A Quiet Soul in a Cacophonous World

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
– Psalm 131

We live in a cacophonous world. I’m in a café right now; the overhead speakers are pumping easy-listening rock so loud it drowns out the conversations around me. And this isn’t New York or Chicago: I’m in a quarter-filled Paradise Bakery in an almost-suburban part of Indianapolis. I actually have to play music at ear-watering volume to create a “quiet” bubble in which I can think to write. Invasive noise is the norm in public life.

And it’s not just a public issue, either. I don’t even have a smartphone, but I find myself checking my cell more often than I’d like. I regularly have bouts of what I call hyperlink-brain, where my thoughts jump around like someone scanning a Wikipedia page. Even without outer cacophony, I still have inner.

It’s so easy for my outer and inner worlds alike to be busy, noisy, restless. Speakers, screens, and smartphones contribute to the mess. I think this is part of why Eastern spiritual practices like meditation and mindfulness are growing more popular in the West. We know our outer and worlds are noisy, and we hunger for a quiet soul.

That’s part of what drew me to the psalm above. I initially noted it in my Bible, a few years ago, because it was so short. Three verses! I read it out of curiosity.

But man, the content hooked me.

Verse two is the core condition: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”

It sounds like a Langston Hughes line.

That calm and quiet soul – a soul as patient, attentive, and trusting as a child who trusts her mother – is an oasis of an idea. (N.B. – weaning in the Ancient Near East happened around age 3-5 – that’s the child age in mind). It describes a state of inner peace founded 1) on an absolute trust in God and 2) the discipline of attentiveness. The quiet soul is in a state of relational peace. It has the clarity of rest, and in that clarity it can see God and see hope.

This kind of quiet isn’t the only optimal condition of the soul in Scripture – more psalms are “noisy” than quiet, and I think that tells us something – but it’s a condition, and I think it will be one of the chief atmospheres of heaven. Hear Augustine: “There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.” And it’s fascinating to me that, in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis makes “noise” an atmospheric characteristic of hell, while heaven is marked by “music and silence.”

The silence of isolation – relational or existential – is hell. But the silence of peace and faith, the silence of shalom, is heavenly.

So how do we cultivate a quiet soul? Here are a few suggestions, from this text and others.

  1. Carve out quiet space in your day.

Soul-quiet can weather a cacophonous world; but I think we need times of quiet to “charge” it, so to speak. If possible, make part of your day soundless, screenless, and interruptionless. If your world has no quiet, use headphones to make an atmosphere of white noise. But set aside some period of time specifically for outer and inner quietness.

  1. Cultivate “listening” to God through Scripture meditation and prayer.

Eastern meditation consists of emptying the mind; that is not Christian meditation. Christianity teaches that silence alone does not bring peace. A lonely child is not a peaceful child. Peace comes through the presence of God: it comes when we can sit with him and savor him quietly.

Christian meditation is not emptying the mind, but filling it with thoughts about God. It’s ruminating on God’s Word and God’s nature like a cow chewing its cud. Like a child when it sees its mother close, seeing God up-close grows peace in our hearts.

  1. Live into gospel-humility.

Verse 1 of this psalm describes conditions of pride and self-obsession: “lifted-up” eyes and occupied thoughts describe coming into God’s presence determined to set the agenda. God is certainly okay with us doing that; but that shouldn’t be the only tenor with which we always come before God. A prideful soul, a preoccupied soul, cannot be a quiet soul.

And, as this Tim Keller sermon has taught me time and time again (it’s one of my all-time favorites), the ego that is not filled with Jesus Christ is a perpetually unquiet ego. Accomplishments, praise, pleasure “puff up” (1 Corinthians 4:6) our egos for a time; but they’re not permanent, and we deflate again quickly. The ego apart from Christ is restless, always unquiet, because we were made for the infinite peace of God alone. Everything else is seawater.

Verse 3 – “O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore” – is both the fruit of a quiet soul and the ultimate key to it. We were made for Yahweh; only in his presence can we find true soul-quiet. And because of our innate sinfulness, we cannot earn Yahweh’s love by any means. He had to earn it for us through the perfect life, atoning death, and sealing resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son. In him alone, as he told the world in Matthew 11:28, do we find rest.

So may you find rest for your soul in Christ. Anyone interested in Psalm 131 should read this Spurgeon sermon on it.

All glory to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

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