He who has knowledge spares his words: a man of understanding is of a calm breath. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace: he shuts his lips, "Perceptive!" (Proverbs 17:27-28, WAV)
...let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' 'no'. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. (Matthew 5:37, NKJV)
One of the classic Christian disciplines is silence. By far, it is the hardest to practice for me. Fasting, relatively easy--just stop eating (doesn't mean it happens much). Study, never stops. Prayer, strangely connected to silence, is probably the next hardest but I find myself praying much more than not talking.
I've been meditating on silence for quite some time. The connection in Scripture between control of the tongue and righteousness/justice has always intrigued me, but not just in an intellectual way; it has touched the very core of my being. There is a saying of Jesus where he speaks about every idle word coming under the judgement of God. As usual, Jesus means something a little bit deeper (but not esoteric): if idle words come under judgement, how much more those words spoken intentionally. In other words, let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' There was a time in my life when I was known for eloquent, lengthy prayers, especially in public. However, as I've grown more knowledgeable of the way language works and is used, I've come to see that most folks (including myself) who are verbose, whether politician or preacher, layman or lawyer, usually mean half of what they say and don't understand the other half. That is why, as of late, I've become so disillusioned with religious language. Too many people have used the language of God-is-on-our-side for rational assent. I've longed many times to hear our leaders, both political and spiritual, to just shut up. That is why the 'yes' and 'no' passage is so important: every word we speak should be treated as a vow. How do we know if God is on our side?
Add to this the times that the Bible speaks about not taking rash vows. All the more reason to drop the dressing from words and speak plainly. However, there is power in language, especially if you can make someone believe something and help them create a symbolic universe based on words (linguists and sociologists agree that this is the formative-normative nature of language). "Us v. Them" is the most powerful set of words that I know of, and also the most dangerous.
But, what am I saying? That is exactly the question. I can complain about those in power till I'm blue in the face, but the log will remain in my own eye. In other words, until I'm silent, who can I expect anyone else to be--especially those whose job it is to talk!
There is a passage in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline in which he speaks about justifying our actions. Really, it is the reason that I wanted to write this post. It is amazing how often I try and give my actions a little different spin with words because the action is either ambiguous or may really reveal my intentions. Silence disciplines, then, not only the tongue, but the whole body, as James says. If I were to let my actions speak for themselves, Francis of Assisi-style, I would need to be much more intentional with how I act. Silence leads not only to purity and clarity of words, but purity and clarity of action.
Such is the discipline of silence.