Shut Up And Be Still
By |   November 19, 2010 |   in Action, Contemplation

We have no time or space to deal with contemplatives in our world.

Voluntarily squandering time in nonproductive activities is an affront to those of us who daily bow to the God of efficiency and hurry.  Few evangelical denominations know what to do with contemplatives.  Spirituality with no concretely defined goals and objectives is threatening for most of us.  We almost always value purpose over mystery.

Just the other day I heard the use of silence in a worship service referred to as “dead space.”  The only thing that dies when we give time for God to corporately interact with his people is our ability to manipulate and control.  Holy silence is life-giving space that has the potential to birth many things, including action.

From Moses we learn that action without contemplation is not only foolish, but dangerous.  In recent decades evangelical America has become very good at purpose, action and direction, but lack few serious expressions of contemplation.  It would be good for us to remember that true contemplation always leads to action, even if we follow Moses’ lead and let our passion simmer for forty years.  I have a suspicion his years of formation were not wasted time.

Contemplatives teach us to shut up and be still.  We learn to rest, and acknowledge that God is in control.  When we quietly interact with the eternal, we find acceptance and solidarity with the needs of the world.  However, if our contemplation cannot find home in the mix of the stress and responsibilities of life, we have missed its natural fruit.

We would do good to remember the purpose of spiritual contemplation is not to indulge in a monastic drug that reinforces our narcissism, but rather a place where wisdom is formed and courage is mustered for us to bravely respond to the movements of, to quote the title of a book my friend Mary Darling coauthored, The God of Intimacy and Action.

Join the Conversation

Have you seen what Nathan identifies as the evangelical ‘inability to deal with contemplatives’?

Have you yourself ever felt like silence is “dead space” instead of “holy mystery”?

What helps you “shut up and be still”?

Nathan Foster:
Nathan Foster is assistant professor of social work at Spring Arbor University (Spring Arbor, Michigan). He has been a counselor and founded/directed Door of Hope Counseling (Arvada, Colorado). He is married and has two children. He is an avid cyclist and still dreams of mountain adventures. His most recent book is Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet.

11 Comments


  1. I am somewhat of a solitary soul who has always seen silence, even aloneness (as in alone time with God, or alone time for reflection, or alone time for re-energizing), as a gift in the “muchness and manyness” of life’s little urgencies (as your father used to say). I don’t fit the criteria for a contemplative, but I respect that way of approaching the spiritual life. Not being of its heritage, nevertheless silence is one of the attributes of Quaker worship that I have always admired.

  2. Stillness and silence is a core foundation of all spiritual movements/religions/practices. Only with taking moments to listen to nothing but the voices within can we hear God and our inner selves. Much strength is found in taking time to do this wether you use the time to pray or just be still. There is a big difference between non particpation and apathy which I see alot of, at church too, and a deliberate meditative or study practice. Action and doing come out of planned stillness, indifference and depression from disengaging. Churches need to make clear the differences. I love the few minuets of silence during services. Not a dead space to me but it does make some people uncomfortable, they are ones who need a silence practice the most. Right on Nate.

  3. Great thoughts and nothing I had considered much before. I can relate it to my profession in the sense that during a session, some new counselors become very uncomfortable if a client becomes silent. Without letting them have that moment, they will jump in and ask a question or lead the client… something along the lines of, “So what are you thinking?” This is an unfortunate rookie mistake, because with experience we learn that great transformation happens in silence. I once was working with an extremely defiant 12 year old and during our session he grew quiet. As the minutes passed and he stared at me, I felt myself growing anxious and impatient. I took deep breaths and allowed him to have his moment. After about 15 minutes of waiting, he broke into tears (the first time he had ever done this in therapy) and laid his head on the desk. “I DON’T WANT TO BE SO ANGRY!” he finally yelled.

    It was miraculous.

    Carrying the value of silence into my spiritual life, I can see it’s usefulness as a teaching tool. I also appreciate the use of contemplation before action… to really evaluate *why* we are performing the action. Is it out of habit or from pure intentions? Are we doing it because it feels good? Because it’s expected? Etc.

    All very interesting to consider!

    • In my work as a spiritual director I keep a little maxim in mind “If I wait, there will be more.”

      When I become uncomfortable with silence, my attempts to fill it up easily interrupt the work of the Spirit in a directee’s reflective process and create a hindrance to our 3-way conversation. It’s amazing what will often be revealed if I simply have the patience to wait.

      You were courageous to wait for 15 minutes, Kalen! Thanks for encouraging us with the breakthrough moment which your patience allowed.

  4. I think you’re right on, our society finds anything contemplative, or even reflective untenable. The church, and in particular the evangelical church does not have a counter cultural stance about this, and in fact, I believe it is intentionally unopen to contemplative existence. As you’ve said, to be contemplative is to release control, to create space for encounter with God, and only those of us who are utterly foolish fail to understand that encounter with God leaves our control and agenda exposed for what they are. One of the core failures of the evangelical church is to be willing to release control and agenda, so we intentionally shut down and limit our encounters with God, so they, like everything else can be neatly packaged and sold…

  5. This is a completely delightful blog!!! Such excellent thoughts for rumination, reflection & application – but I would expect nothing less from Nathan ,)

  6. Kate, what a great statement: “Action and doing come out of planned stillness, indifference and depression from disengaging. Churches need to make clear the differences.”

  7. Kalen, what a beautiful story of the value of silence in your practice. As a spiritual director, I’ve felt that tension of wanting to jump in with a leading question. While that occurred more often when I was a rookie myself, I also find that I’m less tolerant of silence when I haven’t been in a regular practice of silence in my own life and journey. Do you find that to be true for you?

  8. Really great comments from a bunch of sharp people.

    I found as a counselor silence can be a really useful tool… I’ve also had a handful of times where it was just uncomfortable for everyone…. I do notice that if I’m in the habit of being still it’s much easier for me to offer that space to others.

    It’s strange to me how I’m drawn to silence yet often frightened by it. I find it so easy to get caught up in the mess of life and my favorite distractions, I so easily forget the wonder of stillness.

  9. In a generation where our spiritual lives are related to how often we are doing religious activity – these are the words of truth that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis. In the Christian world we need to remember that God is building His church, not us, and that He calls us to seek Him first, to love Him above everything we can do for Him. Thanks Nathan for remind us of these eternal truths!

  10. In mentoring study facilitators, I emphasize that a Bible study is a conversation between God and us. And part of this conversation is silence. In our “loud” world, I find it somewhat humorous that facilitators have such a hard time sitting and waiting in silence. But, as the have seen, sitting and waiting in silence for a response to God in the study, usually, the conversation shows up.

    (I have to admit that sometimes, not infrequently enough, I’m asked to rephrase what is being asked.)

    Many times after studies that fell into silence, some participants thanked me for time to think and time to commune with God and each other in silence. Thanks for the encouragement I’ve received from this blog. (:>)