God has three uncomfortable gifts to us that invite us into his presence, but usually we’d rather not accept what he’s offering.
Scripture talks a lot about rebellious people, but that’s an epithet that we lay unbelievers more often than not. Granted, the Bible does say that the unbelieving are in rebellion against God, but almost just as often, those rebels weren’t heathens or outsiders; they were God’s own people. In a passage particularly dedicated to God talking about how the folks who were allegedly his followers were rebelling against him, we find this interesting verse: “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling” (Isaiah 30:15, ESV).
Quietness being our strength is not a popular concept in the modern Western world. Apparently, it wasn’t popular back in 8th century BC either. When governments were ruled more by the brutal mentality of “Might makes right,” people back in that day had even less incentive than we do to do anything they could that might give them security.
Like always, though, God calls his people to a different way of living. Scripture seems to make a case for three different types of contemplative practices in which we can return and rest in God.
“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:5-7).
In the sermon “Life Is Short,” Gary Wilkerson pointed to how Jesus’ three temptations at the start of his ministry correspond with the three lies Henri Nouwen proposed all Christians struggle with throughout life. The first lie is “I am what I do.” Now while scripture says that our faith will be marked by our works, this is when our actions become the way that we try to maintain power and control over our lives. This corresponds with when Satan told Jesus, “Command this stone to become bread.” Do something, and take control of your life’s circumstances.
The contemplative practice in direct opposition to this temptation is stillness. Scripture tells us over and over to wait on the Lord for our deliverance. While there is a season for work and ‘doing,’ there are also seasons where we are called to be still before God, even when everything in us screams at us to leap into action and save ourselves. There are consequences too if we ignore this call to stillness. The Bible says, “Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God’” (Psalm 46:8-10).
It’s sobering to think that God might take stillness before him so seriously that he will break the tools of our work and even bring ‘desolation’ to the earth so we have nothing else to do. We must cultivate the discipline of stopping at times. As we force ourselves to be still, we may purposefully entrust ourselves to the care of our Father.
“But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20, ESV).
The next temptation Satan threw at Jesus was “To you I will give all this authority and their glory.” A lot of us clamor for security, and the successes of life are our proofs of God’s favor. If God loves us, we will surely be publicly established and recognized! This feeds right into Nouwen’s second lie that “I am what I have.” The counter to this is the silence of Christ before his accusers.
Jesus had all the power of the divine Godhead, but he had laid it aside in order to obey the will of the Father. This required trusting the Father’s way rather than accepting people’s invitations to defend himself and prove that his authority was real. “The high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But Jesus remained silent… Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26:62-63, 67-68). If ever there were a moment when we would be sorely tempted to speak up on our own behalf and try to talk ourselves out of a bad situation, it would be when an angry mob is spitting on us and demanding that we prove we have the power to save ourselves.
Christ’s primary value is in who he is: the Savior and Son of God. He knew that full well, and he refused to bow to the demands of this religious council who were only interested in what power he held to either save himself from them or save them from their Roman oppressors.
This kind of silence requires enormous faith in God’s way through difficult circumstances, especially when his plan seems to involve stripping away all of our security. “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. …Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him” (Lamentations 3:25-28). Our trusting silence may not save us from suffering, but it will give God glory, and he has already promised to be our salvation.
“Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
More than a few times, the gospels record that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). He seemed to constantly be haring off to a mountainside or out into the bush for a day or all night, and the disciples would have to track him down or just wait until he reappeared. No doubt that was frustrating, even embarrassing when people came to speak to the disciples or ask for a healing and Jesus was nowhere to be found.
Like when Satan tempted Christ to throw himself down from the peak of the temple, Jesus refused to put on a show or be at the beck and call of people in order to gain their affection and admiration. Instead, he regularly separated himself from his followers, family and closest friends in order to have focused time with God, even when that irritated or disappointed them.
Solitude is often how we combat Nouwen’s third lie, “I am what others say or think about me.” When no one is around, we can’t feed off of their responses. If we seek alone-time with God, we will frustrate people who inevitably also want that slice of our time.
When we deliberately carve out space in our time and relationships for God through solitude, though, that is often where God seems to speak. “He [Elijah] arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him…” (1 Kings 19:8-9).
Of course, there will always be the temptation to excuse laziness as ‘stillness’, passivity as ‘silence’ and an unwillingness to serve others as ‘solitude.’ Far more often, though, we will forgo these disciplines so that we don’t have to rely on God in such comfortable ways. Gary Wilkerson concluded in his sermon, however, that “All of these ways of defining ourselves by what we do or have or the way others think of us are built on lies of the enemy. These lies not only doom us to emptiness, but they also derail us from the full life our Creator has designed for us.”
A full life, however, can only be found in Christ when we purposefully discipline ourselves to seek him. Within the three types of contemplative prayer is where we will feel, see and hear our Lord most clearly.