I solve most of the world’s problems right before I go to bed. It’s true. Ask my wife. I have so many amazing ideas, and she gets to hear all of them right before she falls asleep.
I recently solved the central problem with my evangelical tribe.
You know us, we’re the people who claim to have the “good news” and then we basically spend a lot of time worrying about being damned to hell, praying enough, proving ourselves worthy of God, proving we hold “sound” doctrines, defending those sound doctrines from atheists and “liberals,” fearing the fiery destruction of the world, and jumping into the political fray as if the death of America is the same thing as the death of God.
Evangelicals are anxious. We are anxious people who need to sit in a room and say nothing for a long time.
We fill concert venues with blaring worship music and shout, “Come Lord, Come! Come! COME!!!!”
We study, study, study the Bible.
We serve and minister and volunteer.
And then? The crash. So many of us crash and burn with our anxious, hard-working faith. I gave myself to all of this. I’m an evangelical who studied, served, worked, and defended, and all I got was a lousy crisis of faith. Almost every evangelical I know has had a crisis of faith in their 20’s or 30’s. Those who haven’t had a crisis of faith yet are the ones who could really use it the most.
Sure, we trust that Jesus has saved us by faith and grace, not by our own merits. But then we expend SO MUCH energy working and worrying in order to prove that profession is true. We struggle with holy living. We wonder if the defenses for the Bible will be enough to shore up faltering faith. And most importantly, we lose our ever-loving minds because God feels so distant and silent.
So we study harder, we worship with even more passion than the trademarked PASSION events, and we plead and beg with God: “Please show up. Please tell me that you’re real. Please tell me that the years of guilt, shame, repression, and fear were worth something.” Something has to give.
Some snap out of that phase, and realize that the game is over. God isn’t real. How could he be? What God would want people to live with such fear, misery, and uncertainty?
Others harbor those doubts, fears, and illusions, but they stick with the practice of their religion. Jesus matters so much to them. They want the story to be true. They want to believe that God is somehow involved in the world, but they simply can’t figure out how to find that God. They settle for mystery, but end up living without any search for or experience of God.
There’s another option that takes the beliefs and, don’t miss this word, practices of historic Christianity seriously. In fact, the problem that plagues evangelicals today may best be described as a selective amnesia. We have fought tooth and nail to uphold the scriptures and doctrines that the early church passed on to us, but we couldn’t give a flying fig (that’s an evangelical swear word) about the practices of the early church.
There is a stream of Christianity that takes the foundational teachings of our faith seriously—so seriously that they are viewed as givens—without devoting our entire lives to defending them from skeptics. This is the contemplative stream that pre-dates the canon of scripture. This stream has been practiced in quiet and solitude, as well as in cities and small towns. It has driven some to serve actively and it has driven others deeper into the desert. Ironically, those who traveled the furthest into the desert were eagerly sought out by many from the cities. These desert contemplatives exercised tremendous influence and their words remain powerful, relevant, and formative until this day.
The contemplative stream of Christianity tells us to sit in a room by ourselves and to be quiet for a long time. It challenges evangelicals to consider how much we’ve become like the ecstatic prophets of Baal who shout and dance and make a tremendous scene before an unseen god while Elijah watches with quiet confidence.
Evangelicals, we have a lot of good things going for us, but underneath all of our media empires that promise to defend us from the big bad world, our universities that continue edging toward sheltered fundamentalism, our large churches packed with programs and offices (not with prayer chapels), and our deeply flawed hero-worship and business-influenced leadership culture, there is a deep need for the loving search for God. By and large, we are not known as people who love.
I know that “love” is my deepest struggle. How do we generate love for God? How do we love people?
If Jesus’ two most important commands are to love God and to love my neighbors, if Paul said everything he does is “shit” (that’s only a translation of a Greek swear word, so we’re cool) without love, and if the apostle John used love as the only measure that matters, then our disconnect from love has to be addressed.
So far as I can tell, I have found love so difficult because I have been cut off from the source of love. This brings us back to our quiet room where evangelicals need to sit and say nothing for a long time.
The contemplative stream echoes the Psalms that tell us to wait on the Lord, to wait in silence.
For being people who love the Bible, cherish the Bible, defend the Bible, and who attack people who don’t love, cherish, or defend the Bible as much as us, evangelicals do a pretty terrible job of actually believing what the Bible says about God’s love.
