When I was seven years old, I lived in an apartment building with fifteen floors. I used to spend hours on the elevator, talking to whoever came in. I’d greet them and take the few minutes before their stop to learn their name and what they had done that day. Then I’d tell them whatever was on my mind, say goodbye, and see where the elevator summoned me next. Now, let’s just get the elephant out of the room and acknowledge that allowing a child that kind of freedom today would be very unusual (my parents never accompanied me; I think they found it was a nice way to get me to stop talking to them for awhile).
That said, we all have a need for connection. It is a human need that God has placed in each one of us, whether we’re extroverts or introverts. Which is why I’ve always struggled with what Scripture says about the virtues of silence. The book of Proverbs continually praises the silence, with such maxims as “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (17:28). Another Proverb goes similarly, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (13:3).
In the lectionary this week, we read in the fourth Psalm, “Be angry, and do not sin. Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent” (v. 4).
Although this verse specifically refers to remaining silent when we are angry, in order to avoid saying something hasty and rash, I think it can also mean that we should stay silent at other times when we most want to speak. In fact, it is often in these times of needing to talk that God prompts us instead to listen—to him, to another person, to our own exhale as we realize that not everything should be spoken. When someone has offended us and they are just begging for our biting retort; when someone brings up their own accolades and we can one-up them with our own stories; when someone is simply wrong and clearly in need of correction…these are times when we can remember to ponder in our own hearts, and remain silent.
There are certainly some personality types that lean towards silence naturally, whether from introversion or shyness. And as someone with an introverted spouse who can drive me up the wall with his preference for silence, I have to say, however ironic it is to have to say something on this topic, that speaking is valuable and important too. There are times when refraining from speaking can be just as damaging as an ill-chosen or ill-timed word. In the wisdom of Solomon, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7b). Whatever your personality, most of us face the temptation to speak when silence would be wise. It’s just that this temptation tends to especially afflict elevator-riding extroverts like me.