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The Freeing Power of Silent Prayer

Being still before God makes us whole and sets us free.


A young man goes through a very painful breakup with his girlfriend. He genuinely wants to honor God and live a life of integrity, but he finds himself turning to pornography as a way to numb the pain of his broken heart. A woman experiences a great deal of stress because of a conflict she has with a colleague at work. When she gets home from work, she finds herself drinking to—as she says—"take the edge off her stress."

According to the psychologist Dr. Anne Wilson-Schaef, 98 percent of us are addicted to something that helps us cope with life—but you know, I've never met anyone in the other two percent. Dr. Gerald May, the respected psychiatrist and spiritual director, contends in his classic book Addiction and Grace that 100 percent of us are addicted to something. Most of us, of course, don't see ourselves as "addicts," but Dr. May points out that the word "addiction" comes from the old French word attaché, which refers to a junior member of the government who gets attached to an ambassador or some high-ranking official. We get addicted, or attachéd, to something that helps us numb our pain or lessen the boredom or meaninglessness of our lives.

We might fill our emptiness with food, or we might veg in front of the TV, or we might engage in feats of physical endurance or professional achievement that distract us from our inner turmoil. Sometimes we can be addicted to things that aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves. They may even be good—like coffee, exercise, or work. But if we cannot say "no" to something, then we are its attaché: we are in its service, we lose our freedom, and the thing that we are addicted to disrupts (and perhaps even displaces) God as the center of our lives. The Bible has a singular word for this: idolatry.

A man known to history simply as Bill W. experienced alcohol taking everything that really mattered to him: his work, reputation, relationships, family, and his freedom, in more ways than one. His alcoholism landed him in jail. He hit rock bottom and helped form what we know today as Alcoholics Anonymous, with its famous 12-step program that has become a model for addiction treatment around the world. Bill W. admitted that he was ultimately powerless to manage his life (step one), and he came to believe that only a power greater than himself could restore his sanity (step two). He entrusted his life into the care of God (step three) and experienced a profound spiritual awakening. He began to follow Jesus and got involved in a small fellowship of Christians called the Oxford Group, which was diligently studying the wisdom of Jesus. As a result of Bill W. studying the practices of Jesus with this group, he formulated the 12-step program and Alcoholics Anonymous—and found freedom. Today we will look at step 11 in those 12 steps: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God."

One of the ways we entrust our lives to the care of God—and experience freedom from what we are addicted to or over-attached to—is by improving our conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation. Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matt. 7:7). There can be times when we pray and experience an instant, miraculous deliverance from some kind of addiction or character defect. With God this is entirely possible, but a miracle, by definition, is an unusual and rare occurrence.

Step 11 of the program suggests that the call to prayer is a process where we seek to cultivate our conscious contact with God through both prayer (traditionally understood as speaking to God) and meditation, where the emphasis is on quietly savouring God's presence. In a traditional form of prayer, we are actively involved in verbally expressing ourselves to God, but in meditation or silent prayer, we take a more receptive posture.

The text I want us to turn to today is a simple but powerful one from Psalm 46:10, where the psalmist simply prays: "Be still, and know that I am God." In this message, I want to explore how sitting silently in the presence of God, as useless as that may seem on the surface, can actually help set us free from the things we are addicted to or over-attached to.

Be still

As we look at what is often referred to as the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that God sometimes brings his people into a place of freedom by calling them to engage in battle with their enemies. However, there are other times in the Scriptures where we see God calling his people to simply "be still" and wait for the Lord to deliver them: "The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still" (Ex. 14:14).

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat of Judah received a disturbing intelligence report, telling him a huge force was on its way from beyond the Dead Sea to attack him and his people. Shaken, King Jehoshaphat prayed—and he called on his people to fast and seek God in prayer. Jehoshaphat cried out to God, "Lord, the God of our ancestors, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you… . we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you" (2 Chron. 20:6, 12).

