The world today is full of chaos, and nowhere moreso than in America. It doesn’t matter what position you come from; whether your political arch-nemesis is AOC or President Trump; whether your hot-button issue is climate change, abortion, immigration, corporate profits, or trigger warnings; whether you are white, black, purple, or green. People who completely disagree on every topic look at the same world and come away despairing. No one thinks we are headed in a good direction.
We respond to such chaos predictably, lashing out at one another in anger and fear. I am only in my early thirties, but we are certainly at the low point for public discourse in my lifetime. Over the last ten years I have slowly been convicted of the role I myself have played in this degradation, and ever so gradually tried to adjust my own actions.
While my progress has been painfully slow, recently I have found the Psalms especially helpful in highlighting where I have gone wrong. I have always tended to ask myself, “What should I be doing to help?” in any given crisis. Normally I have responded by taking a side and arguing for it, sometimes in blogs, sometimes in dialogue with others. There is certainly a place for this approach, and I’m sure I will do it again myself. But lately the Psalms have been teaching me that in many—perhaps most—cases, the question I should be asking myself is, “What should I not be doing?”
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
This line from Psalm 46 is so familiar to Christians that we spend little time reflecting on it. Many people read this verse as: “slow down and take care of yourself.” Everyone is too busy, raising kids, trying to make ends meet, cooking, cleaning, attempting to have some semblance of a social life—we all just need to calm down and be still. We need to recharge our batteries with God, in nature if possible, with our Bible and our journal artfully arranged on a rock by a river.
While it is true that we are in fact too busy, and we do need to slow down for our own sanity, that is not the heart of Psalm 46. We are so wrapped up in ourselves that we naturally read such a verse as a sort of self-help guide, when in reality it is much more challenging than that. Take a moment to read the Psalm before we consider it further.
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
It is easy to see when reading the whole Psalm that it only tangentially relates to the common interpretation. There are other passages in scripture that do speak to our need for stillness as a means for approaching God in personal devotion, but this is not one of them.
The key theme of Psalm 46 is actually that God is King over the world’s chaos, and at his command, the chaos will be stilled. Prior to our famous verse, the nations are raging, the earth is tottering, and the land is full of war and chaos. Then God speaks “Be still!” into this setting. God is not even speaking to his people when he says this; he is speaking to the chaos, to the warring nations. God is not merely recommending the practice of mindfulness; he is asserting his sovereign kingship over all things. And as a result of God’s kingship, those who trust in him are secure and need not fear.
Stilling our own contributions to chaos
Once we understand the context of this Psalm, our temptation is then to locate the chaos entirely outside of ourselves. In the ultimate sense, this is a valid interpretation. As the people of God, we are secure in him against the chaos of the world and will find ultimate salvation in him.
However, we who are in Christ are not yet perfected, and so our evil natures still constantly assert themselves, and we join in with the perpetuation of chaos. A brief perusal of news within the church over the last few years would confirm this, if we are not capable of admitting the ways in which we ourselves add to the chaos. Because of our sin, we Christians often participate in the nations raging, the kingdoms tottering, and the mountains trembling.
At this point, we can return to a personal interpretation of the passage. God is in fact speaking to us at an individual level, not only to tell us that he is king over the forces of chaos outside of ourselves, but also commanding us to cease our own chaotic activities. As Christians, we need to learn when to be still, to cease acting, not in order to find rest for ourselves, but to stop our evil tendencies from making things even worse.
Being still in public discourse
We all have people in our lives who are preternaturally able to push our buttons on controversial topics. We all have a Great Aunt Maude whose greatest pleasure is to stoke political debate around the Thanksgiving table. Or maybe you yourself are the Great Aunt Maude of your family (I confess, I have played this role too often myself).
When Great Aunt Maude lobs her hand grenade on immigration over the gravy boat, God is telling us, “Be still.” Don’t hurl a hand grenade right back. Jesus said it another way – turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Nothing defuses a verbal hand grenade like the deafening roar of intentional silence. One-sided fights cannot sustain themselves.
This is the stillness that America needs now more than ever. America needs people who see provocative Facebook posts and are not provoked. It needs people who intentionally pull away from arguments that are obviously going nowhere. That does not mean neglecting the world’s injustices or avoiding difficult issues. But it does mean not adding to the mountains of meaningless debate over obscure and ridiculous conspiracy theories. It means ignoring the provocative tweets of whichever politician you dislike. And it will often mean refusing to respond in kind when someone personally insults you. In other words, it means being a Christian, practicing the Christian virtues: self-control, gentleness, peace, patience, kindness.
When we do engage, we must pick our battles wisely, and we must have the patience to wait for the right context. We waste so much time fighting in settings that we know will not be effective (especially social media), or we quickly lose our composure and descend into personal attacks and dehumanization, justifying ourselves with the nobility of our cause. But the moment we dehumanize any person, we have become part of the chaos that God is judging when “he utters his voice, [and] the earth melts.”
We do not need to be the final judge
There is a temptation to view this as the cowardly way out. Some will say we must fight because the other side is fighting (though Christians disagree dramatically about who comprises the “other side”). Some fights may need to be fought, but we are far too eager to start throwing punches. We must consider Jesus, who won the greatest battle—the battle with sin and death—not by fighting, but by emptying himself. We say, fight fire with fire, but Jesus I think would point us to the other “be still” passage in the Psalms, from Psalm 37:
1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
2 For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
3 Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness….
6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
and your justice as the noonday.
7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
9 For the evildoers shall be cut off,
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.
Ultimately our confidence in this strategy of peace is that God is the final judge. We need not try nor are we capable of justly judging the evil of this world. But there is no reason to worry. Even those who seem to prosper in their evil will be judged (and we too will be judged – a sobering thought). We are called to wait for the Lord and to trust that his way is better than the way of chaos.
Again, I know that I have been first among sinners when it comes to this topic. I have been all too prone to stir up meaningless debate and strife online and in person. I surely will fail again, so I write this for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s. But when my heart is calm and my mind is working properly, I know that no one changes anyone’s heart with facts. We change people’s hearts with love and with the bright light of a lived example. And that example begins with the radical peace of stillness in the face of chaos.