Trading Fire for Silence

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nicole t walters -trading fire for silence3

When I was a young evangelical who was new to faith and the church, I learned to speak about Jesus with passion. When we praised someone who was “on fire for God,” we were describing a person who was vocal about their faith, who talked about experiencing the presence of God, who served in big ways. These were those kids at youth camp who raised their hands or the ones who showed up for the small groups and service projects. We talked about their fire because we could see external evidence of something burning inside them.

So we all worked harder to show our faith. We wanted the feeling of being so consumed by something that it changed our lives. Duty and devotion were intertwined in the inner workings of our faith. If we loved Jesus, then everyone should know it. Our goal was to be sold-out, on fire, radical. Young and fearless, we prayed the prayer of Jim Elliot: “God, I pray light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for thee.” All passion and fury, we forged ahead…and some burned up but most burned out.

The nature of fire is that it constantly needs to be fed or it fizzles out. I equated faith with feelings and looked for mountaintop experiences with God to fill me. I understood the Lord’s presence as something to be felt or God must be absent. As we prayed “God, be with us in this place,” I learned to invite God into my worship as if He wasn’t already there and if I felt some stirring within my heart then I must be pleasing Him.

But when the music stopped and the lights went out, I didn’t know how to hear Jesus in the quiet of my own heart. When I heard no answer and felt no rousing emotions, I wondered—had my fire gone out?

I had a language for fervor but not for the doubt, or the dark night of the soul waiting on the other side of anxiety. I didn’t have a place for God in the brokenness or even in the mundane that made up the moments between being lit up. For years I struggled with feeling like I was just living among the dying embers of something I had lost a long time ago. I kept going through the motions of the truth I knew, hoping one day I would feel again.

Just like I can’t pinpoint a time when I entered the wilderness, I can’t remember emerging. I do remember the first time I felt God’s presence completely overwhelm me in a moment of silence. It was so foreign to me.

While I had been reading people like Richard Foster and Thomas Merton and praying with the Cistercian brothers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, the contemplative faith sounded like round and strange syllables of a new language stuck on my clumsy tongue. I couldn’t bring them into daily life.

I was at a writer’s retreat when author and contemplative Ed Cyzewski led us in a time of lectio divina (a slow reading and reflection on scripture) and twenty minutes of silent reflection. I felt awash in the presence of God and overcome in those moments of silence. I felt a spark I had not in a long time.

Weeks later while practicing silence alone at home, I felt nothing and heard nothing. I wanted to run from contemplative prayer because it failed to bring me an experience I craved…until it hit me. I was replacing one way of striving after a feeling for another. I remembered what Ed had saidmost times in silence you won’t hear anything, and that feeling isn’t the goal. Presence is. Faithfully showing up is.

God is there whether I talk to Him or listen to Him. He is there whether I acknowledge or feel His presence. “God has been waiting on us all along,” says Cyzewski in Flee, Be Silent, Pray, “But we are often too distracted, impatient, or fearful to meet with him. God’s love is here and constant, and there is nothing I can do or feel to change that reality.” I wanted a quick journey back to feeling connected to God but I got a long, abiding walk towards knowing Him.

As a passionate person who throws myself fully into anything I love, I have to fight running off on feelings. I have to force myself to sit in uncomfortable silence, to enter into prayer when I know I may not hear anything in return or feel some consuming fire stirring in my soul. I am trying to live not in the lexicon of consumption these days but in abiding. Remaining and staying connected day in and day out. Through the times when I feel connected to God and the times when I feel like a wandering, lost child. Through the times when blessings overflow and the times when I am fearful and anxious. Instead of burning up, I want to be poured out—a constant filling that is overflowing daily in the radical ordinary of life where God is present and I stop to take notice.

