Silence is Golden

by Shea Oakley

'Tis better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt." -Unknown

We are told in several places in the Old and New Testaments that remaining quiet is often the better alternative to speaking. The wise are often portrayed as persons of few words and fools as those who do not know when to stop talking.

Despite the apparent clarity of scriptural teaching on the need to listen more than speak, we denizens of the 21st century Church do not seem to get it. In our media-saturated "talking-head" society everyone seems to want to make himself heard as often as possible. Perhaps this is connected with the "15 minutes of fame" idea. The more we talk the more chance we have to get our egos gratified in the public square.

As in so very many other of today's crumbling personal disciplines, Christians are often indistinguishable from their secular counterparts when it comes to using their mouth more than their ears. (Before I come across as insufferably judgmental let me state for the record that I am terrible at keeping his mouth shut. I have somewhat improved in this area in recent years, but the fact remains that I love to hear the sound of my own voice. Call it "vocal narcissism").

As the old folk proverb says, "we have two ears and only one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak". It is probably safe to say that the proportion suggested here has been pretty effectively reversed in contemporary culture. In fact the two-to-one speaking/listening ratio is probably too conservative to describe many of us.

Beyond that, it sometimes seems as if the person who actually does hold their tongue for a time during polite conversation is not doing it to listen so much as to think about what they are going to say next. Truly attentive listening is a lost art.

This is spiritually dangerous for two reasons. The first is the aforementioned narcissism, also known as ungodly self-centeredness. The second is the fact that children of God are supposed to hang on every word that comes from His mouth in order to live a life pleasing to Him. This is hard to do when we will not let Him get a word in edgewise!

Prayer, for instance, was always intended by God to be two-way communication. Our relationship with our Lord will be stunted if we speak our prayers without ever pausing to hear His reply. It is only in the quiet, which comes when we finally learn to shut up, that we begin to hear that "still, small voice" the Bible tells us is often God's preferred means of contact with us. God will not shout to be heard over our verbal torrents and until we come to grips with that fact we will miss out on hearing from the One it is most needful for us to listen to.

I do not have any easy answer for this trend towards Christian verbosity. It is tempting to suggest that we need to take a page from the Desert Fathers of the early church and go to some remote place for a good long while where we could be by ourselves. With no audience within 25 miles maybe we would learn to appreciate the quiet and make it our own habit to be quiet ourselves. But the world we live in today does not make that particularly easy to do. The vast majority of us cannot take a three-month sabbatical from human company. We have to find another way.

Perhaps the answer is to carve out times of solitude each day as a way to practice quietness. We might even do the unthinkable and actually ask our friends and family whether we talk too much and too foolishly. If they are honest with us we might just be shocked enough by their answer to consider the wisdom of silence. The revelation that our feet are regularly spending time in our mouths may actually be enough to make us keep those mouths safely closed.

Copyright 2007 Shea Oakley
All rights reserved

Shea Oakley has written for a number of Christian Web magazines.
He makes his home in West Milford, New Jersey.

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