“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence”
— Simon and Garfunkel, “Sound of Silence”
Simon and Garfunkel’s song rings just as true today as it did in 1966. We are so intent on getting our point across it has become difficult to speak or to hear.
You have heard “silence is golden” and perhaps “silence kills.” Both are true. What we desperately need for the duration of our lives is rarely more words, but rather the wisdom to know when, where, and how to use them ... or not.
The prophet Amos said, “Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time.” (Amos 5:13). Jeremiah conversely cried out, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” (Jeremiah 4:13). I am not suggesting that we are in an especially evil time or that, God forbid, we need to raise the alarm of war. I am suggesting that to keep silence or to speak requires thought and intention.
It is also true that some decide silence is the appropriate response to a situation and another decide that speaking is necessary. There is the possibility that both are right.
Pope Gregory the Great had some guidance for spiritual leaders that I believe all leaders would do well to apply. “The ruler should be discreet in keeping silence, profitable in speech; lest he either utter what ought to be suppressed or suppress what he ought to utter. For, as incautious speaking leads into error, so indiscreet silence leaves in error those who might have been instructed. For often improvident rulers, fearing to lose human favor, shrink timidly from speaking freely the things that are right; and, according to the voice of the Truth, serve unto the custody of the flock by no means with the zeal of shepherds, but in the way of hirelings.”
Silence among our leaders when dealing with difficult issues, hoping that it will go away, is the way of a coward. Silence among citizens when other citizens are not being treated fairly is the way of the complacent. Silence when refusing to return evil words for evil words is the way of love and courage. Silence when suffering for doing the right thing shows commitment to righteousness.
The Proverbs tell us in 26:4-5, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” It takes wisdom from above to know which is which.
It is also important to know when to stop talking. The language is a little archaic in this translation, but in the same chapter Gregory says, “Rulers ought also to guard with anxious thought not only against saying in any way what is wrong, but against uttering even what is right overmuch and inordinately; since the good effect of things spoken is often lost, when enfeebled to the hearts of hearers by the incautious importunity of loquacity; and this same loquacity, which knows not how to serve for the profit of the hearers, also defiles the speaker.”
There is a point at which we have said enough, all that we need to say. Then be quiet. I have certainly been guilty of speaking when I should have been quiet and been quiet when I should have spoken.
We may think of silence as something that just happens because we fail to speak. I would suggest that it is never that. The way we live our lives and the way we think about God, our fellow human beings, the earth we live upon, justice, and every area of our lives is reflected in our speaking or silence.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.