God said, "This is my battle, not yours." He was, in effect, saying, "Be still and know that I am God." King Jehoshaphat was so confident that this was God's battle that instead of deploying the army's special forces to the front lines, he sent the choir! This is obviously not a strategy coming out of the Royal Road Military College or West Point. Moreover, King Jehoshaphat was not instructing the choir members to hurl a spear or fire an arrow, but instead to sing: "Give thanks to the LORD, / for his steadfast love endures forever" (2 Chron. 20:21). Through supernatural intervention, God caused the people's enemies to become so confused that they attacked each other, and God's people were delivered.

In the Old Testament, there are times when God wants to lead his people to a place of freedom, and he leads them to actively engage in battle with their enemies. There are other times, however, when he simply calls them to be still and to watch his hand deliver them. Similarly, in our personal lives, there are times when we are called to wage a frontal attack on the "enemies within"—the darkness inside us—but there are other times when we are called to simply be still before the Lord and watch him deliver us and restore our souls.

As we read in the much-beloved Psalm 23, there are times when God simply calls us, literally or figuratively, to lie down in green pastures and beside quiet waters to restore our souls. As we are freed from the anxiety and pain of our hearts, we are less likely to turn to darker addictions for comfort because our heart has found peace in God.

Sometimes "being still" before God doesn't mean being literally still. Sometimes it means moving. John Cassian, the great spiritual father of the fifth century, instructed the monks under his care to weave baskets, pray, and meditate, because he understood that sometimes a little physical movement can foster a greater stillness of mind. Depending on our "wiring" and temperament, some of us find that if we're simply sitting still and trying to focus on one thing, we are easily distracted by random thoughts that come crashing into our mind. For many of us, a little bit of mental activity helps to still our mind: taking a drive down a long stretch of road where there aren't many traffic lights or too many cars requires us to pay a little attention to the road, and as a result, we can better process something that is on our mind. For some of us, an activity that requires just a little bit of mental activity, like walking (or running), can help to still our minds.

Martin Laird, in his beautiful book on contemplation titled Into the Silent Land, describes a woman who harbored deep pain from her childhood. One day, when she was a young girl sitting in her bedroom and looking at herself in the mirror, her mother walked into her room and exclaimed, "I hope you don't think you're beautiful." She was, in fact, beautiful in every season of her life—as a young girl, an adolescent, a young adult, a mature woman. She was beautiful, but she believed she was ugly. When she was a teenager, she won a prestigious scholarship to study ballet, but her mother said, "Why would they give you that? Everybody knows you've got two left feet." Although she became a celebrated dancer who performed to thunderous applause around the world, she believed she was an ugly klutz with two left feet.

Eventually she found solace. While living in England, she would take long walks across the Yorkshire moors. If she walked long enough, her mind began to settle. The expanse of scented heather was balm that soothed her throbbing anger, fear, and pain. She described how, on one occasion, her anxiety began to drop like layers of scarves. She was suddenly aware of being immersed in a holy, loving presence that upheld her in everything. While this experience out on the moors happened only once, it proved to be a poignant turning point in her life, drawing her more deeply into the way of prayer.

St. Augustine had a phrase, solvitur ambulando: "it is solved by walking." The ballet dancer began to understand something of the truth of solvitur ambulando. For some, walking is a way of "being still before the Lord." For others, being still before the Lord means literally being still and sitting in God's presence.

Meditate on God's presence

At some point in the morning, before breakfast, I'll simply take some time to sit and to meditate quietly in God's presence. I will take time to breathe deeply. I'll often light a candle to symbolize the light of Christ's presence, as a way to remind me that he is present. I have a chime that I've used to remind me I am being summoned to attend to God. Often I'll set it for 20 minutes, but sometimes I'll set it for just 10 or 15 minutes.

I am so easily distracted that not long after taking a couple of deep breaths, I usually start to think of all the things I ought to be doing. To help still my mind—like weaving a basket was for Cassian's monks, or driving is for some people today—I find it helpful to focus on a brief portion of Scripture, like the phrase from the psalm we've referred to. I'll take a deep breath in—"be still." I'll breathe out—"and know that I am God." Deep breath in, "be still." Breathe out, "and know that God is God." Sometimes I will simply use a single word from Scripture, like "wait" from Isaiah 40, to remind me to wait on God. "Wait"—I'll take a deep breath in and out. "Wait"—deep breath in and out.

