Like most people, I’m prone to the dazed distraction of our time. The pixels and the streaming, the windows into other worlds, the messages and, sometimes, mirages of connection. We’re wired into spheres of life that are distant from us—a blessing and a curse. One element of the curse is a loss of stillness. It’s a concept so strange to our minds that it sounds poetic, almost backwards. Jared Wilson once admonished his readers, “Don’t just do something; sit there!” Hardly intuitive.
But do you know what a loss of stillness has generated? For one, I’m convinced it’s played a part in some 40 million Americans being treated for anxiety each year (I’m among that happy bunch). But for another, it’s led to a loss of communication with the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Stillness is the happy house of the Holy Spirit. We go there to hear him speak.
Stillness and the Spirit
Now, I’ll get to what it means to “hear the Spirit speak” in a moment. For now, let’s define the problem. My problem, our problem, is constant movement, constant information, constant flux. Fingers tapping, eyes scanning, hands gripping our smartphones (This isn’t a rant against smartphones, by the way). The biblical solution to that problem of constant movement is intentional and routine stillness. That means simply sitting or standing and not doing anything. Have you ever tried it? If you did, how long did it last? Thirty seconds? A minute? We’re quickly swept back into the current of movement.
What happens when we don’t have stillness for a prolonged amount of time, when dazed distraction and constant task completion become the norm? I believe we unlearn how to sense the Spirit of God (if we ever learned it in the first place). Many of us don’t even know what that really means anymore, do we? Can we distinguish the voice of the Spirit from our inner dialogue, our subjective preferences, or our selfish passions? Yes, I believe we can. I believe we must. But the solution starts with leaving empty spaces, which is very hard for us.
In Marilyn McEntyre’s wonderful book, Word by Word, she writes,
When our interior spaces are filled with plans, anxieties, curiosities, even the morning’s news or good intentions, we leave little room for the Spirit to enter. The Spirit of the Lord may “blow where it will,” but the force of that mighty wind may be diminished by the obstacles we put in its path. The Spirit may blow us over, but most often, it seems to me, it weaves its way quietly, courteously, and subtly through the scattered minutes of an ordinary day.
Marilyn McEntyre, Word by Word, p. 129
The scattered minutes of an ordinary day are often filled up, with texts and tasks and events. I have three little kids, a hard-working wife, a full-time job, and a passion for writing on the side. Believe me: I know how rare pockets of stillness can be. And yet, I can also sense that the less I do this, the more likely I’ll grow ignorant of how the Spirit works and moves in me, how he speaks. And that affects my behavior. For many of us, it affects our ability to do what God wants us to do: give. Giving is at the heart of God, and so it should be at the heart of God’s image bearers.
How the Spirit Works and “Speaks”
Let me go back to that earlier question of how the Spirit works and “speaks.” The Spirit works, in one sense, quite simply. Jesus says the Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Spirit takes the truth of God—the words of the Father, brought near by the Son, delivered in the potent breath of the Holy Ghost—and he repeats and applies it. The Spirit speaks, in other words, by re-sounding God’s words and working them into the dry dough of our souls, over-floured with comfort and self-preservation. We need to be kneaded.
That leads to two biblical conclusions.
- We can’t sense the Spirit work without having daily engagement with God’s word.
- We can’t sense the Spirit work if we don’t pause to observe, to be still, to notice moments of potential application.
“Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist writes (Ps. 46:10). Knowledge and awareness of God and what he is doing follow after stillness. We need both.
You can see our dilemma now, can’t you? Many of us make a daily effort to dig into God’s word, and that’s great. But if we don’t follow that with stillness, if we don’t give the Spirit room to be noticed, room to work, then we’re just hoarding revelation.
The Spirit’s Work through Giving
But the stillness and knowledge of God, the movement of his Spirit, is meant to lead us somewhere. It’s meant to take us into the open country of giving. Let me give you an example. Earlier this week I was reading about God’s love and justice in Kelly Kapic’s book, The God Who Gives. As was biblical, he tethered the two notions together. Just a day before that I had read about God’s justice in Deuteronomy 17, where God tells his people to “purge the evil from among them.” The point was that God’s holy relationship of love requires purity. To be in the presence of a pure God, one must be pure. Purity is selective in its company. In the same week, my wife and I read of the same relationship between love and justice in a book on parenting by Sally Clarkson, Awaking Wonder. These threads converged in our family in the same week, brought to our attention by the Spirit, who is always responsible for bringing the truth of God’s word before our eyes.
So, where does stillness fit into this? In the watching and waiting and observing. My wife and I watched and waited during the week, going about the normal business of parenting, but also finding moments to pause and notice our kids playing, to listen to their voices without interrupting them, to enjoy some silence and stillness in little pockets of the day. In hindsight, I’d say we were practicing mindful stillness.
Then came a moment for giving, for taking the knowledge of God that came after stillness and giving ourselves to our kids through it. My wife is responsible for this one. In her devotional reading one morning she came across yet another passage of Scripture that talked about God’s justice. As the kids played and drew pictures on the floor in front of her, she had the opportunity to give them what God had given us. She called them over and talked about how God is fair and just with us, but he’s also loving and kind. The people who do very bad things in the world, who don’t love God, aren’t going to get away with it. God is in control. He is just and fair. But God is also forgiving, and he forgives us when we come to him.
Who knows if the message will stick. But I was captivated as I watched the scene unfold. My wife had been faithful in taking time for stillness, to listen to God’s word, and then God gave her the perfect opportunity to give his wisdom to our children. Without stillness, without the quiet observation that follows God’s word, this wouldn’t have happened.
Giving Is Hard without Stillness
We need stillness. We need it. And we need the word. They go hand in hand. When we lose the word, we’re directionless. Actually, we can never truly be directionless, because the world has a thousand directions for us. So, if we lose the word, we’re already walking in some other direction. We need that to be our footpath. But we also need stillness so that we can walk on the path mindfully, paying attention to when the Spirit might be prodding us to give. And the thing that we give will be nothing else but the truth of God worked out in concrete situations, in the “scattered minutes of an ordinary day.”
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