Psalm 46 instructs us: “Be still and know that I am God!”
Truth be told, stillness is not my thing. I can sit still for a while, especially snuggled up to one of my daughters or pets. And I’m part of a denomination that is known as the ‘frozen chosen.’ Like any good Presbyterian, I worship either standing or sitting, but always decent and in order. So in addition to the stillness of a good cuddle, you might say I’m ecclesiologically still.
However, whether my body is in motion or at rest, my mind is never still. I think through things, I wonder, I analyze, I plan. And I constantly want to know, especially things about God and about science.
So what is the relationship the Psalmist is claiming here between stillness and knowledge? To find an answer, as my active mind is want to do, let’s consider how science might illuminate this passage.
What does it mean to be still scientifically? We can look at this question from a range of disciplines, but let’s start with biology, particularly, the human variety. Are we ever actually still? Well, to put it bluntly, stillness, in the biological sense, is death.
Until death, our lungs keep us breathing, and our heart beats pumping blood through our body. There is always a flurry of biochemical activity in the brain (which we are only beginning to see). Then there is the constant communication between the active brain and the nerve cells coursing through every inch of our body. At the same time, each individual cell in our body is constantly in motion. These animations show, for example, how ATP is produced in our mitochondria and the dance of jittering proteins.
So when I sit with the cat asleep on my lap, I’m not still. There is a vitality inside me as long as I’m alive.
That leads to the next question: are we still even when we are dead? What about non-living things like rocks or mountains? Are they as still as they seem? Of course, the answer is no. Stillness, according to physics, only happens when the temperature reaches absolute zero. That is minus-273.15 degrees Celsius or minus-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit. Only at absolute zero would electrons stop whirling around nuclei and all the other constituents of matter be completely still.
The catch is that absolute zero is not really possible. We can get close, but to reach it requires an infinite amount of work. Why? Because you have to remove heat to get something so cold. Scientists continue to push the boundaries of how cold we can go, but the amount of work to get a system to the lowest possible level of energy—where matter is completely still—would be infinite.
Furthermore, quantum mechanics suggests that even if we could reach absolute zero, atoms and molecules would still have some irreducible motion. It’s part of the exotic behavior that can be found both in quantum physics and at incredibly low temperatures.
That is to say, with what we know through the current laws of physics, nothing is ever entirely still. According to science, nothing in all of creation can literally be still.
- Here is a nice summary of one lab’s quest to reach stillness at absolute zero.
- We need new ways to see the activity in our brains.
- To paraphrase James Limburg’s commentary on Psalm 46: we can count on the promise that God is with us.
- During this pandemic, NIH director, Francis Collins, has had a printout of Psalm 46 on his desk.
God is God
God, the Creator, knows how the natural world works. God knows that stillness is not possible for living things, or even for the most basic constituents of matter.
Yet the Psalmist would not have had any concept of electrons whirling around atoms or the constant firing of synapses in the brain. A temperature of absolute zero would have had absolutely no meaning to ancient Israelites. They likely knew that living things had some type of motion inside their bodies even at rest, but that was probably all they knew of this science.
So why did God tell them and us to be still? How is stillness related to knowledge about God? Psalm 46 is ultimately about trust in God. The Hebrew word for “still,” rapha, is less about ceasing physical motion and more about letting go or surrendering. To be still and to know is less about motionless bodies and static minds— as if such things were actually possible—and more about letting God be God. God is the awesome Creator who is our refuge and strength when the mountains shake and waters roar. Our Lord is with us when the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms totter. God is God through disastrous snowstorms, relentless pandemics, and political upheaval.
This is particularly reassuring for those of us who struggle with physical or mental stillness. God does not literally expect us to be still. Rather, God wants me to let go and know that God is God when my daughter is asleep in the crook of my arm and when I’m running around frantically. God is God when I’m trying to understand thermodynamics or the human nervous system. God is God when the meaning of a Bible passage or the doctrine of the Trinity eludes me.
Knowing in Psalm 46 is less about the intellectual work of engaging faith and science and more about putting our trust in God. To quote the excerpt of Psalm 46 that Francis Collins has kept on his desk throughout this pandemic, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
In all our epistemic efforts, as we busy ourselves trying to strengthen the church by engaging with science, the most important thing is this: our trust is in the One who urges us, “Be still and know that I am God!”