I sometimes have a hard time being still. I am better than I used to be, but still have a way to go. It is not sitting still that is the hardest part. It is sitting still and not being annoyed by the need to sit still in some places. I carry a book with me in my car. I call it my “appointment book.” Not the calendar type, the reading type. When I am required to be at an appointment or need to be somewhere that waiting may be involved, I have it with me.
That type of being still is easy. It usually happens in the quiet of an office or in those minutes before an event that requires attendees to be settled before beginning.
There is another, more important, and much more difficult stillness that requires discipline, faith, and hope. There are just enough occurrences in the Bible to give us a theme around stillness and water. There were few things in the ancient world that struck as much fear as being caught on a boat in a raging storm.
The sea is unpredictable and uncontrollable. Jonah and his shipmates knew that only God (or the gods) could calm the sea. So they threw him overboard. There is still a remnant of a rough voyage (or worse) being caused by a “Jonah” aboard among some seafarers.
This fear and imagery of stormy seas gives us depth to understanding what it means to “be still” in the Bible. Psalm 107 describes people in all sorts of trouble being rescued. The relevant part for us is 107:23-31. God is the moving force behind both the storm and the stilling of the storm.
Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love.
There is a parallel event in the Gospels as the disciples journeyed across the Sea of Galilee. “And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:37-40) Again, the peace that was brought by the stilling of the storm.
Psalm 46 provides another angle. Once again the sea rages, once again it is God who brings the violence that only he can still (breaking bows and shattering spears is war talk). Most Christians today are so uncomfortable with this aspect of the God of the Bible as to separate the Old and New Testament images of God. In the Psalm we are called upon to “be still, and know…” When the sea rages and we can to nothing to stop it, being still is a radical act. Yes, an act. It may be only for a moment before movement starts again, but it is powerful.
“God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Come, behold the works of the LORD,
how he has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire!
“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:1-3, 8-10, RSV)
Being still on its own is not very much use. Something must come before or after. Either conditions need to be right for us to be still, or we must be still with a purpose as storms rage around us. “Be still and know that I am God” is not denial, it is not running away, it is taking the time to prioritize and keep perspective. It may last for only a second or two, or it may last a day. It is crucial for us to navigate life.