As I sit quietly in God's presence and relax, sometimes an anxiety surfaces in my heart, or some disappointment, resentment, or anger. I lift these up to God in prayer, and I'll feel purged. Yes, they come back, and I offer them up to God again and experience freedom. At other times, like the ballet dancer, I'll just sense I am enveloped in the mysterious, holy, loving presence of God.

I compare meditation to sailing. I love being on the water. There have been times when I've been sailing and I see garbage floating on the surface of the ocean: plastic bags, a Coke can, or wooden debris. Yet there have been other times when I have seen salmon jumping out of the water at 45° angles, and across the years, I've sighted countless seals, pods of dolphins, and even a few whales.

When we are meditating, sometimes garbage surfaces on the sea of our life, so to speak. Anxiety or fear will rise in our heart, or we become conscious of a wound or feel anger. We can offer these up to God and experience his purging and cleaning. In time, they will return, and we can offer them up to God again, and we can again experience freedom. But as we are meditating, we may also quietly feel surrounded by the presence of a holy, loving, mysterious presence that upholds us.

If you are like me, you will usually not experience anything particularly dramatic while you meditate. For most people, there is a kind of "ordinariness" to this time, but I find the best way to begin the day is to simply be still and be reminded that God is God and I am not, and that God is with me.

A divine archaeologist

I realize I'm speaking abstractly, so let me try to offer a more visual illustration about how meditation helps to foster our well-being. Imagine you are an archaeology student who joins a team somewhere in the Middle East on an excavation dig. You're walking on a plain and you come across a hill-like formation called a tell.

In ancient times, when a city-state would defeat their enemies, the military would burn the city down and build their own town on top of the old one. When they in turn would be defeated, their conquerors would build a new city on top of the previous one. As a result, we find one civilization built on another in the same place.

When archaeologists are working on one of these sites, their first job is to clean off the top and get rid of the rocks and weeds and unearth the civilization that once thrived there. They then send the pottery, mosaics, and tools to a museum. Then they come back and dig up the next city-state. This process of digging down level by level through the various civilizations can take many years, as they make their way all the way down to the Stone Age.

Fr. Thomas Keating, in his book Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer, says the Holy Spirit is a divine archaeologist who works in a similar way. The Spirit usually starts where we are now, whatever our age. The first thing the Holy Spirit typically does is to help heal the most destructive aspects of our addictive behaviors and current relationships. But the Spirit works through our lives and goes deeper and deeper, not necessarily following an exact chronology layer by layer, but—over time—will often work toward the bedrock of our earliest emotional life: where we first experienced rejection or some kind of trauma, or when we felt insecurity and fear. This process can be painful, but as the Holy Spirit excavates something in our lives, and we offer our anxiety and pain to God, we experience healing, cleansing, and greater wholeness, and we find less obstructing our relationships with God and other people.

Maya, a young woman from our church community, was baptized not long ago in an ocean baptism. Just before she was immersed in the chilly waters of the Pacific, she shared part of her spiritual pilgrimage. She described how she had grown up in a home with much brokenness and pain. She had experienced verbal and emotional abuse, even physical violence. Her parents separated, got back together, separated, got back together, separated, and so on. Growing up, her family moved a lot: 16 times, which meant 16 different schools for her.

As a young person, Maya said she tried to numb the pain she was feeling through spending reckless amounts of money on things. She said there were days when she would spend $50 at Starbucks. She said,

I tried astrology, numerology, Buddhism—but these didn't bring me the peace I was seeking… . One day, I opened a Bible at home [she had received one from the Gideon's at school] that had been sitting collecting dust and began to read. I sensed the whisper of heaven: "Do not be afraid; look to Jesus, and he will carry you through all things." I was overcome with a feeling of peace, love, and safety. I learned that my sins separated me from Jesus. So earlier this year, I repented and gave my life to him. The strongholds of feeling stupid and worthless, fear and guilt, shame and confusion, depression and loss in my life are melting away by powerful encounters with Jesus' love that are transforming me into his unique creation.

