I have a friend who is naturally fairly silent around most people. It’s not that she doesn’t have things to say. She has a ton of thoughts; she just often chooses to reserve them. I’ve joked with her for years that this tendency makes her scary, but the truth is, the propensity toward restraining her speech is how God made her. The funny thing is, she’s a counselor. Time and time again I’ve seen her let silence lie where most anyone else I know would rush to fill in the gaps with opinions, perspectives and guidance. For years I’ve watched her, trying to separate out, what of this silence is her natural temperament and what is the learned wisdom. By God’s design, I will never be as quiet as my friend (and that’s fine with Jesus!), but I have learned much about the strength and wisdom of silence in watching her minister it.
When we are silent, we invite others to speak.
When we remain silent, we invite others to be heard and to hear themselves. There is something about stillness, about silence, that can make us uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many times this friend’s silence has invited me to further contemplate whatever impulsive thing I just said to her. When she meets me with the sound of crickets—not affirmation, not critique—I consider myself further and I explain myself further. I hear myself process aloud what is going on in my heart. I am spurred to grapple with my thoughts and feelings because she has refused to intervene with soothing platitudes or welcomed distractions.
When we seek to fill in the silent spaces too quickly, we can often crowd out the space for a person to share the deepest thoughts and feelings that would bubble up had we given them time. We pacify what may need to remain in angst. When we speak too quickly, we often give the wrong answer because we haven’t heard the fullness of the problem. When we do so, it is our folly and shame (Prov 18:13).
Embracing the wisdom of silence (or, being slow to speak) is an act of submission to God.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, 'Be still, and know that I am God...
We are talkers. Our talking isn’t just a way we pass the time; there is much more going on with our desire to speak. Part of the reason we speak compulsively is an attempt to rule and subdue the earth, because we image a God of spoken power. God created the universe through his spoken Word (Heb 11:3). God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (Gen 1:3). “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps 33:9). When we talk we are working—working to categorize, explain, improve and even overcome our world. So maybe if I tell you “it’s going to be ok” when you tell me your doctor is concerned about your baby's second trimester development that will make it actually be ok. Except that it won’t, because apart from encouraging you with God’s certain promises, how could I possibly have any idea what the future holds?
When we speak too quickly or too much it’s often because we are uncomfortable with what we fear our silence says:
I don’t know the answer. I can’t fix this. We are powerless and overwhelmed. This problem is too much for me, which tells me I am not God.
These are uncomfortable realities. On the other hand, if we are firmly rooted with confidence in the One who tells us to be still and know that he is God, we will have the humility to speak slowly, or not at all, because we will know that he does have the answer (1 Jn 3:20). He can (and will, eventually) fix all things (Rev 21:5). He is powerful and perfectly in control (Isa 43:13). Nothing is too much for him (Mt 19:26). He is God. We therefore can have the faith and confidence to rest in silence while we study, pray and discern how to offer one another the wisdom of his Word.
When we leverage the wisdom of silence, we make space to minister the Word of God.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
Jesus, the very Word (or knowledge) of God made flesh, has given us the Bible which is to guide us in everything pertaining to life and godliness (Jn 1:1, 5:39-40; 2 Pet 1:3). His Spirit illuminates our understanding of this Word so that we might be guided to truth as we read and apply it (Jn 14:26, 16:13; 1 Cor 2:10-13). We will not, however, be able to glean the wisdom he offers us through his Word if we are quick to manifest our own spoken word into one another’s lives like little demigods. When we embrace the wisdom of silence, we give ourselves time not only to fully hear, but to fully consider what the Word of God might have for the person with whom we speak. When we are slow to speak, the discomfort we may feel in having nothing to offer reminds us that we are not Jesus. And the silent tension and angst we may leave our brothers and sisters in can drive them to Jesus himself.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.