In Defense of Silence

“But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember.” – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Hear me out: We can glean a lot from dystopian fiction. Whether intentionally or not, authors of these novels tend to touch on Christian realities by, with an ironic and satiric bite, highlighting the ugly parts of who we are as a human race and extending woes for what we may become if we continue on our current trajectory. Though their overall direction is not always honorable, the moral themes in these novels can be piercing. They often reflect ideals borrowed from the Christian worldview, such as human depravity (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:11-18, 23), the folly of pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; Luke 8:13-14; Romans 13:12-14), and the necessity of truth (John 1:14, 14:6; 1 John 5:20; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). They might also point to what is worth preserving in life as we know it. Among other things, Bradbury definitely understood the value of silence amidst a cacophony of worldly noise.

We are all being discipled by something. The people in our proximity, the media we consume, and the books we read are actively shaping us, but as believers, we don’t have to assume victimhood. By the Spirit within us, we are well equipped to sift out truth from chatter, and this practice is fortified by a willingness to regularly withdraw and sit in silence, as modeled by our Savior.

To preface, I’m arguably one of the least qualified people to tackle this subject. Lately, I have failed to guard my schedule and have welcomed excessive input from multiple sources, thus allowing noise to infiltrate my heart more than the Word of God. Luke 6:45 says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks”, and I won’t deny that much rotten fruit has been the direct product of my failure to be quiet before the Lord. I write this blog to expand the recent post on silence and solitude, but, more so, to preach to myself – as much as to anyone else – on the necessity of silence for Christ followers.

We all need silence in order to listen, to reflect, and to remember.

Silent to Listen

It is impossible to talk and listen at the same time. Teachers are painfully aware of this fact; when their students talk during class instruction and force the teacher to pause and redirect them, a check for comprehension will inevitably reveal that they retained nothing from the instruction. Whether in a classroom or across the dinner table from a friend, the message being spoken only soaks in with a silent audience. Silence, however, is only the minimum, as the hearer must be attentive as well. We feel loved when heard by someone who listens to truly understand rather than to speak, who doesn’t steamroll the conversation with their own words. Silence is a powerful therapeutic tool across many helping professions, and inversely, a therapist who is always talking makes a terrible therapist.

I am blessed to be studying speech-language-pathology, and even in this field, listening is just as important as speaking. Research in childhood language development has shown that adults can promote early communicative competence and independence by allowing wait time. I’ve been advised to, after prompting for a client’s response, “Wait until [you’re] uncomfortable, then wait five more seconds”. The young communicator is more likely to initiate language when given adequate time to respond. Children need meaningful auditory input, but they also need ample opportunity for verbal expression, which is only cultivated when the other communicator is silent.

If we’re not prudent, our verbosity can become robbery; a propensity to constantly bombard silence may steal others’ ability to develop language, think for themselves, or share an emotional burden. Hence, giving others access to their voice means knowing when and when not to use our own. We can say a lot without saying anything at all, and wisdom necessitates restraint just as much as good content.

Most importantly, we must know how to be silent in the presence of the Lord, lest we miss what he is saying. One sharp example is found in Isaiah 30:15-16.

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling, and you said, “No! We will flee upon horses”; therefore you shall flee away; and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”; therefore your pursuers shall be swift.

The nation of Judah sought alliance with Egypt when God had already promised to defend them. They ran in circles trying to do things their own way and eventually failed, and their inability to wait and listen was their downfall.

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add to sin…”(v. 1)

He always knew what was in their best interest, but their quickness to act undermined his authority. In quietness before him, we are saying that we trust him and think him wiser than ourselves (Romans 11:33-36). He speaks to us in his perfect word today if we will listen.

Silent to Reflect

In the west, it is much more natural to medicate with constant movement than to plant our feet and face the brokenness in ourselves and the world. Yet, it has been said that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I agree with this statement so long as the starting point for self-examination is who God is. The most important thing about us, as A.W. Tozer said, is what we believe to be true about God, so we must always begin there. Nevertheless, it is crucial that we diligently carve out recurrent time for thoughtful reflection.

In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt provides a helpful framework for confession and repentance. You might like to use these questions to guide your reflection (in this order):

  1. Who is God?
  2. What has God done?
  3. Who am I?

The gospel applies to every area of our lives, and God’s character and redemptive work through Jesus Christ inform who we are in every season. Without habitual, gospel-centered reflection, we cannot truly confront our sin, and thus, we cannot truly embrace the gospel. This is why we need to regularly retreat, be silent, and meditate on God’s Word. We are actually closest to reality when we rest in distraction-free communion with the Lord (John 15:1-11). What can we ask of him?

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! -Psalm 139:23-24

In prayer, plead with God to reveal more of his character, expose hidden sin, and foster internal (Psalm 51:10) and external (Colossians 3:1-17) transformation.

Silent to Remember

Why should we be silent when there’s so much to be said? Because there is so much more to be heard and remembered. If only God is wise, what he has to say matters infinitely more than any other voice.

How can a man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statues; I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119:9-16

There is a kind of silence that guards us from forgetfulness. The more we reflect on who God is, the more we will come to remember and treasure him. No self-care regimen or escapist contemplative practice can ground us like quiet, focused meditation on God’s character can. If we feel safe to be silent in the presence of our most cherished friends, how much more secure are we in the presence of the Almighty God? Let us quiet our hearts and store up his word within them.

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