32 years ago, a man named Henri Nouwen wrote a little book called “the way of the heart”. This small book significantly changed how I use my words when I read it 11 years ago. One of the most powerful portions of the book is a chapter on the value of silence. He writes:
“Over the last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words. Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence.
It has not always been this way. There was a time not too long ago without radios and televisions, stop signs, yield signs, merge signs, bumper stickers, and the ever-present announcements indicating price increases or special sales. There was a time without the advertisements which now cover whole cities with words. Recently I was driving through Los Angeles, and suddenly I had the strange sensation of driving through a huge dictionary. Wherever I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road. They said ‘Use me, take me, buy me, drink me, smell me, touch me, kiss me, sleep with me’. In such a world who can maintain respect for words?
All this is to suggest that words, my own included, have lost their creative power. Their limitless multiplication has made us lose confidence in words and caused us to think, more often than not, ‘They are just words’…The result of this is that the main function of the word, which is communication, is no longer realized. The word no longer communicates, no longer fosters communion, no longer creates community, and therefore no longer gives life. The word no longer offers trustworthy ground on which people can meet each other & build society.”
32 years later, the things he wrote have more relevance than ever. We are now living in a social media generation. Wherever we go, our Iphones go with us. We are constantly tweeting, updating our status, looking at people’s news feeds, sharing the details of our lives. While these things aren’t all bad, I fear that the power of words is being lost more than ever. We are becoming the fulfillment of the old Shakespeare quote, “full of noise and fury, signifying nothing.”
I’m not trying to write an article to get people off social media, but in the midst of all these words I think it’s helpful to step back and take a look at the big picture. What are our words accomplishing? Are they provoking people to love Jesus? Does the Lord endorse what we’re saying?
In order for our words to matter in eternity, they must come from the source Himself, the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Every word he spoke carried weight. Every act He did had significance. He’s the Man who said:
“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” –Matt 12:36-37
Our words are a big deal to God.
We must learn when to speak and when not to speak. Social media has created a young adult culture in which we speak everything, all the time. But the Bible says:
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” -Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7
A problem arises if we’re always talking: we’re never listening. In order to speak with authority we must first learn to listen – to Jesus, and to the people around us.
What would happen if some of us kept silent for a season to gain a true word from the Lord? What would happen if we guarded the fire within so that our words eternally impacted a generation? What would happen if our words had authority & unction on them because we knew when to speak and when not to speak?
Henri Nouwen concluded the subject with this:
“In our chatty world, in which the word has lost it’s power to communicate, silence helps us to keep our mind and heart anchored in the future world and allows us to speak from there a creative and recreative word to the present world. This silence can also give us concrete guidance in our ministry. Too often our words are superfluous, inauthentic, and shallow. It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.
But having acknowledged this, a more important message is that silence is above all a quality of the heart that can stay with us even in our conversation with others …After all, silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth. Abba Poemen said ‘A man may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent.’ The final question concerning our ministry of silence is not whether we say much or little, but whether our words call forth the caring silence of God himself”.