I know this first hand because the foundational teachings of contemplative prayer are two things that are both very true in the Bible and very hard for evangelicals to believe:
- God is here.
- God loves you.
Evangelicals could spend years digging up scripture verses to disprove the very two things that we have longed to know all of our lives. This is why we need to sit in a room all by ourselves and say nothing for a long time.
We need to make a space to become aware of God and of God’s love. This isn’t necessarily a space for epiphanies or visions or amazing spiritual encounters. In fact, the contemplatives warn us that desiring spiritual encounters or amazing visions could become quite dangerous, as they can be self-serving and manipulative toward God. We begin to crave validation and experience over choosing to rest in the truths that God is here and God loves us.
This is a far cry from the anxious, hard-working evangelical subculture. Evangelicals don’t have language for a dark night of the soul. We can only think of ways to shine “light” into a dark night of the soul. When we are given the option of silence before God, we are quick to quote scripture and to begin another freestyle, “Lord we just…” prayer.
We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.
This is the path we walk by faith. This will take all of the faith that we can muster.
I have taken a long, winding path into contemplative practices. They were the only things I could hold onto when my evangelical faith crashed and burned. I spent years worrying that they didn’t work, that God wasn’t real, or that I had somehow alienated myself from God. I freaked out because nothing was happening. I have since learned that this is by and large the point.
People who abide and live by faith don’t need God to constantly poke them in order to prove that he’s real. It took years of learning to search for God before realizing that I’d already been found. I couldn’t make God any more present. I couldn’t plead with God to be with me more than he already is. I couldn’t say anything to make God love me more. I couldn’t add any spiritual practices that would change the way God loves me.
I am loved and you are loved right now. This is the deep, abiding mystery of our faith. This is a truth that can revolutionize our lives.
This love of God is so deep and unfathomably wonderful that the only appropriate response is to sit in a room and say nothing for a long, long time until we accept that God is here and God loves us.
Read More about Contemplative Prayer…
Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)
Amazon | Herald Press | CBD
17 thoughts on “Evangelicals Need to Sit in a Room and Say Nothing for a Long Time”
Thanks, Ed. But my neighbor can’t know or experience the love I am commanded to have for him unless I spend some time with him. And I find it really hard to feed my brothers and sisters who are hungry sitting here in a room. And making more disciples is really extra difficult sitting here in a room by myself. Better disciples? Harder yet. Visiting in prison? Wow! Can’t get that done here in a room by myself. Widows and orphans probably find it inconvenient to wait while I get this ‘a long time in a room by myself’ thing worked out. A little solitude and contemplation can really be a blessing to me. A lot of it doesn’t help anyone.
It has only been when I have come to a place of contemplative prayer that I gained strength and peace. This practice has revolutionized my life and taken the shackles off my feet. I still engage in servant love expressed through praying and visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and fellow shipping regularly. However, I now take time to mediate, pray, sit in silence, and listen to God speak. This new liberation and freedom has lead me to deeper hard felt service and intimacy with Christ.
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I’ve spent years involved in prison ministry, so I don’t see this as either or. If anything, evangelicals have been all service and no contemplation. Richard Rohr calls his ministry The Center for Contemplation and Action with the goal that contemplation drives our ministry forward. I think the false dichotomy you describe is why evangelicals are so afraid of stopping to recharge with contemplation. We’re so afraid of not doing enough. We’re so afraid of stopping our service to seek God’s presence that we can’t imagine how the pursuit of God would lead us into the pursuit of our neighbors and service to others, and so we skip the contemplation and then wonder why we’re so burned out and distant from God. Of course they go together, but contemplation is one of the most powerful forces for spurring us on to action. In my experience guilt trips or judgment or calls to “prove” yourself or to “obey” if you want to be faithful cuts out the essential aspect that those who are loved by God will have a deep well to draw from in their ministry.
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I also found that many evangelicals are ‘fearful’ of the contemplative life because it seems ‘new age’, ‘Catholic’ or worse yet dangerous and deceptive!
I think that’s our problem Judy- God also commands us to “be still and know he is God” in addition to the multiple places in the Bible that refer to us resting in God (including Sabbath laws). In our fever to do so much in this world (and the accompanying guilt we foist on ourselves for never doing enough) we never stop to consider when our work is done and when we can rest in the fact that it is God who holds the universe together, not our efforts. I think the author is getting at us BEING people who live our lives out in faith (even when it means “inaction” in the eyes of the world), resting in the very Love that makes all those good actions you speak of actually worth worth the effort. At least that’s my take.
