>In times of tragedy, death, or suffering, people have a tendency to talk too much. After all, who wants to just sit still in uncomfortable silence? If human speech pauses at such moments, we fear that our Christian faith is rendered mute and impotent at at time when it should be shining forth with great insight, purpose, and meaning. Ironically enough, at such times it is often our verbose religious defenses that chip away at a robust faith, not the awkward silences that we so desperately want to fill with words.
I understand what you are going through.
I know it seems hard to believe right now, but everything happens for a purpose.
Sometimes God does things to get our attention.
Well, I guess God needed an angel.
God understands … God suffers with …
I could go on, but you get the point and you likely have heard such words or spoken them (or ones like them) at some point or another. My point here is not that we need to have a richer theology of suffering for such occasions, though that would be an improvement over most of the drivel that rolls off the consoling tongue. The point is that silence IS a theological response to suffering. No, silence is not the only response – and it may be insufficient or inappropriate if wielded for too long or for the wrong reasons – but that does not mean that it cannot also be the rich and fertile soul of insight, reflection, consolation, and discernment.
Besides this positive reason for observing silence, there are plenty of negative ones. As Job reminds us, words are weapons, sometimes in spite of the speaker’s good or bad intentions. In the midst of Job’s great suffering, he hears from “friends” who seek to console, explain, and advise. To their great credit, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz observed silence – something that we too often forget:
Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him … they met together to go and console and comfort him. … They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 1:11-13)
The first person to break this silence was Job, who vents, rages, and bemoans the day he was born. Job’s “friends” did not take issue with his silence, but it was his speech that they thought demanded a theological response. How could they just sit there and let him curse his own existence? As good religious folk, how could they sit by idly with Job drawing erroneous theological conclusions? So the friends fill the air with platitudes, exhortations, and explanations. The time for silence is over, so they thought. Again, to their credit, they went seven days longer than most people would today. If their speech teaches us anything, it tells us that observing silence is not enough; one also needs to exercise discernment for all speech in such circumstances – the “when” as well as the “where” and the “what” of our speech.
Job’s response demonstrates the danger of speaking too soon and too thoughtlessly:
Look, my eye has seen all this,
my ear has heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.
But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent,
that would be your wisdom! (13:1-5)
Job illuminates several problems with his friend’s counsel:
1- an air of theological and spiritual superiority in their tone and content – I am not inferior to you
2 – a faulty Deuteronomic theology that is flat and overly simplistic (if you are blessed you must have done something right; if you are suffering, you have obviously sinned) – you whitewash with lies
3 – an undiscerning use of silence – if you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!
4 – a false impression that their friend Job’s speech is anything but faith giving expression to the deep groaning of his spirit – and I desire to argue my case with God
The fourth point is especially important for those of us who can’t wait to defend God against all doubts, questions, and existential quandaries. God needs no defense. And Job also teaches us that sometimes such questions and doubts are not the result of impending apostasy, but the stuff of a deep, abiding faith that engages God with all of our human emotions and the full scope of our intellectual struggles with pain and suffering. To ignore Job’s insights is to risk doing more of the same and join the great number of “worthless physicians” that speak first and reflect on it later.