Our words have enormous power to affect other people, so how should we use this ability either to help or harm others?
Ken Wytsma and A.J. Swoboda opened their joint book with the following story:
“In 1970s San Francisco, an unknown man walks from his home to the Golden Gate Bridge. His mission is simple: to jump. Passing person after person, tourist after tourist, business owner after business owner, the man climbs the bridge’s four-foot safety railing. He jumps, falling 220 feet to his death.
“During the course of the ensuing investigation, the man’s psychiatrist, along with the assistant medical examiner, discovered a note on his bureau. It read:
“I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.
“The image is so stark: a man walking to his death, the San Franciscans around him unaware of the lifesaving mercy they can show with the simplest of gestures. And if a single stranger’s smile could have saved this man’s life, what might a single word of kindness have done?
“We have become a world of people all alone, together.”
When we read stories like this one, we might try to blame technology or shifting cultural values or the younger generation or a dozen other things, but the reality is that humans are just plain bad at genuinely connecting with one another.
This was part of sin from the very beginning, and if we want anything to change, we will have to fight this curse that’s nearly as old as humanity itself every step of the way.
Three Types of Silence
The communications director for a member of the United States Congress once wrote, “Our words are powerful. We can use them to inspire, inform, and call people to action for redemptive purposes.”
The opposite is unfortunately equally true, but what many people don’t consider is what our silences might do. In fact, what if being silent was “saying” far more than our words every would or could? It’s not merely speculation. Scientific studies found that only seven percent of verbal communication was done through words.
The rest, a whopping 93 percent, was found in simply things like tone, facial expressions, posture or simply absence when one speaker checked out of a conversation or physically removed themselves.
Our silence can speak volumes about how little we care for someone.
Not only that, but silences can find their way into the middle of conversations and do just as much harm as a prolonged absence of words.
Odile Faludi, a communication specialist, points out, “Absence of meaningful words and an inability or unwillingness to communicate will only cause division and separation, creating dysfunction in all relationships.” She divides this negative ‘silence’ into the following three categories:
Withdrawing – This can be just refusing to speak or physically leaving the space where a conversation is being held.
Avoiding – Completely sidestepping sensitive topics so that conversations carry on without ever touching on real issues.
Masking – Not actually sharing your true thoughts or feelings by using diplomatic non-answers, sarcasm or ‘sugar-coating’ as a response instead.
All of these damage relationships because they put fig leaves over our hearts and refuse to be vulnerable or truly engage with others.
Choosing Between Speaking and Silence
What if we’re afraid of hurting other people? If we give voice to our genuine opinions, we may offend someone. If we dive into someone else’s life, we may be overwhelmed or say the wrong thing or give bad advice.
“As Christians, we must face the indisputable fact that the heart is unclean, defiled, and often we speak ungodly things,” wrote David Wilkerson.
“The words we speak reflect what is in our hearts. ‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Your tongue speaks only what is in your heart…. If you gossip or allow unkind things come out of your mouth, go to the Lord and ask him to help you. Ask the Holy Spirit to put conviction on you each time you start to say something careless, unthinking or unkind.”
We should not let past failures or fear of failure, however, stop us being willing to break through the various types of silence and truly engage with others. As David pointed out, “The secret to victory over anything in your life is closeness to Jesus, intimacy with him, knowing him!”
Of course, on the other side of the matter, there are others who would cheerfully say they have no trouble speaking up and giving people advice when they’re in trouble. In fact, they always have a ready word for hurting, suffering people. If people seem to avoid them, well, it’s just because a lot of folks these days are thin-skins who can’t take a bit of honesty.
Verbal-vomiting into someone’s face is not loving, nor relationship-building.
Jon Bloom writes, “Christians should be the most careful speakers in the world.” He points out a moment when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37, ESV).
“’Every careless word.’ That should stop us in our tracks,” Bloom says. “It should set us trembling, considering how many words we speak. And by ‘speak’ I mean every word that comes out of our mouths, our pens, and our keyboards. We speak thousands of words every day, sometimes tens of thousands.”
Whether we speak or are silent, we ought to do it in love and with a view for what is best for that other person.
Inviting Others Into Healing
In response to the Nazi party and many churches’ submission to their outrageous and terrible rules, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked fervently about the answer to believers’ penchant for not intervening when they saw others suffering.
“If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.
“Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own suffering, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.”
Let either our words or our silences do God’s work, invite others in and help heal the wounded. As the Bible says, “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 3:1,7 ESV).