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“A lot of it doesn’t help anyone.” This is so incredibly untrue. God speaks in the still small voice. If you’re going to be any real use, spending time in the silence is where it all begins, where it is deeply nurtured, where it matures and bears fruit. The author of the post did not say ANYWHERE that one should also give up all practical daily interactions–that’s a knee-jerk takeaway, and one that’s in error, IMO. The most effective way to influence others is to be someone in whom a profound receptivity to the Still Small Voice is the ultimate foundation. MAKE disciples? No, no, no. That’s not your job.
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I think you clearly missed the point. Both are important. Nowhere does the article day to sacrifice one for the other.
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Judy, I don’t think Ed is saying that time alone is all we need to do. We tend to overvalue certain aspects of following Jesus. Ed nails a temptation we have as evangelicals to emphasize activism at the expense of time alone, listening. Solitude and contemplation isn’t just a blessing to me, it better positions me help a lot more people. I’m always challenged that Jesus didn’t just do a little of it; he made time alone a priority in his ministry, even being led into the wilderness for quite some time (think of all the work he could’ve done during that time!). And then all the times he was off alone with the Father when the crowds were waiting for him. It appears that for Jesus, time alone was right there alongside (not instead of) the evangelism and activism you mention. You also mentioned widows and orphans, from James’ letter telling us believers to get to work! (1:22, 27). As I was reading Ed’s post, I’d add that evangelicals could use some of James’ other advice, to be “quick to listen.” That’s something that I see lacking in evangelicalism today, and more importantly, lacking in my own life. My “quiet time” or time alone doesn’t always mean I’m listening. I’ve found that listening only works when we’re silent.
Richard Foster’s “Streams of Living Water” really helped me understand how activism and contemplation (as well as several other emphases in Christian practice) need one another. Highly recommend it.
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Hey Ed, it’s been a while and when I saw a link to this post on FB I had to read it.
It is spot.on.
I feel, within me the anxiety, fear, and anger you describe. I hear it in others voices and questions.
My One Word for this year is simplify and I am find that it is hard to simplify because in simplifying so many props have to be knocked out and the anxiety level goes way high. But it is one of the things that we need to practice as we sit quietly in the room.
I remember that I would pass a Quaker meeting house once in awhile during my undergrad days and when the weather was warm they would have the windows open and the silence drove me nuts as I walked passed!
Maybe we need to start a weekly worship service where we sit in the room together and in silence!
Ya never know what might happen…
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Reblogged this on insofewwordsblog and commented:
Extremely Powerful Read
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Ed, this is so timely. My one word this year is abide. I have the book given to me when I first became a follower of Jesus, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ by Madame Guyon. It was also known by the title Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer. I’ve read it before, but didn’t understand it.
Your article compelled me to pull out this book again for she talks and describes contemplative prayer and the life of the believer hidden in Christ. The just being and love in His presence, and it in turns becomes love lived out. God’s desire to reveal Himself to us. From just skimming the book just now and your article, I have this desire for the Presence of God and simplicity of the contemplative prayer. I’ve been in the place you’ve described, and I can’t go back to the turmoil.
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Well said, Ed. Raised Catholic I know about contemplative prayer. Having spent years in the Baptist Church I learned to love Scripture…and then I returned to the Catholic Church. There are many in the CC who are like me: we love Scripture and also love the time of quiet prayer that is such a tradition in our church. You sound like you’re at a good place now. One that will be with you throughout your life.
God bless and may He continue to guide you…
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Beautiful Ed..so rich..contemplative practice at its best is like perhaps returning to the womb. I also meditate on scripture..taking captive every thought to Christ..I wrote on this subject in my blog last week. Yet, I am so encouraged by your own journey.
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“We desperately need silence. We need to learn what it means to abide. We need to learn what it feels like to finally be still before God for a long time.” I know how much I need this and I still don’t do it as much as I should. The time spent alone with God not only strengthens my faith, but it enables me to reach out to others with love rather than judgment. Thank you for this timely article, Ed. Blessings to you and your family, May God grant a smooth transition as you move to a new place.
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