People seem to be roughly divided into two groups: those who speak too little, and those who speak too much. Beyond our natural inclinations, however, every one of us journeys through life ping-ponging between sound and silence. It is the dynamic tension between what is said and what’s left unsaid, between words expressed and words held back.
Silence can often keep us out of trouble. “Silence is health,” a common catchphrase goes. Or as a World War II poster put it: “Loose lips sink ships!”
Words that do not build often destroy.
Ancient Job found out the hard way about the limits of words uttered. After rhetorically contending with his wise guy friends and an unspeaking God, the time was ripe for him to listen. “Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer you?” Job told God. “I lay my hand over my mouth.” And he doubles down: “Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:4, 5).*
More than once even Jesus at climactic moments chose silence over words to make a point. “While He was being accused by the chiefs and elders, He answered nothing,” wrote Matthew in describing Jesus’ judgment before the Crucifixion (Matt. 27:12). What Jesus knew—and we’d all do well to remember—is that sometimes there’s nothing like silence to cry out our message. As investigative journalist Bob Woodward recently put it: “Sometimes you have just to wait and let the silence suck out the truth.”
You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.
The coin, however, has two sides. It’s no coincidence that totalitarian governments often resort to the “silence is health” dictum to advance their agenda. Be it in our family or our social or spiritual relationships, silence will not always do.
God seems to agree. “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know,” He inspired a prophet to write (Jer. 33:3). And through Isaiah God commands, “Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet” (Isa. 58:1).
Indeed, sometimes silence might even lead to death. When Mordecai entreated an undecided Esther to intervene on behalf of her people, he told her: “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14).
We own our words, and also our silences. Martin Luther reportedly said, “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.”
Devotion to a cause often demands tough love, the harsh words of reproach. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet,” wrote the prophet (Isa. 62:1, NIV).
Our careful navigating along the silence-sound continuum implies enlightenment not often found inside ourselves. Only heavenly insight can show us—as a person or as a group—when to choose silence over speaking; and which should be our “breaking point”; that instant when Martin the obscure monk becomes Martin Luther the Reformer, even against his wishes, and goes boldly out to change the world.
*Unless otherwise noted, Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Marcos Paseggi is senior news correspondent of Adventist Review.