A Noisy World

I can remember the first time I got my mouth washed out soap. Actually, I might still be able to taste the suds. What did I do to deserve this? I said two words to my younger brother, two forbidden words that in our home constituted an act of aggression: “Shut up.” These two words, which at that time merited the discipline of my parents, could serve as the thesis statement for this article. Some people, including Superwoman (Warning: not the real superwoman) seem to have really specific times that they hope people will remain silent. I feel her frustration; the chatter around us seems to be deafening.

To know when to speak with wisdom and when to stay silent in wisdom, we must draw near in silence to the One who is wisdom.Everyone has something to say. Now, more than ever before, they have the tools to say it to the world. ISIS beheads another innocent aid worker? TV channels will cover the pictures in “Breaking News” graphics. Post a Facebook comment about the heartbreaking death of an aunt suffering from disease? People you haven’t talked to in years will Like your post. In a day of live-tweeted tragedies and executions broadcast online, I fear that we have lost the sense that there are times when the wisest thing to do is refrain from commenting. Sometimes, there is nothing to say. I fear that we have forgotten that silence can be the loudest and wisest word spoken.

Must we always tweet, post, or tag to process the horror of tragedy or the delight of beauty? Someone once said that “wisdom cries aloud in the street,” but I can’t hear her over the buzz of my iPhone, the hum of music in the background, and last night’s Colbert Report. But what if I began to consult with wisdom, shrieking in the street, and asked her what counsel she would give us as we consider the relationship between silence and wisdom? What might Sophia say?

If we listened to the cry of wisdom, we might hear her singing the praises of silence. Wisdom requires silence to flourish. In order for wisdom to characterize how we speak about love, suffering, truth, goodness, and beauty, we must learn how and when to shut out and when to shut up.

Shutting Out

Silence is vital for wisdom to flourish. Shutting out the clamor of the world allows wisdom to come near. Heidegger was concerned that we may be distracted by all the gerede, or “chatter.” When we shut out this chatter, we can move toward living a more authentic life. Shutting out is not the only ingredient in the stew of wisdom, but it is one of the key spices. When we withdraw to the quiet places, we create opportunities to listen and process. Read through the tech savvy magazines of today and you will find some prophet in every issue pleading with people to incorporate turning off, logging out, and digitally detoxing as rhythms in our lives. In a world full of noise, much of our own making, people are starting to see the value that silence provides. Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this discovery; we have a rich tradition of cultivating times of silence for the purposes of prayer, meditation, and reflection. Even Jesus would shut out the world: He would rise “very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he would depart and go out to a desolate place, and he would pray there” (Mark 1:35). Shutting out is insulating the house of wisdom before winter comes; it keeps the warmth inside.

Embracing the wisdom of silence is not just avoiding speech, it’s creating space to listen to God, so that the “fear of the Lord” can drive out all other fears. What was Jesus doing when He would withdraw to silent places? Well, we know what He was doing in the Garden on the eve of His crucifixion: “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly.” I can assure you, no voice other than the voice of God could comfort the Savior in this agony. Deep grief cannot be consoled by trite words, Likes, or emojis. Deep grief requires people willing to be in the presence of the mournful and to mourn with them. The wise among us will wet their clothes with the tears of the weeping. The wise among us will celebrate the victories and the joys of those who dance. The wise will withdraw to silence to hear the voice of God and keep silent when words are not enough.

Shutting Up

Wisdom doesn’t just flourish when we create space for silence; wisdom is honored and exhibited when we remain silent. In a day of “hot takes,” where people feel both the burden and the desire to say something about everything, our ears are stuffed full with nonsense. Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, begins his book On Bullshit by making the painfully obvious claim, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” I agree. When everyone is yelling in different directions at the same time, no one hears Sophia crying in the street. If Christians want to speak with wisdom as they interact with culture or comfort the suffering and the marginalized, maybe they should speak less. Don’t believe me? Maybe the Black Eyed Peas can convince you. The voice of wisdom sounds a little like Will.I.Am when he shouts, “Shut up, just shut up, shut up.”

Silence is a form of speaking wisely. Evidently, the writer of proverbs believes that the person who “restrains his words has knowledge” (Prov. 17:27). The writer will go on to say that “even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). Having heard from the sage, why not listen to the poets? Simon and Garfunkel once lamented, “People talking without speaking / People hearing without listening / People writing songs that voices never share and no one dared disturb the sound of silence.” The sound of silence has been disturbed and disrupted, maybe if we were to recover it, there would be fewer people “talking without speaking and hearing without listening.” Could it be that in an age of constant noise, silence might speak volumes?

Silence as the Voice of Wisdom

My wife and I have had to learn what it means to be silent before the Lord. We have had to discipline ourselves to “be still, and know that he is God.” We’ve learned it because my wife has a genetic lung disease, which means we occasionally find ourselves in the hospital. We love having people come to visit, and we count it a joy to get to share a meal with them, but we also sense the burden they feel as they enter the room: a burden to help us make sense of the situation, a noble desire to comfort us in the midst of our affliction, and a hope that they can say a word to cheer us up. Yet, without fail, we almost never remember what they say. On top of this, we too feel the desire to put words to the suffering, embracing the Nietzschean idea that if we could just “label/name it” we could control it. But when we fight this desire to let our words or the words of others be our warm blanket, we find comfort in the silence and presence.

I can’t tell you what Steve, an elder at our church, said when he came into our hospital room this past March. I have no idea and can’t possibly remember, but every time I see him walk through our church lobby I remember that he came. He was there. He was in the room. I can remember that he wore jeans and a zipped up North Face jacket. I can remember that he placed his huge east Texas hand on my shoulder and his grip tightened as he prayed over my wife and me. Steve barely said a word, but his voice that afternoon was deafening.

Certainly there are times when silence is foolish. If our silence takes the form of indifference or cowardice in the face of evil or suffering, than it is the opposite of wisdom. The fool “says in his heart that there is no God” (Prov. 14:1), then proceeds to live accordingly. Who can forget the words of the priest at the beginning of Boondock Saints, you know, right before two Irish men go on a murderous rampage: “We must all fear evil men, but there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is, the indifference of good men.” Silence in the face of injustice is foolishness. Injustice will flourish when those acquainted with justice keep silent. So, what’s the balance? We should speak with wisdom and courage when opposing evil and hold back our words when comforting those suffering as a result of evil. Link arms and join the chant of those oppose the forces of evil, but draw near in gentleness to those whose suffering is a result of that evil.

Pursuing wisdom might include both of these practices, shutting out and shutting up. When we measure our words, holding back our speech if we can’t taste wisdom in our mouths, our silence becomes a form of speech that yields clarity. In order to know when to speak with wisdom and when to stay silent in wisdom, we must draw near in silence to the One who is wisdom, the divine Word in whom we find the wellspring of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash my mouth out with soap.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.