This Lent, a friend of mine committed to a practice I found fascinating: She vowed to refrain from rushing to explain and defend herself, even when she felt she might not be fully understood. This discipline was inspired by the well-known prayer attributed to St. Francis, which includes the line: “O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.”
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires (James 1:19).
Since Ash Wednesday, Marie has been attempting to submit herself to this discipline daily, particularly with Gary, her husband of three years. The results at home were almost instantaneous. The first time Gary said something that Marie felt was “snide” toward her, she remained silent. Normally, she might have retorted with a scornful remark or with an indignant “that was rude!” Then, the argument would have escalated, and the next two hours would have been robbed of joy, tainted by coolness toward one another.
After a few moments of her prayerful silence, Gary apologized for his statement. Marie was shocked. He had seldom apologized lately. He knew his words had been hurtful, and her silence gave him the chance to reconsider. Instead of the all-too-common bitterness, there was a relative calm, and the two were able to continue to enjoy one another’s company.
James wrote to his fellow believers, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19). Frankly, words spoken thoughtlessly do not bring about a righteous life, either. They only distract others or puff us up with pride or self-importance.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us that there is a proper time for every activity, including “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Surely there are times when it is brave, and prudent, and right to speak up: to defend an innocent person or to speak the truth boldly to people who are deluded by a lie. However, I wonder how many times in a week the “speaking up” we do is for our own benefit and comfort.
A few months ago, I ran into a former client whose husband, I felt, had been incredibly irrational and aggressively unfair toward me. She greeted me in the doorway of the grocery store, and after a few pleasantries I started blabbering about something tangential. I was uncomfortable with the possibility of an awkward silence and afraid I might hear something else that would hurt my feelings — what if she had since taken his side and was ready to drag out old accusations? So I blocked her.
However, if I had held my tongue and just listened, who knows what she would have said? Maybe she would have told me how sorry her husband was after he’d had some time to cool off, or maybe I would have seen signs that she needed help. Being married to a man with a temper like I had seen him display could be dangerous! I can only hope that things are fine with her, for in my rush to “protect” myself, I failed to look into her life with care.
The discipline of silence at times like this provides room to practice what Paul Miller, in his book Love Walked Among Us, calls “incarnation.” By this he means the way in which any person can slow down and enter someone else’s world. We all long to be understood, but what about understanding? To a person in need, rather than saying “I know what you should do,” we would be better off pausing, observing, thinking about the Golden Rule, and even asking, “How can I help you?”
Another common motive for blurting things out is as a defense against perceived injustice or misunderstanding. In this culture, especially to succeed in business and politics, we have learned that we must protect and build our reputations, making sure everyone has the “right” impression of us.
If you have been unfortunate enough (as I have) to get hooked on watching “The Apprentice,” you will see this in every episode. You will also see the folly of this behavior, as the players stomp all over truth and courtesy in their rush to self-promote. It is totally unnecessary and often backfires. I propose that living by faith will often mean doing the opposite.
Jesus said a lot of bold, counter-cultural things during His ministry on earth. He never minded offending the self-righteous. He knew when to speak. But in His hour of most intense persecution, He said very little. Isaiah 53:7 says of the Savior:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
Sheep going to a shearer have nothing to worry about — from what I have been told, it’s a relief to be trimmed — but I would expect that sheep going to be slaughtered, if they knew where they were headed, would have bleated for help or pleaded for amnesty. Jesus knew He was headed for a cruel death, but still was as docile as one going to a haircut.
His silence was not borne out of ignorance or incompetence. He was silent because of what He knew. Christ knew that even the bald truth would not penetrate the hearts of the people who wanted to make Him disappear, because they weren’t ready. He knew He had to endure the cross, and that only after His miraculous resurrection would God, through His Spirit, open people’s hearts. He knew God was in control. He knew that the Truth would be revealed, in due time.
Let’s bring this down to the every-day level. Imagine your boss or co-worker saying something to you that made you think they did not know how hard you worked. You might fear they think you are a slacker or incompetent. You want to defend yourself or write a memo detailing the ways in which you have been an asset to the team. Your words, you feel, could ward off fearsome results, such as denial of a raise or being laid off. But …
What if you said nothing? Be still, and know that God is in control. Think about why this detail is so important to you. Ask God for direction as to what to say, if anything. Know that even if you lose this job, God will still provide for you.
I am not proposing that we all become spineless and mute in the name of Christ. The discipline of silence may take only a moment in real time. It can appear as a two-beat pause, where you consider your motives, silently re-affirm your faith in God, and then follow a holy prompting to say something completely different than what you felt like saying only seconds ago.
In times when prudence says, “be quiet,” your silence can be a statement to God, yourself, and even others that you believe God is really in control and will work things out the way He wants them. It is an act of faith.
Copyright 2005 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.