer certainly got my attention with that comment. Having been involved in Worship and Music Ministry for the last 30+ years, he was challenging something that I had not considered carefully. (This is why I like Tozer as an author and thinker, in that he requires that you think through your assumptions and hold them to the light of Scripture!) Why do we assume that a song is the highest form of praise or joy?
"Both the Bible and the testimony of a thousand saints show that there is experience beyond song. There are delights which the heart may enjoy in the awesome presence of God which cannot find expression in language: they belong to the unutterable elements in Christian experience. Not many enjoy them because not many know that they can."
The phrase, “not many know they can,” is instructive. Have we thought this way about the presence of God that might leave us speechless and songless? Have we experienced the presence of God that would leave us without words?
In answering these questions, many of might say that we have had these experiences. We often spend our devotional time alone and in a quiet atmosphere that lends itself to such things. The recliner in my office could speak of many hours of quiet reading, study and reflection upon God’s word, as well as intimate time with Him in prayer.
This transcendence of the soul into communion with God, however, seems to be more of an occasional occurrence rather than a normal part of Christian spirituality. Some write off Tozer as a “mystic” for comments such as this, yet I wonder if he is so much a mystic or whether his critics have fallen into a secularized, rational Christian life that lacks the power and real communion with Christ that Tozer often reflects in his writings. He makes it clear that this kind of spiritual reality is accessible to all Christians who would desire to know God in such a way.
And beyond the personal experience of worship, what do we make of the practice of silence in a corporate worship setting? Can you identify the last time of silence, whether planned or unplanned, that you experienced in a corporate worship service? I don’t mean those times when the piano plays softly while the people pray silently, but a real silence. A realization by the gathered people of God that God is real and really in their presence.
I can think of few examples of this in my own experience. Corporate worship is a noisy gathering and one that includes lots of talking and music. Silence is uncomfortable, so we avoid it. We include songs to sing together, welcoming comments and announcements, more music for all of us or some kind of performance piece, prayers and the preaching of the pastor. It all flows together, one to the other, with little time for a break in the action to be silent or experience the presence of God that would lead us to a place of silence. What would it be like? What would the church be like if this was a regular part of its worship?
I have written at other times regarding planned silence in worship and that is outside the scope of this article. My intent here is to remind us all that even the greatest expressions of joy, thanksgiving, praise and worship that we can muster may still be insufficient as we really experience the presence and glory of God. I will allow Tozer to summarize and encourage us toward this end.
"Far be it from me to discourage the art of singing. Creation itself took its rise in a burst of song; Christ rose from the dead and sang among His brethren. But still there is something beyond song!
When the Holy Spirit is permitted to exercise His full sway in a redeemed heart there will likely be voluble praise first; then, when the crescendo rises beyond the ability of studied speech to express, comes song. When song breaks down under the weight of glory, then comes silence where the soul, held in deep fascination, feels itself blessed with an unutterable beatitude!"
Sooy recommends “Renewed Day by Day: Volume 1: Daily Devotional Readings.” Purchases through the Colson Bookstore help financially support this ministry.
*All quotes from “Renewed Day by Day: A Daily Devotional” by A.W. Tozer, compiled by G.B. Smith (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1980).