What is it about silence that makes people so uncomfortable? As an introvert, I thrive on silence. Yet when I’m in a group of people or with one person and I don’t say anything (because I genuinely have nothing to say), they grow uneasy. Or when I’m reading a book rather than socialising with people, they also grow uneasy, so they rudely interrupt my growing relationship with the good book. As an introvert, I only talk when I believe it’s necessary—that is, when I believe what I have to say is worth saying (this doesn’t mean I don’t say stupid things from time to time). I just don’t see the point of saying anything if it’s just meaningless talk (i.e. small talk).
A couple years ago I wrote my 1,167th poem inspired by Proverbs 29:9, “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.” The poem is called, “Loud World,” and it reads as follows:
People speculate at my silent nature, —
an anomaly that I don’t talk much.
The world is loud enough as it is;
I shall not add to it with foolish talk.
What are a thousand words set against eternity?
Eternal significance equates to God’s glory.
Speak with a mind focused on God,
lest you find yourself adding to the noise.
In this poem, I’m describing how my introversion is an anomaly to a lot of people and that I usually only talk if it has significance. In my mind, if it’s insignificant and meaningless, why bother saying anything at all? It’s just a waste of breath and time. Perceive that as a flaw if you will, but that’s how I’ve been for my entire adult life.
We live in a loud world. People are constantly talking about things that don’t really matter and even when we pray, we don’t wait on the Lord long enough before we start talking with words of complaint again. Sometimes, words are unnecessary. When Job’s suffering was so great, his three “friends” sat with him for seven days and nights and didn’t even say a word (Job 2:13). They simply sat with him for comfort because they knew words would not be enough. (Granted, they did falter and began to make meaningless and erroneous speculations on Job’s suffering.)
Sometimes, we may not even have the right words to express ourselves to God, in which case the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf. “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). So, silence before God—and silence in general—are not at all bad things. In fact, Scripture exhorts us to be silent before God.
I think a profound figure we have in the Bible as an example of silence before God is Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus. Much is said about Mary the mother of Jesus, and even Mary’s cousin Elisabeth in the gospel of Luke; but not much is said about Joseph. Why is this? Is it because Joseph had little to no role to play in Jesus’ life? Not at all. In fact, when Luke gives accounts of Jesus’ childhood (which is unique to Luke alone), we see Joseph was still a father figure to Jesus. He still took care of Him as a father would his child. He also took pregnant Mary and fled to Egypt to protect her and the unborn Jesus when the angel warned him of Herod’s edict to kill all children two years and younger. A silent role, but an extremely important one.
Also, when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he (wrongly) assumed she was promiscuous and decided to do the honourable thing to divorce her quietly rather than publicly and thus bring shame to her and her family. But when God sent an angel to Joseph telling him what he revealed to Mary, Joseph literally doesn’t say anything (that we know of) and does as the angel told him to do (Matthew 1:18-25). When the angel appears to Mary and Zechariah, they both respond with words (albeit in different ways). Joseph, however, doesn’t say anything. Is this because Joseph is unimportant? Or is it because he truly didn’t say anything? We can’t know for sure, but considering the pattern of faithful response to God’s messengers being with words of praise, I find it highly unlikely that Joseph did say something and it was left out because he’s supposedly unimportant or what he said—if he said anything—was insignificant. I think it is far more likely that Joseph exemplified silent obedience.
Joseph’s silence speaks volumes. When God called Moses to free the Hebrew slaves, he had a lot of questions about whether or not he was the right person for the job. When God called Jonah to proclaim His Word to the Ninevites, he refused and ran from his calling. And when Jonah eventually did proclaim God’s Word to Nineveh, he complained to God when He forgave them after their repentance. Even Abraham questioned God. Abraham silently obeyed God in leaving his country and countrymen to go to another place, but he also questioned God’s promise, “Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:3). Even though he questioned God’s ability, God still assured him He would keep His promise in the subsequent verses.
All these important figures in the Bible questioned God at some point, yet Joseph was the only one who was silently obedient. We literally don’t have any words spoken by Joseph.
But what is silent obedience to God? Beyond not saying anything, what does it mean?
Psalm 37:7a says, Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for Him…” Patience is the key word. We’re not patient when we begin to question God’s will for us and the promises He’s made. We’re not patient when we ask Him to hurry up or when we ask for a sign. When we’re patient, we’re silent because if we’re patient, why would we need to say anything?
We’re patient before God because we trust Him; and because we trust Him, we are silent because we know nothing needs to be said. “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). This always makes me think of what God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). In other words, “I am God and because I am God, what I say will happen will happen. What I say I will do, I will do. So, be still, and know this, for I alone bring it into effect.”
The prophet Zechariah preached to the Jewish exiles, “Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for He has roused Himself from His holy dwelling” (Zechariah 2:13). God has promised to hear the cries of His people. He heard the cries of Israel in their Egyptian captivity. So, He rose and delivered them. He also did this in His own timing. In the same way, through various prophets God has promised Israel deliverance from their Babylonian captivity. Eventually, God rose and allowed them to return to their homeland. Most of all, God promised the Messiah since the fall (Genesis 3:15), and in His proper timing, He sent His Son in the flesh to die for us and thus save us from sin, death, and the Devil. And now, we are in another waiting period: the wait for the Messiah’s second return. We pray for the Lord’s return, but not with disrespectful impatience, but rather with a longing for His final redemption.
So, let us be silent and wait. I like the following words of Luther, “We may not always perceive that those things for which we ask in faith are present, but they have assuredly been obtained, and they will appear in their proper time” (from Annotations on Matthew, Luther’s Works 67:60).
So, what can we do to practice silence before God? At the risk of coming across snarky, keep your mouth shut. Going off of what Luther said, if we were to put it in sequential steps, practicing silence before God would look like this:
- Pray in faith, which means:
- Know and believe God has heard our prayer, then
- Shut up and wait.
To be silent before God is to pray, believe, shut up, and wait. It might take a while. The Israelites were in Egyptian slavery for 400 years before God acted upon their prayers. They prayed in faith, they believed, and they shut up and waited. Then God, in His proper timing, delivered them. The Israelites were also in Babylonian captivity for 70 years before God delivered them. It wasn’t until thousands of years after the fall until Jesus came to this earth and defeated sin, death, and the Devil. It’s been about 2,000 years since His resurrection, and it may be another 1,000 years or more before He returns again. God hears the prayers of His people for His coming and deliverance, and He promises its actuation. And in His timing, He acts on His promise.
God may acquiesce to our prayers, He may say no (which is usually better for us), or He may say no and do something we do not expect but is better than what we expected. It might take some time—and it won’t do us any good if we try to rush God—but His decision for us is always good for us, even when it’s not what we expect or want.