We wake up and the deluge begins. Rolling over in bed, we grab our smartphones and tap our way into a ceaseless flow of words. Before getting ready, we ask Siri, Google, or Alexa what the weather is like. If we exercise or commute, we listen to podcasts or Spotify.
When we get to work, we send and read emails. Make phone calls. Respond to Slack messages and threads. And we tweet, post, and snap all the while.
The world has never been wordier than it is today.
Why do we talk so much? We have been duped into thinking that wordiness leads to wisdom. We think we will be heard, felt, and understood through our talking and typing. Not only is this thinking incorrect, but the opposite is often true: The more we speak, the less we feel heard, felt, and understood.
For centuries, the Christian tradition has understood the immense benefit of silence before God, but now the idea of silence seems to be a rare and forgotten concept.
We may be surprised to discover just how powerful it can be.
SILENCE TEACHES US TO SPEAK
Silence can be expressed both externally and internally—we can be quiet with our mouths and in our souls, or perhaps both. But in any case, godliness is the goal of silence in the Christian life. And godliness is perhaps most easily measured in terms of loving God and loving neighbor.
Love might require words or the absence of words, depending on the circumstance. But if we never stop talking, we will never discern which is called for in the moment.
So how does silence help us learn what and when to speak?
“Silence is the home of the word,” writes Henri Nouwen. “Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word.”
We have all known a man or woman who doesn’t speak often, but when they do, a hush falls over their audience. Their words carry more weight than those of someone who never stops talking—not because they are godlier (they might not be)—but because their words were borne out of reflection and meditation. Their silence gives their words power.
We too, if we are quiet long enough, can learn to speak with power.
SILENCE ALLOWS US TO LISTEN
Erlig Kagge describes a simple understanding of silence in his book Silence in the Age of Noise: “The quieter I became, the more I heard.” Listening requires silence. The quieter your soul, the more you hear from God. The quieter your mouth, the more you hear from others.
“God would teach you, my dear child, there is a silence of the soul through which he operates,” said the French mystic Madam Guyon. “The voice of God is heard in the silence of the soul. The operation of grace is in silence, as it comes from God.”
When God visited Elijah, he wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, he came to the prophet in what the King James Bible calls a “still, small voice.”
Job had the opposite experience. When his life was falling apart, he said, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes” (Job 3:26). Could it be that he couldn’t find the rest and peace he craved because he wasn’t quiet?
When our minds are overcome by distraction, it is difficult to hear the still, small voice of the Lord. But when we are silent, we can hear more clearly what the Lord is trying to tell us.
Silence also allows us to notice the needs and desires of others. Often, we’re too busy talking to notice such details. We’re too busy trying to make sure we’re heard that we don’t notice subtle signs of how best to love a spouse, coworker, or child. Everyone loves a good listener because by listening they make us feel heard and loved.
If we are quiet long enough, we will learn to listen to God and others.
SILENCE KEEPS US FROM SINNING
The more we talk, the more we sin.
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,” warns Proverbs 10:19. King David, too, knew if he wanted to achieve godliness he was going to have to control his mouth: “I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence’” (Ps. 39:1).
James writes what is perhaps the Bible’s most shocking statement on the power of words,
“The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” —James 3:5-8
Silence can keep us from starting a wildfire of sin. “Whoever restrains his lips is prudent,” counsels the psalmist in the second half of Proverbs 19:10. The Desert Fathers and Mothers praised silence as the safest way to God. They knew that the fewer words they spoke, the less they would sin.
This counsel must be balanced by understanding that there are times we must speak, such as in the face of injustice or when it would be unloving to withhold wise counsel. But as we’ve seen, silence trains us to discern when a timely word is needed.
If we are quiet long enough, we might keep ourselves from some of our sin.
SILENCE LEADS US TO CHARITY
Whenever a case is made for silence, we are tempted to think of it as profoundly unloving. Isn’t it stingy to withhold words from those around us? Silence for the sake of silence certainly would be. But the goal of silence is charity—not silence for the sake of silence.
Silence that leads to selfishness is not true silence, but a form of pride masked by an appearance of godliness.
Silence that leads to love of God and love of neighbor is the only true silence. In silence, we are confronted by the sinfulness of our hearts and our desperate need for a God who saves. The longer we sit in quiet, the more we realize the urgency of eternity and the state of the souls around us, and the more we are burdened to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven.
We need more people marked by timely silence—silence that is precious and powerful. It knows when to sit quietly next to a suffering friend and when to speak a word of encouragement over a child. It knows when to be quiet and when to speak up. It knows how to be charitable.
If silence does not cause us to be more loving, then we are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
Silence is the absence of words, but words derive their power from silence.
As Henri Nouwen has written, “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges out of silence and returns to it. A word not rooted in silence is a weak word.”
We see this power in the first words ever spoken. God spoke creation into existence after an unknown period of utter nothingness and silence.
God spoke out of the void, and his words bore the fruit of all creation.
If we want our words to bear fruit, we must recover the discipline of silence. We must learn that we will ultimately be heard, felt, and understood in silence before God. And we must learn that we can only care for and love others well if we are quiet long enough to listen.