Silence: Friend or Foe?

Sitting in a locked room after a trial is finally over and anxious to get home after weeks of being sequestered, I can envision the fervent banter exchanged across the table, as the jury deliberates a verdict.  The crowds and the news cameras will only hear the final word, "Guilty or Not guilty," but they will not hear the nuances of the discussion or the debates of a torn conscience.

I would not want to be on the jury when silence is on trial.  Is silence our friend or our foe?  Is silence a menace or a blessed friend?  I can envision the divisive deliberation around the table, "Nothing is accomplished by sitting in silence!  It is lazy and wasteful!"  I can hear the doubts formed by a world full of constant noise, "Silence drives me crazy!  I feel lonely and worse in the emptiness of silence!"  I can imagine staunch, opposing viewpoints from "silence fails to honor the people in our lives" to "we will burnout from fatigue if we never slow down."

The evidence is mixed, providing little clarity.  With too much inactivity, we are less productive.  We leave too many items off of the daily to-do list.  What would happen if everyone started to sit down and do nothing?  We cannot bring the world to a halt. 

On the other hand, there is evidence to the contrary.  We cannot work continuously because we will stop thinking clearly or acting responsibly.  We need to slow down in order to gain direction and to make plans.  The pace of life has to have multiple speeds.   We can actually become more productive, certainly in quality as much as in quantity, by inserting silence into our work.

The poor jury could argue endlessly for hours, deliberating such mixed evidence, and the evidence is largely unconvincing for either verdict.  Silence should never stand trial, for it is less about productivity and more about discovery.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind" (Ecc 4.6).  We are not meant to chase the wind, which oddly enough, is found more in our work than in the discovery of silence. 

Once, I arrived early to a business meeting ready to work only to find the room completely empty.  Since I expected the chairs to be filled with people and to hear side conversations already taking place, the room felt particularly hollow.  It was lonely and disappointing.  With only an hour before the meeting would begin, I sat in a chair and waited in the silence.  Sitting in the loneliness of the room, I waited until it filled with the presence of others.  In silence, we discover the presence of God, waiting until the hiddenness of God is seen, which is evident in the clarity of stillness. 

The discovery of silence or the silence of discovery is both inviting and frightening.  It is inviting because we long to rest from the frantic pace of each day.  We are able to turn down the noise around us and sit in the stillness of the love of God, which is always welcoming.  Silence is also frightening because we are not chasing the wind, distracted and sidetracked; rather, we listen intently, we see clearly, and we feel deeply, which means that we listen not only to God, but also to our lives.  It can be frightening because we hear our deepest fears and our highest hopes without any interruptions.

The psalms speak beautifully of the gift of silence, "For God alone my soul waits in silence" (Ps 62.5).  We find that the Lord is our keeper (Ps 121.5), God is our shelter (Ps 27.5), and God is our stronghold (Ps 18.2), so in silence, we should feel sturdy and confident.  When Jesus speaks of silence, though, we feel both sure-footed and unsteady at the same time.  Jesus says, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while" (Mk 6.31).  We feel both sure-footed and unsteady because on the road of discipleship, we are always walking towards the cross of Good Friday on the horizon. 

Silence is frightening because we are not chasing the wind; we are following Jesus the Christ.  We find that God, who is our keeper, our shelter, and our stronghold, leads with the strength of hope and the abandon of love.  Too often, we restrain from silence because it is frightening, erecting scaffolding around our lives to hold everything together.  We create the illusion of control, settling for the feeling of equilibrium instead of peace, which is found in silence. 

We try to control what is on the outside, but we forget about the emptiness on the inside.  When the illusion of control is dismantled, as life is cruel and unforgiving at times, we realize that we long for peace.  Silence anchors us in the hidden presence of God, allowing us to see God, who is always there.  If we only work on the outside, we are chasing the wind.  In silence, we find peace, not equilibrium, but a peace that will lead us forward, which honestly can be frightening.  It is frightening because in silence, we are vulnerable and willing to follow where God might lead.