On Sound Bites and Silence

November 2018 Feature

During the mid-autumn festival, my sister-in-law received a box of mooncakes from a property developer who was constructing a sky-scrapper office building right beside her apartment complex. Instead of going over the moon with the gift, she filed a complaint to the developer for noise pollution. The reason: work on the project has been going on into the wee hours of the morning almost daily, bringing with it an incessant humdrum of construction activity and noise pollution.

The problem of noise pollution has, in fact, become a major global concern. A report by the World Economic Forum in March, 2017, lists cities with the worst noise pollution. Among them are Guangzhou, Delhi, Cairo, Mumbai, Istanbul and Beijing. The problem is so bad in these cities that it is affecting their hearing. Singapore received a Worldwide Hearing Index rating of 1.08, putting us in the middle of the scale of fifty cities tested for noise pollution.

While you may not have to deal with a construction project right beside your home, the probability that you are regularly confronted with excessive noise of one form or another is quite high. It can be noise from the traffic, road works, your own television set and radio or, if you live near an airbase, the sound of military fighter jets booming over your home. Whatever the source, it is not too far-fetched to say that we are daily inundated by noise.

Unfortunately, some have gotten so used to living with noise that they seem not to be able to live without it! The common sight of people walking with headphones or earpieces is testimony to it. Yet, being constantly exposed to noise has dire consequences. A brochure by the National Addictions Management Service in Singapore lists noise as a major contributor to stress-related illnesses such as anxiety and insomnia. Prolonged exposure to noise is detrimental to our health. Over time, we lose the ability to hear not only sound but also our own thoughts and emotions. We lose touch with ourselves.

Sadly, many do not know how to be quiet despite knowing the benefits of silence. They dare not retreat into it, for sheer silence seem deafening to them. Yet, the practice of silence is not only good for our physical, emotional and mental health, it is especially important to our relationship with God.

I wish to highlight some benefits that the practice of silence brings to our relationship with God–and with others.

The Greek word for silence we wish to consider is hésychia. It describes that God-produced calm which includes an inner tranquillity that supports appropriate action (J. Thayer). We notice two aspects here. First, the calm that comes through the practice of silence is produced by God. It is an inner tranquillity. In other words, it is a peace that is much deeper than just the absence of noise. It is the inner assurance of God’s control over the chaos of life which sets us at peace–that which the psalmist echoes in Psalm 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God.”

This understanding of silence is primarily God-focused. Going into silence, we learn to wait, to watch and to listen to God. As such, the practice of silence revolves around the Word and the works of God. The Word, as we find it in Scripture, both precedes and follows our practice of silence. We enter into silence aware that we come before God (Hab. 2:20). We read the Word and ponder over it; we sit quietly to listen to it as to God (Ps 119: 15-16).

As we do, the Word of God searches our minds and hearts. Through the Holy Spirit, God works to clarify our thoughts and align them with his. We become more aware of our anxieties. We ask God to address them and remind us of his promises. We also begin to be more aware of our heart’s desires and motivations. We ask God to purify and guide them, to align them with his purposes. In silence, God begins to deliver us from the harassment of our anxious thoughts and devious hearts and guides us into life in Jesus Christ.

As theologian Gordon Smith affirms, “It is in the silence that we meet and hear Christ and attend to the inner witness of his Spirit through the Word of God–not only the inscripturated Word in the Bible, but also the specific Word of God speaking into the particular circumstances of our lives.”

This brings us to the second aspect of Thayer’s definition: the appropriate action that stems from inner tranquillity. Silence is not the same as passivity; rather, it is the depth from which arises an appropriate word or action. We become less reactive to external stimuli but more able to respond from an inner solitude forged by God. We are more alert to what God is doing—and wants us to do. God purifies our minds and hearts and enables us to relate better to others. This is a fruit of silence.

As the desert fathers say, silence is both the first duty of life and the first duty of love. As the first duty of love, it is the first requirement for survival within community. In other words, silence reaps not only the fruit of greater ability to hear God–and ourselves—it also enables us to better hear and respond to others.

The desert father, Abba Poemen said, “Someone may seem to be silent, but if in the heart one is condemning others, then one is babbling ceaselessly. And there may be another who talks from morning till evening, and yet in the heart that person is truly silent. That person says nothing that is not profitable.”

The practice of silence is sorely needed in a world polluted by noise. It not only rescues us from the destructiveness of excessive noise but releases us into the serenity of life in God. It helps us not only to hear and follow God but also to hear and love our neighbour.



Rev Dr Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.