“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” – J.V.W. Goethe
Some stillness is in order. And not just a moment of it, either.
This week has been noisy. I don’t mean it’s been loud, per se, but it hasn’t exactly been quiet either. A distinct lack of stillness would be the best description, I suppose. Chaos is inevitable, and it has a tendency to bleed over the lines of “real life” and into the mind. Or perhaps it bleeds in the other direction, our own internal chaos performing the Tasmanian Devil routine on everything that’s right in front of us.
Either way, I see myself trying to keep a step ahead of the chaos, treating busy-ness as my safeguard from catastrophe. But being a step ahead just means that the chaos is only a single step behind, and no amount of busy-ing will give the momentum to outpace it completely. The “busy” just gives me an immediate distraction to take my mind off the looming chaotic doom.
Such a distraction can be comforting, so getting distractingly busy can be appealing. But the truth is that it’s just a counter-productive rut that becomes harder and harder to get out of. It’s like flooring the gas pedal while your wheels are spinning in the mud. All horsepower and no traction gets us exactly nowhere.
This busybody method doesn’t have to manifest itself only as incessantly finding things to do. For me especially, it’s more often the state of my brain than anything else. I might not be doing anything, but I’m trying to think about everything. Burying myself in preoccupation and abstraction serves the same purpose as juggling fifteen mindless tasks at once: distraction.
Excuse my logophilia for just a second, but isn’t it fascinating how we rarely relate “traction“ to “distraction” – “traction” is related to tires, “distraction” to our mental attentions – and yet the two are obviously two different forms of the same word? “Traction” is “the grip necessary for the motion of a body on a surface”, “distraction” could quite literally be interpreted as “the absence of the grip necessary for the motion of a body on a surface.” So when we’re distracted, you could argue that we’re just spinning the wheels of our minds to no avail. But I digress.
The answer to all this hubbub is stillness. A properly focused stillness, that is.
“Be still, and know that I am God…” – Psalm 46:10
Stop the car. Cool the engines. Quit moving.
The Hebrew word is rapah, meaning “to hang limp, sink down, be feeble.” Just sink down into stillness and sit there for a while.
Now I don’t know how much experience with stillness you’ve had, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. If you aren’t used to it, it’s hard not to get anxious with this jarring lack of occupation. After about thirty seconds or so, there’s an urge to reach for your phone, or a book, or the remote, or even (if you’re tired) to attempt to nap. The longer you’re still the worse it gets: Doggone it, I need something to do! It can be downright unnerving. And even if you can manage to keep your body still for an extended amount of time, keeping your mind still is a whole other ballgame.
So maybe that chattering chaos that was nipping at your heels will catch up to you. Fine. Let it wash over you as if you were sitting in shallow surf. The stillness is only the first half of the equation, anyway.
What does it mean when it says “know that I am God?” At first glance, you would think it’s a passive knowing, like when somebody says “know this…” and then proceeds to tell you some knowable thing that you’re just supposed to hang on to. After all, it says “be still”, right?
First of all, note the comma. “Be still, and know…” is not the same as “Be still and know…” The comma creates a pause and a separation, indicating the “being still” comes first, and isn’t necessarily simultaneous with the “knowing.” So do that first, and let that gorgeous comma hang there for a while. I, for one, could use more comma in my life. There’s no prescribed length that you’re supposed to adhere to stillness, just that you’re to be.
Secondly, the “know” in Hebrew is da’ah, and it specifically means “to seek”. Not just to passively acknowledge, but to actively try to find and understand. So after you’ve stopped moving, after you’ve watched everything go rushing past while you remained stationary, after you released or pushed out all the chittering thoughts in your head, after the silence has blossomed around you, now the seeking begins. The mountain-rending wind and the earthquake and the fire have all passed. Now listen for the still, small voice.
That’s really the essence of the whole thing, isn’t it? Listening. How do you seek to understand something? First you ask, then you listen. But more often than not we’re like the people in the old song: a people talking without speaking, a people hearing without listening. We run around in our silly circles, jabbering on about much that isn’t all that important in the penetrating light of eternity. We miss all that is really important.
So let’s not be so quick to leap into our busy, noisy rut and hopelessly spin our wheels. And if we find ourselves in just such a rut, we know what God says to do to regain traction.
We know some stillness is in order.