Scripture: Psalm 4 ~
A study reveals that people don’t particularly enjoy sitting down in a quiet place alone with their thoughts. In fact, some would prefer to administer an electric shock for the sheer stimulation and distraction. Yet, the psalmist advises us in times of stress “to ponder.” How does this apply to us today?
Psalm 4 is said to be written by King David during a particularly stressful time in his life.
In David’s culture, as in our own, there is no greater offense than to publicly dishonor or disrespect someone; and in this psalm David expresses his anger and grief that is exactly what is happening.
To insult God’s chosen leader was a momentous outrage, and when David’s opponents “try to turn David’s honor into shame” and “ruin his reputation” he is affronted and reproachfully says, “They love empty words, and seek after lies; they “love illusions, and have recourse to frauds; they seek false gods.”
I bet every one of us here this morning knows something of what David is talking about.
Is there anyone among us this morning who has never experienced disrespect, dishonor, fraud, or betrayal in a human relationship? You are a very fortunate person if you have not.
There have been, and I am certain there will again be times in my life when the insults, the shaming and attempts to dishonor or disrespect my life seemed almost unbearable.
This is one reason for the extremely high percentage of suicide deaths among transgender persons, especially young people who have not built up the tough skin required to resist the impact of such experiences.
Minorities well-know what David is speaking about in this psalm, but so do most people.
Whether through stressful family dynamics, friendships gone wrong, or in the workplace, most persons I have met know something of the frustration and pain of this unkind and debilitating human behavior.
King David has something to say to us this morning, reaching across the centuries to help us sort through these experiences, and to offer a healthy and healing response.
Even while David agonizes over these troubles he proclaims in verse 8, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O God, make me lie down in safety.”
This is not wishful or naive thinking.
The distress from being so dishonored has led David into an agonizing period of meditation and prayer; and this in turn has led ultimately to a sense of great peace- a peace born from trusting in God.
The ancient psalmist advises, “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent” (emphasis added).
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley also understood the healing and renewing power of prayerful meditation, particularly following a difficult day.
He practiced a daily period of prayerful meditation during which he went over the conversations and events of each day, looking for the good, the bad, and the ugly things said and done; then he gave them over to God, and rested.
King David and John Wesley provide excellent examples and advice.
The problem seems to be that such deep “pondering” has always been disliked.
Even Jesus’ disciples could not, or would not remain awake and in prayer with him on the night he was arrested. Recent research suggests that people don’t like to ponder or think these days any more than they did centuries ago.
The research summarized the results as follows: “In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more. …”
We’d rather do something mindless and mundane than to sit still and think.
The Wired Word, reporting on this same research explained, “Participants in the study ranged in age from 18 to 77. They were told to entertain themselves alone in a room just with their thoughts, or to imagine doing one of three pleasant activities like hiking. Regardless of age, most showed no fondness for being alone and thinking. On a 9-point scale of enjoyment, their average rating was about in the middle. They ‘consistently demonstrated that they would rather have something to do than to have nothing other than their thoughts for even a brief period of time,’ [lead researcher Timothy] Wilson said.”
But there is a shocking — literally shocking – part of this study: In one phase participants were given the option of administering a mild shock to themselves by pressing a button as a way to distract themselves from thinking. Before starting their time alone, they all received a sample of the shock, and most said they would pay to avoid being shocked again.
Nevertheless, when placed in a room alone with their thoughts and no other distractions, 12 of the 18 males (67 percent) and 6 of the 24 females (25 percent) gave themselves at least one electric shock during the 15-minute period. “What is striking,” the researchers write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”
In one segment of the study, 61 of the participants were invited to spend their alone time with their thoughts at home — for only six to 15 minutes, mind you. But even there, about a third of the participants admitted that they “‘cheated’ … by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music, using a cell phone or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”
We might think that such findings can be explained by the pace of modern society or easy access to electronic devices — smartphones, iPads and the like. But Wilson doesn’t think so. Instead, he suggests that these devices are a response to the common human desire to never be without something to do to distract ourselves from our deepest feelings and thoughts.
