I give in to the temptation to speak time and again, whether in the name of honesty or absurdity, and I let loose my words and inadvertently knock people over, destroy things, decimate cities. I have been pondering lately a particular passage of Scripture:
“When words are many, sin is not absent … The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment.” (Proverbs 10:19-21)
I’ve heard this before. Maybe you’ve heard this before.
We all know that there is nothing in life that can be more destructive than someone’s words loosed on another person. In Scripture, it is a refrain so common as to become less than meaningful, like the chorus of some generation-defining ’80s rock anthem.
But let’s reread a piece of it again: “When words are many, sin is not absent.”
The equation is this: many words = the arrival of sin.
So mankind cannot avoid sinning if it speaks often. My first impulse upon reading this, I have to admit, is, “Hey, great! All those people I know who talk too much are sinners. I can rebuke ’em and shut ’em up for good!” But then the sentence sinks in, and I sink down and ask God for some kind of speechlessness to replace my words.
But it hasn’t even begun: To second this notion, the Proverbs passage is echoed in Matthew 6, a portion of which I’ll highlight here: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
What are we to do with this? My words are fraught with danger. My speech is a sharp and sinister weapon.
We need some more shading from the Psalms. There is an incredible passage that Eugene Peterson poetically paraphrased in The Message. It goes like this:
“God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God—craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening. Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, but their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
When I read this, I think about many things, but two specific thoughts bubble up in this context. First, God’s creation transcends speech absolutely, which tells me that we don’t need any language to worship God. Second, the sentence, “Their silence fills the earth, unspoken truth is spoken everywhere,” tells me that God’s glory speaks volumes without words. It communicates to us without verbalizing.
Thinking on this, I resolve to burn up an hour of my time by keeping my mouth shut, my mind attuned to God, not focused on my desires, my worries or my annoyances. This will be holy time. This will be amazing. It will be transcendent.
Actually, a good half hour is better than a distracted hour, right? I could probably get much more out of this time if I was intensely focused on God for half an hour. I can do that much.
I have to take baby steps, set out a reasonable goal, something attainable. After all, I’m not sequestered at Gethsemani like Merton was. I’ve got a wife, two boys, a job. It’s difficult to be silent—dangerous even. This is what I tell myself.
No, today, I will begin with 15 minutes after dinner, outside, in a fading sunlit summer evening. The wind light. Trees groaning softly. Me in my own backyard.
So I eat. Then I step outside. I am alone, and I decide to start by thinking about God, His craftsmanship in the trees, in the grass, in my fence. It’s so faded and needs to be painted, even rebuilt. No. Wait. God and the trees and unspoken truth everywhere. Holding my tongue is making me break a sweat.
I hear other things around me—people talking in the distance, cars, a freeway a long way off, birds twittering. A feeling of peace flits in and around me as I ponder what the heck I’m doing in the middle of my backyard staring out into nothing.
My son barrels out the back door, energy incarnate.
“Daddy!” he says. I realize that I haven’t properly defined the rules for my temporarily imposed silence. I’ve got at least another five to seven minutes left in my little contract with myself.
I smile at him. He smiles back for a second, then moves away, talks to himself, then sings a little song, he talks, he sings.
I watch him as he sprints across the yard, just to get to the other side, then sprints back. I run my hand through his hair when he gets close, but he keeps on moving. I watch him, maintaining my deal with myself, keeping my mouth shut.
He finds a stick, picks it up and starts whacking everything in sight. Then he sings into it as though he were onstage, in front of thousands. He jabbers on and on in a nonsensical singsong that gets increasingly loud until he’s screaming at the top of his lungs. He knows how to articulate his words now when he speaks. But when he sings, its nonsense and melody, as if his words aren’t enough.
I think about this, that these songs, these wordless melodies, are unspoken truth being spoken before my very eyes. I see this as God’s glory on tour.
And maybe I’m just projecting my own little moment onto him. I dunno. Then, I guess that my time is up, so I jog over and grab him, tickle him and jabber along with him stupidly.
Alex Field is a father, husband and sometime freelance writer with various publications. Relevant Books published his first book The Hollywood Project, and he co-edited the book Practitioners: Voices Within the Emerging Church with Greg Russinger. He lives in Southern California.