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The Value of Silence: 3 Thoughts from Proverbs

The Value of Silence: 3 Thoughts from Proverbs

These last few weeks have attacked me with musings on silence. It started with an anonymous quote I couldn’t shake off (“Never miss an opportunity to remain silent”) and threaded its way through my intellectual and social life. I began to see my unwarranted eagerness to speak in classroom discussions, group conversations, and even social interactions.

Reading through the book of Proverbs a few days ago, then, I was struck by three verses, each of which promoted a helpful—and often overlooked—truth about the value of silence.

1. Listen Before You Speak

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)

Embarrassingly enough, this verse reminds me of something I once did. I was in my cousins’ kitchen mixing cream cheese frosting, and my grandpa was sitting in the nearby dining room and kept giving me directions.

I don’t remember what all my grandpa said, but—frustrated at being told how to do something I’d done dozens of times before—I kept interrupting. “Yes, I know,” I interjected, beating in the confectioner’s sugar. “Yes, I was going to do that.”

I was baffled, then, when Grandpa got to the end of his sentence and told me to apply the frosting differently than I had planned. I looked up from my bowl. “Wait—what?” I asked, surprised. My cousins, who were standing nearby, laughed. “Yes,” they mimicked me. “Yes, yes, yes.”

The situation is a little funny to think about now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. This verse from Proverbs was the first thing to enter my head, for I realized I’d foolishly answered before I’d heard.

Similarly, life often gives us the choice to stay quiet and listen or ignore external wisdom for the sake of quick, cheap answers. The former choice, though difficult, is the one to take. It might require practice, but the wisdom gleaned from listening is well worth it.

2. Don’t Focus on Your Own Thoughts First

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (Proverbs 18:2)

How many times has each of us endured a meeting with a bunch of lunatics?

Okay—maybe they weren’t quite lunatics. Maybe their suggestions were just impractical. Maybe there was a flaw in their proposed strategy. Maybe they kept mispronouncing a term. Perhaps we interrupt self-righteously. Let me enlighten you, we might think.

While I’m not against speaking up, the attitude with which many of us approach group conversations—whether they be formal think tanks, scheduled work meetings, or just casual hangouts with the gang—might require evaluation. For some of us, we’re tempted to think first about what we have to contribute and only later about what others might have to give. We run the danger of mentally elevating our own ideas, a priori dismissing those of others.

How might our conversations change if we focused first on understanding? What if we restrained ourselves from expressing our own opinions and sought—as hinted at in the first point—to listen? I’m convinced we’d understand a lot more because we’d be forced to forsake our own distracted musings to focus on the thoughts and ideas around us.

3. Remember Silence Can Signal Wisdom

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28)

Herein lies the paradox of silence: The action we believe to indicate foolishness—not saying what’s on our minds—actually demonstrates wisdom.

Why is this?

I think there are two reasons: First, it’s easy to speak. We all do it. We’ve probably done it today and didn’t even think about it. Silence—the intentional restraining of the tongue—is much harder. Not speaking connotes discipline and self-restraint; it shows that we have the ability to close our mouths when necessary. It’s an indication of wisdom because it demonstrates a life lived apart from the contemporary, constantly talking crowd.

Second, silence keeps one from betraying his own foolishness. Explicitly and implicitly, speech displays how much we do—or don’t—know. So, if we truly don’t know about a subject, it might be better to keep our mouths shut. In the words of an unknown sage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

What Proverbs Doesn’t Say

Of course, the book of Proverbs doesn’t condemn speech. In fact, the author commends those who speak up for the unfortunate (Proverbs 31:8–9) and says that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). In other words, words are powerful, and they ought to be used prudently in serving others.

Still, it’s safe to say that—in an age saturated with cell phones, instant messaging, and almost innumerable outlets for all forms of communication—many of our difficulties arise from speaking, not silence. We would do well to learn what our society is so quick to forget: the value of listening before we speak, focusing on the ideas of others, and wisely staying silent before we open our mouths.

Image credit: Flickr-Dunedin Public Libraries, CC BY-NC 2.0

ITO

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  • Avatar
    Kalikiano Kalei
    April 13, 2023, 11:13 pm

    Very nice piece, Aletheia. A wise and sagacious set of observations in an age wherein nearly everyone speaks reactively, long before they engage in any cogent reflection on a subject under discussion. Christian proverbs: a sort of Christian Hadith/Sunnah, eh!

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    • Avatar
      Gary Mazart@Kalikiano Kalei
      April 14, 2023, 3:10 am

      -Mr. Kalei, your seemingly snarky attempt to belittle Ms. Hitz' application of Biblical wisdom to contemporary concerns by commenting "Christian proverbs: a sort Christian Hadith/Sunnah, eh!". To that, I say "Meh!" and thank you for underscoring one of the points of Ms. Hitz article.

      First, the Proverbs quoted are not ":Christian" in that they are from the wisdom books of the Old (First) Testament of the Jewish people and predate the birth of Jesus Christ by about 700 years and Hadith/Sunnah by about a millennium. Second, the Bible and the Quran each independently present the wisdom of God in the context of two culturally distinct iterations of the Abrahamic covenant, and one should not be applied to minimize the other.

      Ms. Hitz, your comments made me think of silence (or restrained commentary) in the context of New (Second) Testament grace and the notion of sharing the Gospel Of Jesus Christ. Specifically, the Apostle Peter's intonement at 1 Peter 3:15, "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV or NLT?)"

      But do this with gentleness and respect…Amen! With the circumspection and love that manifests from the focus on others in discourse…to listen silently before speaking and then speaking in the voice of Truth.

      Tremendously thought provoking…thank you Ms. Hitz and Mr. Kalei.

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  • Avatar
    John Brett
    April 14, 2023, 1:42 pm

    Excellent commentary on silence.

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  • Avatar
    John Perkins
    January 13, 2024, 2:43 pm

    This is a subject I've been thinking of for the past few days. Thank you!

    REPLY

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