Thursday, October 11, 2018

Silence & Speech

I don't talk much.

There are plenty of reasons why.


First, the Bible has so many verses about watching your mouth that it's hard to ignore. Here are some choice examples:
  • "As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God." - Ecclesiastes 5:1
  • "If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless." - James 1:26
  • "Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble." - Proverbs 21:23
  • "You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you." - Matthew 12:36-37
  • "A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent." - Proverbs 17:27-28
Experience, unfortunately, was another teacher. I learned the hard way that talking too much means being cruel, thoughtless, or just failing to convey what I really mean. Have you ever edited or deleted a social media comment? Have you ever been frustrated after a conversation because you couldn't move the oomph of what you wanted to say from yourself to someone else? They couldn't grok what you meant? It's a frustrating feeling because you aren't fully known and can't fully know others.

The last reason I don't talk much is because of a college class. At ACU, I took a course called Spiritual Pilgrims. The class was about traditional religious ascetic practices that may have been more en vogue in ancient Egyptian deserts or medieval monasteries than in the 21st century. These practices include silence, solitude, meditation, fasting, and contemplative prayer. These practices are, at least in part, about cutting through the nonsense we surround ourselves with in order to get to the truth. By truth, I mean who we really are, who God really is, what our real purpose is. Real stuff.

One of the books we read in the Spiritual Pilgrims class was Henri Nouwen's The Way of the Heart. That book is a wonderful introduction to silence, solitude, and prayer. The book is less than 100 pages, but it's full of nourishment and wisdom. I learned from that book that silence and solitude aren't the absence of something, but instead are the fullness of something. Nouwen says "words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they came."

Another book that's recently come across my desk is Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land. Laird explains that silence, full silence, is crucial for us to begin to realize the depth and profundity of our connection with God. He says "[u]nion with God is not something that needs to be acquired but realized." When we are one, talking isn't necessary. We fully know the other, so nothing needs to be said. Doesn't that sound great? Someone fully knowing you, and fully being known to you? What peace and comfort.

I don't talk much because there are lots of reasons to be silent. One of the main ones is that you don't come off like a jackass, even if you are a jackass! Also, enjoying the fullness of silence is a good thing.

At the same time, I'm trying to talk more. Here's why:


Silence is good, and it's not the only good. As a disciple of Jesus, my two jobs here on Earth and to love God and love people. So, if I'm serious about my faith, service is also good. What I'm learning now is that while our silence is an end, it's also for something. We carry the silence, carry the fire, and engage with the outside world. Silence allows us to serve. If we don't speak up, we miss those opportunities.

Nouwen puts it this way: "A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it. It is a word that reminds us of the silence from which it comes and leads us back to that silence."

The Bible says this about our words:
  • "Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone."- Colossians 4:6
  • "Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them." - Ephesians 4:29
  • "Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing." - Proverbs 12:18
  • "Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit." - Proverbs 15:1
  • "Kind words are like honey - sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." - Proverbs 16:23-24
How do you balance the wisdom of being quiet with the opportunity to serve? How do you know when to speak? Here's what I've come up with as times when it's necessary to speak:

  1. When it helps or affirms another.
  2. When you need help.
  3. When peace requires it.

Help for another: It's clear from the Scripture and theology above that we can be nourishing and heartening to others. We should do that. If we do, we're being good to one another and fulfilling our purpose. If we have the ability to and we choose not to, we're squandering our lives and also preventing others from flourishing. Affirming others when they've done or said something hard is a great way to offer help.

Help for self: Sometimes people need help but won't ask for help. Maybe this is pride, but I think a lot of times it's thinking that people think they're just not worth helping. That's just not accurate. God made you and loves you. You're worthy. You matter to God and to me, and probably lots of other people. Take care of yourself. Realize also that it's not just you that you're helping. In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson writes: "[Y]ou do not belong to yourself. You are not simply your own possession to torture and mistreat. This is partly because your Being is inexorably tied up with that of others, and your mistreatment of yourself can have catastrophic consequences for others." If you need help, ask for help. We're all better off for it!

For peace: We are a verbose culture. We're literally surrounded by audio and visual speech.  Magazines, books, podcasts, radio, Hulu, Netflix, yada yada. We carry the internet and scroll through it all day long. We bicker and snipe at one another on social media and we pick red team or blue team, yada yada. What we don't do all the time is think about the end goal. Are we helping one another by what we say? Why are we contributing to the noise that distracts from silence? A lot of times, the answer is that we aren't helping. Are we adding anything meaningful? A lot of times, the answer is no.

Sometimes, though, we do have to speak up.

If a situation or a relationship is broken and it's not being addressed, peace is broken. We're all worse off. We should speak up and try to help heal what's wounded. This can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. It's also good, so we should do it.


Silence is good. Speaking in service is good. How do you find the balance so that you can function in society? We don't want to be hermits or become detached. A couple of observations:

First, if you've mostly stopped saying awful stuff and are encouraging and helpful to others, I think people will probably like you and you'll feel good about yourself. That will help you not feel like a weirdo.

Second, on top of that, keep in mind the point isn't being disengaged, but appropriately engaged. We do not add to the noise; we do speak truth and peace into the world. We're doing our best to help.

Here's a quick test from the Spiritual Pilgrims class:

Before you say anything, ask whether it's good and necessary.

That should help you figure out whether to yell at the drive-through employee, make that comment on Facebook, or speak up when no one else will.


  • Shutting up is good.
  • Speaking up is also good. 
  • Help, get help, and heal.
  • "Is my speech nourishing and necessary?"

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