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Nicole T Walters
I love to experience and to write about this messy, noisy, beautiful world and cultures not my own. Though my family’s roots run deep in the soil of the Southern United States I, along with my husband and our two little ones, am learning to love hot milk tea instead of sweet iced tea as we make our home in South Asia. I hope to help others create space to hear God’s voice in all the noise of life as I write about faith from a global perspective at A Voice in the Noise {nicoleTwalters.com}. I have authored essays in several books and my writing has appeared in places live CT Women, Relevant, and Ruminate. I am a regular contributor at here at SheLove, The Mudroom, and READY Publication and am a member of the Redbud Writers Guild.
Nicole T Walters
Nicole T Walters

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Nicole T Walters
  • Tammy Chase Whitney

    Your words are so important to many who have or are experiencing the same thing. Especially in an evangelical context, people get nervous when you get quiet. God wasn’t in the wind, earthquake, or fire, it was the still small voice. Thank you for putting words to this experience.

    • Yes! The still voice. It’s so hard to hear in all the noise. Thank you!

  • These words are cautionary and true: ” I was replacing one way of striving after a feeling for another.” It’s actually kind of funny how we expect God to meet us on our terms. I’ve been plagued as well with the notion that I can “go back” into a former fiery experience.

    Thanks for following God into your new season of fire and light.

    • It’s such a fine balance, isn’t it? Mysticism is the experience of God and experience is so attached to feeling. But it is also something that exists no matter how we feel. I think it is something I will keep trying to understand all my life!

  • Bautiful, Nicole! Amen and amen. If you could peek into my journal from just yesterday.

    Love this: “I am trying to live not in the lexicon of consumption these days but in abiding.”

  • I love reading your story here Nicole, and the idea of being poured out is so refreshing and true. And Jesus did promise that streams of living water would flow from us, so it fits from that perspective. Thanks so much for the shout out to Flee, Be Silent, Pray. It was wonderful to have you there at the retreat.

    • I hope more and more pick up your book! It’s such a jewel. Thank you for leading the way for those of us who are looking for the still and quiet Voice.

  • Olivia Butz

    So, my one word for 2017 was kindle. 😉 As in, God, increase my love. I understand this not so much as being “on fire” and being “burnt out”, but as Audrey Assad puts it in her song “Slow” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL3SVK_uLHc), “Faith is not a fire so much as it’s a glow, a quiet, lovely burning underneath the snow.” I can so much relate to your youth group days, and for a long time, I resisted emotional engagement with God as a result of resisting emotional manipulation, but I have circled back around to, I hope, a healthy place of emotional connection with God.

    • I love this image of embers, of kindling. Yes, this is very different – sustainable, beautiful. I definitely still believe we can have these high emotional experiences and mountaintop moments. I just don’t want to live for them like I was so used to doing so that I miss out on moments with God in the mundane, too. I am so glad you have found a healthy place. And I love Audrey Assad. Beautiful, thank you!

  • This is absolutely beautiful and so deeply true. I love how you described not being able to remember exactly when you entered the wilderness and when you emerged. I have been in that space now for years and honestly I think I emerge in some areas to only go back in elsewhere in my life. It has been a complete revamp of what I knew for both faith and prayer. I find I am also much more at home now with attempting and learning contemplative practices. I actually am a recent catholic convert after leaving the churches of my childhood years and slowly finding a new place to join again. What I struggle with now so much though is how clumsy I feel in prayer and contemplation. It used to be that faith and prayer as you say, were all about the feelings and the obvious expressions. Now I just sit and so often feel nothing, and then remember it’s not about feeling something or accomplishing something. I don’t know, it’s all hard for me now, but practices of calm, silence, and presence are reorienting me slowly bit by bit from the ground up in a lasting way that the mountain top highs of spiritual performance never gave me.

    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing. Keep at it (I am preaching to myself). I know just what you mean. Sometimes I am faithful in contemplation. Sometimes I get so entrenched in the lack of feeling that I am used to and I give up all prayer altogether out of frustration. I heard Richard Rohr say recently that the first year of contemplative prayer is horrible, so much ego rising to the surface. That first year is pretty much riding yourself of it. Ick!