Part 3: Silence and Word, Stillness and Action
“Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech. One does not exist without the other.”
I don’t know about you but there are times when I can literally feel it—deep in my bones—that if I do not shut my mouth for a while, I will get myself in trouble. This trouble will come either because I am tired and lacking in the energy to be disciplined in my use of words or because I haven’t been quiet enough in God’s presence for my words to be connected with any sense of what God is saying in the moment. There are times—especially when I am in the middle of speaking five times in a row or have been with people way too much—that I feel like crying out, “Somebody please stop me!”
The Scriptures describe the futility of undisciplined human verbosity by pointing out that “in the multitude of words there is much transgression.” (Proverbs 10:19) This is a truth that could drive us ministry folks to despair given the incessant flow of words from our mouths, pens and computers. Those of us who deal in words are at great risk of misusing words and even sinning with our words due to the sheer volume of them!
The rhythm of silence and word is the only cure for this desperate situation. In silence our speech patterns are refined because silence fosters self-awareness that enables us to choose more truly the words that we say. Rather than speech that is motivated by our subconscious need to impress, to put others in their place, to compete, to control, to manipulate, to put a good spin on things…we are able to notice our inner dynamics and make choices that are more grounded in love, trust and God-given wisdom. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “There is a wonderful power of clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing in being quiet…Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.”
Silence gives us a way to practice restraint when everything in us screams to fly off the handle. The Psalmist says, “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your bed and be silent. Offer right sacrifices (in other words, stay faithful to your spiritual practices) and put your trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 4:4) These are times when the most heroic thing a leader can do is to remain in that private place with God for as long as it takes to keep from sinning. In this place we consciously trust ourselves to God rather than everything else we could be doing in the moment.
Waiting for God to Act
Practicing rhythms of silence and stillness help us learn to wait on God—which doesn’t come easily for those of us who are so busy trying to make things happen. A major discipline of leadership is to learn how to wait and recognize God’s direction in our lives and in our world before taking action ourselves. Moses learned this lesson so well in his forty year experience in the wilderness that when the challenges of leadership came fast and hard, his first response was to be still and wait until he recognized God’s way forward even in the midst of danger and uncontrolled panic.
In Exodus 14, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea that was in front of them and the Egyptians who were pursuing from behind; Moses’ ability to take decisive action in this impossible situation emerged from a clear sense of what he had heard from God. Through Moses, God instructed the Israelites to move forward as Moses lifted his staff and stretched out his hand over the water so that the water would divide. It was the exactly the right thing to do but it was something none of them would have thought up on their own. If Moses had not practiced orienting himself to God’s voice speaking deep within and had not been disciplined enough to wait on taking action until God’s guidance was clear, there would have been a completely different outcome.
Staying in Rhythm
The key to the efficacy of the rhythm of silence and word, stillness and action, is holding them together in a beautiful tension. If we pray and never do anything, God’s will will never actually be done. If we keep doing things but shun silence and stillness, chances are our actions will be less than what is really needed. This is polarity management and it leads us to embrace yet another great paradox of leadership: the more we are called upon to use words, the more silence we need. The more active leadership required of us and the greater the need for decisive action, the more we need to cultivate stillness—the capacity to wait on God long enough to receive God’s clear direction for whatever is facing us. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still. And then out of the stillness, you get up and do whatever God tells you to do.
©Ruth Haley Barton. Not to be used without permission.