So, is this an indictment of our society, an indictment of human nature, or does it simply mean that we’re hardwired to prefer external reality rather than our internal reality?
Wilson believes “The mind is designed to engage with the world… Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world. And without training in meditation or prayer techniques, which still are difficult, most people would prefer to engage in external activities.”
What does this finding mean for the spiritual life, spiritual growth, or the ability to find rest and solace in God, as David and Wesley experienced through “pondering”?
So often in church we hear that we need “quiet time” with God, and that personal devotions are a necessary discipline for spiritual growth. And we’re rather regularly reminded about Jesus’ practice of withdrawing to lonely places for solitary prayer (e.g. Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16).
Sometimes people ask whether when it comes to listening for God, is there anything inherently better about sitting in silence than about engaging in activity?
Jesus seemed to practice both; but his actions and teaching were grounded in prayer and alone time with God.
And like those first disciples who had so much difficulty praying with Jesus, just because we find something difficult to do and don’t prefer it, that does not mean we should avoid it, especially if it’s beneficial to our physical and spiritual well-being.
The late Dr. Scott Peck, the Christian psychiatrist who contributed to our understanding of human nature through many writings, wrote about the importance of deep thinking, and of thinking well, especially in light of the complexity of our world. Concerning the failure to think Peck said, “It isn’t just a problem, it is the problem.
So let’s return to Psalm 4, where the psalmist tells us not to sin, but to ponder.
Ponder: what might we spend this time pondering about?
In one sense, there are no limits on that answer, but as a starting place for people who follow Jesus, perhaps we could spend some time “pondering”:
- the Sermon on the Mount, or parables like The Good Samaritan
- the Lord’s Prayer
- our baptism and confirmation
If such pondering is as vital to our spiritual life as it is to other parts of our life, and if, as the research suggests, most of use prefer activity to just thinking, perhaps it’s worth considering how the two — activity and pondering — might come together effectively.
Truth is, we can be active and engaged in deep thinking at the same time. Deep thinking does not need to be done in a chair alone in some room, although I believe this type of meditation is very good for the soul.
Stan Purdum, who is a long-distance cyclist and author of several books on cycling, describes his bicycle as “a marvelous thought machine.” He says that, often, the activity of spinning the wheels down a low-traffic road seems to keep the “need to be active” part of him occupied so that his thinking process is less hampered. There’s a kind of “silence” in that activity, he says. Purdum reports that he often returns home from such rides having solved a problem or decided a course of action or even having had a spiritual experience.
These things are usually unplanned in advance — that is, Purdum says he doesn’t ride expressly to have time to think, but that such “pondering with results” is often a fringe benefit of this chosen activity.
Brother Lawrence, the 17th-century lay monk, who wrote the devotional classic The Practice of the Presence of God, was assigned to work in the monastery’s kitchen, and while there, he decided to try to pay attention to God’s presence even while going about his duties. He reported that working in the kitchen like a common scullery maid was not much different than when he was alone in his cell meditating. “That time of business [in the kitchen] does not with me differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I enjoy God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
The point is this: It’s good for us to find whatever means works best for us to ponder not only the issues of life but also the things of God, whether it be on our beds like the psalmist David or John Wesley, in the kitchen like Brother Lawrence, on a bike like Stan Purdum or in a lonely place like Jesus.
Eternal God, since silence seems to be the voice of holiness, the only language you speak directly, then I pray to be steeped in it until I fear it less and welcome it as an usher to grace, a narrator of sacred mysteries;
Until silence cease the fretful conversations of my mind with too little else then itself;
Until silence calm my heart to an ease, convene my senses to an anchored focus, and hush my tongue to a quiet hold;
Until I discern in the silence an answer to that necessary question, which, for the very life of me, it has not yet occurred to me to ask;
Until I am stretched alive and deep in its dimensions,
And catch, at last, your assuring word to me. Amen.
Originally delivered April 19, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.
Image credit: Brother Lawrence in the Kitchen from a book published by Fleming Revell Co. in 1900 [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Practice of the Presence of God is available as a free e-book online at Gutenberg.org.