A great deal has been said and written about the silences of God, but when should we be the ones who are silent and what value is in the quiet?
A popular artist once found himself in the position to observe those in power who were patrons of his work. These men he watched day in and day out were wealthy merchants, Italian noblemen and French kings.
His paintings and sculptures were used as gestures of peace between contentious nobles or demonstrations of wealth and power in court. He created stage sets and military designs for dukes. He decorated altarpieces for churches headed by powerful clergymen and frescos for venerated convents.
Despite the crowds of powerful people who surrounded him, the artist assiduously avoided becoming embroiled in political maneuvers and court intrigue. He was particularly known for his reserve.
His name was Leonardo da Vinci, and he is credited with saying, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
This curious observation might be the polar opposite of what many people would assume to be true. If you have authority, shouldn’t you speak up? Doesn’t staying silent mean you’re essentially resigning your responsibilities as a leader?
While the answer to these questions may be yes in certain circumstances, silence as often as not signals greater virtues.
How Quietly Humility Walks By
A great deal has been said and written about the silences of God, but people seem less keen to discuss when we are the ones who should be silent.
Tim Challies, author and book reviewer, made special note of an ancient story many modern people might do well to hear. “The story of Apelles and the presumptuous shoemaker has been passed down through the centuries for our reflection and edification. It is a tale worth telling today.
“The Roman author Pliny the Elder tells us that as part of Apelles’ endless pursuit of perfection, he would display his finished paintings on a balcony, then hide himself so he could hear the comments of those who passed by. He believed their critiques might point out flaws he had missed and in that way generate valuable suggestions for improvement. On one occasion he displayed a painting and listened quietly while a shoemaker pointed out a flaw with a sandal on the foot of one of the subjects—the sandal had one loop too few. Apelles immediately corrected the flaw and displayed the painting again.
“The next day the same shoemaker passed by and noticed that the flawed sandal had been fixed. Pleased with himself, he then elevated his gaze and began to offer some critique of the subject’s leg. And here Apelles burst out of his hiding spot and remarked, ‘Ne sutor ultra crepidam!’ or ‘Shoemaker, don’t go beyond the shoe!’”
Tim concludes that “True wisdom is not only knowing your subject well, but also knowing the limitations of your knowledge.”
Silence is often the sound of humility.
We don’t pretend to have experience that we actually don’t. We don’t presume to instruct someone who hasn’t asked for our help. We don’t assume that our own lives and experiences are as interesting to others as they are to ourselves (hint: they usually aren’t). The person who only asks one good question or makes one insightful comment often does so to encourage others to participate or to enrich the conversation.
When we have an accurate assessment of our own abilities and an active interest in others’ talents or experiences, we will frequently be silent.
Silence in the Face of Accusation
Teresa Conlon, president of Summit International Bible College, reflected on the powerful silence of Jesus before those sending him to the cross.
“When Jesus could’ve said so much…he said nothing,” she said. “Accusing voices from within and without will always follow the church of Jesus Christ, and those who follow Jesus Christ and want to be obedient to all he has for them will also face a moment when accusers stand before us….we must not pull away from this. We must not seek to avoid this kind of thing because the Lord has an appointed conflict point with the enemy at certain points in our life.
“We will be railed upon. We will be slandered. We will be accused. We will be misjudged by the misinformed.”
Most often, these are the times that we want to defend ourselves or defend our beliefs or maybe even defend God. Everything in us cries for us to do battle on our own behalf.
Our culture prizes the best put-down, the most intellectual-sounding answer and the cool confidence under fire or the blistering defense. Social media is evidence that everyone has an opinion and is more than happy to share it, at length and high volume.
However, these moments may be when God calls us to be quiet.
“He [Jesus] was silent before his accusers,” Teresa notes. “In such company, he was silent. At specific times, he was silent. And that’s interesting to me because Jesus is the Word, and the Word went silent before this type of accusation. In verse five, it says that Jesus yet answered nothing so that Pilate marveled. There is a silence that can bring forth a marveling.”
Some may say that sometimes staying silent takes more strength than speaking, but why is that? Perhaps it’s because in these cases silence is a sign of submission to a will other than our own. At times, we are called to fight; but other times, we will not do battle on our own behalf because God has claimed the field.
Maybe God has called us to submission to a certain authority figure. Maybe the Lord has ordered us to surrender the issue before us to him. Maybe the Spirit has simply urged us to listen.
We follow the example of our Savior by submitting to the authority of one who can shake heaven and earth, and the world marvels.
A Certain Wisdom in Silence
As a Beautiful Christian Life article once fittingly stated, “Ecclesiastes tells us that there is time to speak and a time to keep silent. And this makes sense enough, but the issue is, when is the fitting time? When is it better to speak? And when is it necessary to stay quiet? This is the art of wisdom.”
One part of silence is learning to acknowledge where our strengths lie and where we aren’t talented or still have space to grow. The other part of silence is learning to listen to God and submitting to his authority.
Both areas require a hefty dose of Spirit-given wisdom. Fortunately, the Bible clearly states, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). We’re not left to sort out this issue all by ourselves. We have our work cut out for us, but the Holy Spirit will empower this transformation and give us strength if only we ask.
Better yet, the humility and submission of silence is often where we will find the presence and authority of God.