Henri Nouwen wrote a hidden jewel of a book, The Way of the Heart, focusing readers on the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer. Through the pages, he often references St. Anthony and the desert fathers, a third century movement of monks who retreated into Egyptian deserts seeking a closer union with God. While I am certain Nouwen and I would have disagreed on many theological constructs, his book met me in God’s perfect timing.
After eighteen years of ministry, I hit a wall of compassion fatigue. My soul sought respite. I work with a ministry that connects and equips local leaders who are serving vulnerable people in their communities. Last year, after visiting some of our ministry partners in Kenya, I spent a few days resting and reflecting on the beautiful coast of the Indian Ocean. Highlighter, journal, and sticky tabs on hand, I devoured the book in one sitting.
Choosing my favorite sentence from this book served as a challenge, because God used the pages in many ways in my life. However, these words seemed to jump off the page with an extra bounce.
“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.”
Let’s chew on that for a minute.
We live in a world that is uncomfortable with silence. Sometimes, to avoid the awkwardness, we are quick to speak half-thought words. We have computers in our pocket that allow us to avoid silence with ease. Even when we are very comfortable with someone, the tendency is to fill every nook and cranny of time with words, music, or entertainment.
May I suggest that we let the quiet linger and say nothing? What if the situation most requires silence? A few immediate examples come to mind (from personal experience) of times when you should choose your words carefully or choose no words at all.
First, grief. My mom passed away seven years ago from a rare form of cancer. The visitation line provided a constant stream of hundreds of people who had come to pay their respects. I was so grateful to hear stories of the impact she had made on her students, ladies in her Sunday School class, and her friends. However, this was not the place for Christian platitudes.
“A new angel has gained their wings.” Theologically inaccurate.
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Can you help me find that verse in the Bible?
“I know exactly how you feel.” Not possible.
“Time will heal all wounds.” Threads of truth here, but still not helpful in the moment.
Do you see where I am heading with these examples? You may even sense my cynicism. After mom was gone, I wanted to be around people who were willing to just sit with me in the middle of my world shattering — people who didn’t feel obligated to fill the silence. Sure, there were times for words, but words were not always necessary. Find people who you can share a room with and not feel the need to always keep a conversation going.
There is a Hebrew word, shiva, that describes a period of grieving a close relative in Jewish traditions. Friends and family would come to the house that had lost a loved one and just sit with them. In fact, the terminology is often referred to as sitting shiva. The ministry of presence. The ministry of silence. Too often we try to comfort people with words of our flesh because we are uncomfortable with the silence. Sitting in silence with someone may be more comforting than actually saying words that aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit at work in us.
A second place where I have seen the high value of practicing the ministry of silence involves visiting our brothers and sisters who are making disciples overseas. Missionaries serving in cross cultural contexts or national ministry leaders who are caring for the vulnerable in their communities want to know that people are standing with them.
My Kenyan brother, Peter, often reminds me how valuable the ministry of presence is as he ministers in the slums of Nairobi. “It is great if you can send money to help support what we are doing, but if you can come see, smell, touch, and hear the work that is happening, God will use that in powerful ways for both of us.” Our volunteers don’t typically arrive overseas with answers to the current problems that disrupt vulnerable communities. Primarily, we come to learn, observe, encourage, and be present with our brothers and sisters. Of course, we aren’t mute during these visits. However, I can’t count the number of times I have been in a room with a cross-cultural friend in peace and quiet. Perhaps we were reading books, journaling, praying, soothing a child, or dozing off after a long day of ministry. We were joyful to have someone to share the silence with, and we did not feel that the silence needed a remedy.
For some of you, it must seem as if I am speaking a different language right now. The language of no words. As Nouwen says, this is a discipline. Disciplines take work. As you think of your silence as a service to other people, here are some final suggestions:
- Avoid platitudes.
- Don’t ask questions just to fill the void.
- Give space for processing and the Holy Spirit to work in a situation.
- Encourage with your presence.
- Be available to your people.
- Serve people with your silence rather than your words.
- Be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19).
- Use words with restraint (Proverbs 17:27).
Let’s press on together. And sometimes, let’s press on quietly.
Sara Beth Fentress is the founder and executive director of 127 Worldwide, a non-profit that helps Christians tangibly live out James 1:27. She is a graduate of Carson Newman University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. God has grown a passion in her heart for orphan care, advocacy, networking and discipleship. She lives in Raleigh, NC and is a covenant member of Imago Dei Church.