A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
I was recently asked to write a short piece on “Silence.” My focus was on the Reformed heritage and I did this simply by looking at some comments from John Calvin. These do not exhaust what the Reformed tradition might have to say (!) about “silence.” But they give some orientation to how we might understand “silence.”
In mystical and contemplative traditions, silence can play an important role for prayer and meditation. How silence is understood relates especially to how that tradition or religion regards these topics.
It seems to me that for the Reformed, since prayer is “conversation with God” (according to Calvin), part of conversation is listening to the other person.  We say that prayer is both talking to God and listening to God. For listening to occur, silence should reign.
The book of Psalms is a rich source for learning about prayer and finding how the biblical writers experienced praying and listening. I turned to Psalm 62 for some insight. Psalm 62:1 reads: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”
Calvin’s basic attitude toward silence seems set by a comment he made on Zechariah 2:13. This verse reads: “Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” Calvin said:
By silence we are to understand, as elsewhere observed, submission. The ungodly are not indeed silent before God, so as willingly to obey his word, or reverently to receive what he may bid or command, or humbly to submit under his powerful hand; for these things are done only by the faithful. Silence, then, is what especially belongs to the elect and the faithful; for they willingly close their mouth to hear God speaking.
For Calvin, silence in general is for Christian believers to observe and through which we express our willingness to obey God’s word; or reverently receive what God may bid or command; or humbly to submit to God’s will. This can occur in many times or places. But silence conveys our attitude of readiness to listen to God, hear what God has to say to us, and then turn ourselves to living out God’s purposes.
In prayer, silence has a space in which to function. In conversation with God, we make our “wants and wishes known,” as the hymn has it (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”). But the space for silence is for us to listen. We listen to God with the attitudes Calvin commends. On Psalm 62:1, Calvin wrote of the Psalmist:
He expresses his resolution to be silent.* The word implies a meek and submissive endurance of the cross. It expresses the opposite of that heat of spirit which would put us into a posture of resistance to God. The silence intended is, in short, that composed submission of the believer, in the exercise of which he acquiesces in the promises of God, gives place to his word, bows to his sovereignty, and suppresses every inward murmur of dissatisfaction. [*The import of the Hebrew word is “patient silence.”]
Silence is submission. Instead of the rashness of action, we remain in silence to listen to God and acquiesce to what God has to say—expressed in God’s promises found in the Scriptures. In silent submission, we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in our lives and put down any dissatisfactions within us. We turn in all openness to God; hearing God’s word and committing ourselves to following what God has to say to us.
A few verses later, the Psalmist says: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Psalm 62:5). The psalmist acknowledged that from God comes our salvation (v. 1). Now he indicates our hope is in God. These acknowledgements are strong in the Reformed theological tradition. With our hope and salvation secure in God’s saving purposes, we give ourselves in submission to God’s purposes for us. We acknowledge God’s word and will, in silence. Calvin commented:
Here it is to be remembered, that our minds can never be expected to reach such perfect composure as shall preclude every inward feeling of disquietude, but are, at the best, as the sea before a light breeze, fluctuating sensibly, though not swollen into billows. It is not without a struggle that the saint can compose his mind; and we can very well understand how David should enjoin more perfect submission upon a spirit which was already submissive, urging upon himself farther advancement in this grace of silence, till he had mortified every carnal inclination, and thoroughly subjected himself to the will of God.
Here Calvin refers to the “grace of silence.” Silence is a gift to help us be in a spirit of submission to God’s word and will. In prayer, we tend to do most of the talking! We should “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We should practice the “grace of silence” to listen to God’s word and to indicate our openness and obedience to what God imparts to us.
We live with words. We often seem to be drowning in a sea of words. In prayer, we speak. But we also listen. In silence, we join with the Psalmist in recognizing that “for God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.”
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 3.20.4. For Calvin on prayer, see also, John Calvin, On Prayer: Conversation with God, Introduction by I. John Hesselink (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
 John Calvin, Commentary on Zechariah 2:13.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 62:1.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 62:5.