Let me say from the beginning that I believe silence is important. I believe solitude is important. Both are important parts of a healthy spiritual walk. I also believe in the importance of meditation, albiet meditation in a Puritan sense rather than an Eastern sense of the word. While these are good and necessary parts of a healthy spirituality, they are also dangerous if misused, and particularly dangerous if used in ways not only unsupported, but forbidden by Scripture.
In Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Ruth Haley Barton seeks to lead the reader to prayer beyond words. “Much of our faith and practice is about words – preaching, teaching, talking with others. Yet all of these words are not enough to take us into the real presence of God where we can hear his voice. This book is an invitation to you to meet God deeply and fully outside the demands and noise of daily life” (from the back cover). This objection to vocalizing prayer is an undercurrent running throughout the book.
The reader will doubtless not be surprised to learn that the primary Bible passage used to support Barton’s theology of silent prayer is 1 Kings 19, where Elijah hears God’s still small voice or a small sound or thin silence or a low whisper, depending on the translation. From this single passage, Barton draws out a complex theology of silent prayer wherein we will only fully experience God if we engage in this practice.
According to Barton there are two primary reasons to enter into the silence. The first is to commune with God. She indicates that while words are useful, we sometimes use them too often and we can use them to express everything but matters of the heart. She encourages the reader to distinguish between heart and mind and to reduce the number of words in prayer while focusing instead on just being in prayer. The second reason to engage in silent prayer is to listen to God and receive guidance from Him.
When discussing guidance Barton writes, “The fact that we can’t see God makes it easy to slip into a pattern of doing all the talking ourselves. Is it too much to expect that God might speak back to us, not only with expressions of love but with guidance that is trustworthy and wise? Is it grandiose to believe God might actually interact with me in such a person and timely way? And if I do hear something, how do I know it is God’s voice and not just my own thoughts masquerading as something more spiritual?” (page 118). The answer, of course, is that we do expect God to speak to us and to do so in a deeply personal way. Yet Scripture does not tell us that we should expect the type of personal revelation this book advocates. God speaks to use as the Holy Spirit applies Scripture to our hearts. This may be unsatisfying for people who desire to experience God in their way, in their time and on their terms, but this is what the Bible clearly teaches.
There is great danger in allowing supposed personal communication from God to become normative. For example, Barton tells about God calling her to vocational, ordained ministry through her times of silence. Yet the Bible teaches with utmost clarity that women are never called to this type of ministry. She allows her personal experience to supercede the clear teaching of Scripture.
While the book focuses primarily on a theology of silent prayer, each chapter concludes with a “Practice” section in which Barton practically applies what has been taught. Early in the book she suggests finding a sacred space and perhaps an icon or object to help focus on God. Here is an excerpt from a later chapter. “Take a few moments to allow your body to settle into a comfortable yet alert position. Take several deep breaths as a way of entering into the silence and making yourself present to the One who is always present with you…In your time of listening today, ask God to bring to your heart a moment in the last couple of days where you were most grateful…Is there any way God may be guiding you to choose more of what gives you life?”
I was disappointed to see that Barton did not discuss the potential dangers of silent prayer. After all, this type of prayer is practiced in most of the world’s religions. Many Christians believe, and with some justification I think, that entering the silence is the same for Christians as it is for Hindus or Muslims or adherents to any other system of religion. Surely it would be due diligence for Barton to warn that people may encounter forces other than God while in the silence.
It should come as no surprise that I do not recommend this book for any reason. The teaching Scripturally indefensible and potentially very dangerous. The author would have us believe that we can only truly commune with God and receive His clearest guidance if we engage in this practice. Yet she is unable to prove this with Scripture and so we must toss this teaching on the ever-growing heap of unbiblical nonsense masquerading as Christian theology. If you want to learn to pray, turn instead to Bryan Chapell’s Praying Backwards.