As Maya sits silently in God's presence, she senses God's affirmation of her, and this is helping to heal the wounds she experienced in her childhood and is making her whole.

Augustine once prayed, "Ancient Beauty, ever new, you were within me, but I was living outside of myself." As we know from experience, there is so much pressure coming from outside of us that we can easily start to live outside of ourselves and neglect our interior life. There is something about sitting—or walking, or even running—silently in God's presence that helps us to recognize that ancient beauty, ever new, that is within us, and helps us to the living God who lives within us. As we become more aware of the beauty of God's presence in our lives, we are made whole.


In Greek mythology, the Sirens were gorgeous but dangerous creatures who lived on rocky islands. They were part bird, part human. I've also seen them depicted in art as mermaids: from the waist down as fish, from the waist up as strikingly beautiful women. The Sirens sang mesmerizingly beautiful songs that would lure passing sailors to their deaths. As they sang, sailors couldn't help but fling themselves over the sides of the ship and swim toward the enchanting voices, but they would soon find themselves impaled, dying on the jagged rocks on the edges of the islands.

When Odysseus was preparing to sail past the islands of the Sirens, he decided he wanted to hear the Sirens sing, so he had his crew tie him to the mast of the ship, and he instructed them to fill their own ears with wax. When the Sirens sang, Odysseus went mad with desire, but as he was bound and his crew was deaf, they sailed passed safely.

When Jason and the Argonauts were about to pass the home of the Sirens, Jason took along Orpheus, the supremely gifted musician. They say that when Orpheus played his harp, his music made the rocks dance. When they approached the Sirens, Orpheus played sublime, heavenly music on his harp, and the Sirens began to sing. Orpheus's music was even more beautiful than the Sirens' song, however, and Jason and his crew sailed past unscathed.

When we are still in the presence of God and hear the more beautiful music of Jesus Christ play in our souls, there's something inside us that lifts and straightens. We are made more whole and less likely to turn to darker addictive behaviours that may bring temporary pleasure, or even to seemingly more noble voices that call us to swim with all our might to achieve success at work: only to find ourselves one day spiritually impaled on the jagged rocks.

Some years ago, I was speaking at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college just outside Chicago. One afternoon, I was meeting with the faculty who taught in the area of spiritual formation. One of the professors shared that he and his wife had long wanted to try the grass-fed and hormone-free steaks an upscale butcher shop in their neighborhood offered, but they imagined the meat was beyond their budget. They tended to buy their meat at Jewel-Osco, a grocery store chain. When his wife was pregnant, she had a strong craving to eat some good meat, so the professor went to the butcher and splurged on a good steak. He cooked it, and as they were eating it over dinner, they looked at each other at the same time and said, "We can never go back to those cheap Jewel-Osco steaks."

Something happens when we "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8) and find ourselves "delight[ing] in the richest of fare" (Isa. 55:2). Something happens when the more beautiful music of Jesus Christ rings in our souls. We become more conscious of God; we become whole, unlike the young man who turned to pornography to numb the pain of his heartbreak or the woman who turned to alcohol to wash away the stress of her toxic work environment. When we taste and see that the Lord is good and delight in the more beautiful, sublime music of Jesus Christ, we are less likely to be lured by some lesser love that ends up destroying us.

As we are still before the living God, our soul is made whole and our heart is set free. Are you being invited to spend some time still before the Lord at the beginning of the day or in the evening? It might begin with just 10 or 15 minutes. As you relax, anxiety or fear may surface in your heart, but you can offer these up to God and experience purging and healing. You may also sense that you are surrounded by the mystery of a holy and infinite love that upholds you. As you spend time savoring God's presence, may you know the love of God the Father, the grace of God the Son, and the redeeming work of the divine archaeologist, the Holy Spirit.

Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything

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Sermon Outline:


I. Be still

II. Meditate on God's presence

III. A divine archaeologist