Stillness: Waiting for God
What does stillness entail? What do the Scriptures mean when they say we must "wait upon the Lord"? Last month I wrote about one's monastic cell (figuratively, for most of us) teaching him everything, and that there is peace in acceptance and strength in stability (that is, of not constantly looking elsewhere).
This month I want to examine another side of the issue—stillness does not mean inactivity. Waiting on the Lord is steadfastness, not laziness. There is no peace in sitting around while there is work to be done. God is not our servant, we are his. He will not write our lives (dare I say, cannot), but wills that we take up our pens and write them ourselves. So if we dream of doing something to which we also feel God has called us, we cannot simply dream—we must also act. As Henry David Thoreau says, "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." If we never act, never put in those foundations, then we will come to the end of our lives with only dreams in our hands and wonder why God never gave us the desires he put in our hearts. He will answer by asking us why we did not eat what he set before us. God will not bottle feed us forever. We must pick up our forks and knives.
Now, at the same time, we must not aspire to be somebody great; we must be free of selfish ambition (Phil 2:3; 1 Thes 4:11), serving Christ and serving him with others. But aspiring to live quietly does not mean that we do not work, that we do not do what God has created us for (at least in some sense). People generally want to be somebody, something great—to make a difference. We want acceptance, respect, and esteem. It's natural. But I'm not sure how that desire got into us. Certainly God can redeem it, but it seems to me that at its heart it is proud and frightened and selfish. But, God uses it. Jesus says, "The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted" (Matthew 23:11-12). Don't misread what is written here. He is not giving us a path to greatness, but showing us what greatness is. He is not saying, “Serve everyone and when you are in heaven you will be a prince among men,” but rather that service and humility are princely. He redefines us.
Furthermore, we must also remember that stillness—making it our ambition to live quiet lives—does not mean that we will not achieve worldly greatness. As the Scriptures say, "Do you see any truly competent workers? They will serve kings rather than working for ordinary people" (Prov 22:29). So perhaps my work brings me fame and wealth. What then is my responsibility? Isn't it that I use such success in a holy manner, in service of God and others rather than build bigger barns? Even so, it is more likely that my calling will never bring such success with it, but, as with most people, it is lived and worked out in anonymity, or relative anonymity. Then, with that anonymity, I serve God, in quietness and diligence and joy (Col 3:23). I am not seeking to be somebody, but seeking to be fully me. Whether I am successful, as the world sees success, is unimportant. But it remains important that I work.
This is true in our spiritual lives as well. Holiness is not dropped into our laps. It is not merely a judgment bestowed upon us in the light of Christ's work. There is synergy here—his energy and mine together. We must live holy lives, but this is possible only by his grace. God has not only done something for us, but he also does something in us. What he has done for us would be insufficient and incomplete if he did not also accomplish that work in us. We both are and become a new creation. In other words, the Holy Spirit does not commandeer our lives. He will not make us holy against our will. Now the Creator's participation in his creation (becoming man) forever changed creation. Athanasius says, "Christ, higher than the Cherubim, when you took our lowly nature you transformed our sinful world." God the Word became man, that man, by God's grace, might become divine so that we, in our human natures, might share in God's divine nature. But all of this is not as though we had no say in the matter.
Stillness is not doing nothing. Stillness is the state of the heart that dwells in the midst of the activity. We take our cells with us. And the stillness within our hearts become the stillness, God's peace and rest, in our activity. Benedict of Nursia says, "Pray and work." We must work the field if we are to expect a harvest. But we must do so always with thankfulness, never forgetting that the harvest is from the Lord.