Is silence really golden?

It’s said that silence is golden, but is it really? Is it always? Could silence sometimes show cowardice rather than courage?  Or could it be just unwise?

Sometimes silence is the perfect response. Ecclesiastes confirms it:

“There is a time for everything … a time to be silent.”

There you have it. It’s in God’s word. It’s even in the collection called “wisdom literature”. But the counterpoint appears immediately afterwards: There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak.[1]

If you want a rain poncho, one size might fit all. But when it comes to conflict, one expression of wisdom doesn’t fit all situations.

Confronted by what we now know about the institutional sexual abuse of children across the world, the silence of those who knew about such wickedness, and the complicity of those who concealed what they knew – or what they should reasonably have suspected – is awful. Where was their courage? Where was their righteousness? Where was their love or their duty of care? Gripped by fear, their silence was wretched and a vast array of people suffered because of it.

Silence is golden sometimes. It’s the perfect response sometimes. When you don’t know what to say, try silence – at least to start with. Why make things worse by saying something rash, harmful, even hateful? When you’re angry or upset, when your emotions have knocked your brain out of gear, wouldn’t that be a good time to be silent? When your kids or parents are driving you round the bend, the phone rings, there’s a knock at the door and your spouse – just home from work – wants help to bring in the groceries – perhaps 30 seconds of silence might be just what’s needed (ok, ten seconds to get your head together – 30 might be misinterpreted).

James would agree:

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”[2]

A bit later on he says,

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”[3]

Especially in times of tension, it’s good to remember that “a person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”[4]

Silence gives an opportunity for evaluation. Does this thing matter? Is it something I can comfortably overlook and forgive and never have to come back to? Alternatively, am I going to brood on this thing and store it up in my record of wrongs to hit back at the offender when I have the upper hand? Is it something that’s going to do lasting damage to one or more of my relationships? Is anyone else being hurt by it? Is God, yes God, being dishonoured by the conduct that’s upset me or the issue that I’m grappling with?

If those later questions have a “yes” answer, then in this matter silence is probably not the right strategy in the longer term. Be silent in the moment. Perhaps even a bit longer while you ask God for wisdom and try to work out the best time, place and manner to raise the issue with the other party.

But don’t stay silent forever.

Find kind words to express the core issue that’s upset you. Find words that will do good to the other person. Find words that breathe life (not deathly anger); words that bring hope; words that show that you value your relationships and want to improve them; words that speak of commitment to the other person and a desire to do them good and not evil. And then, in the calming peace of the Holy Spirit, share those words gently, lovingly and prayerfully. After all, if someone acts towards you in an unhelpful way, shouldn’t you try to restore them gently as you watch over yourself so that you don’t fall into temptation?[5]

If you struggle to do these things, why not enrol in a PeaceWise course in 2021? If you’ve done the introductory courses, go on to learn even more. The 2021 training programme is now available here, so you’ll have plenty of time to plan for it well in advance. If you need immediate help, perhaps you haven’t heard that PeaceWise is offering two free personal coaching sessions of 40 minutes’ each with a trained conflict coach. For more information, contact PeaceWise.

To help you think more about the Bible’s teaching right now, check out Ephesians 4:25-32. That really is golden – always.

This article was written by Bruce Meller.

Bruce Meller has had a life-long interest in overcoming conflicts, both personal and organisational. He is the Assembly Clerk for the Presbyterian Church of Australia and is the immediate past Superintendent of Ministry & Mission, Presbyterian Church (NSW).  By his own admission, he’s tried too many wrong strategies and now tries to focus on those that he knows work: seeing conflict as an opportunity to glorify God, do good to others, and grow to be like Jesus. BTW – he’s married, has three adult kids and nine grandchildren, most of whom he can’t see because of the current pandemic. About that frustration it’s best that he remains silent. ?

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b.

[2] James 1:19-20

[3] James 1:26

[4] Proverbs 19:11

[5] Galatians 6:1

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