The Ministry of Silence
The tongue has great power. One small word can build or destroy. If God created us in the image of the eternal Word, we too were created to be eloquent. One of the most dangerous sins then, and greatest attacks on God and his image, is the sin of speech. As we continue to reflect on life together in community, with the help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, we turn to the tongue, and the need to pay careful attention to our speech.
The Power of the Tongue
James says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things”(James 3:3-5). Sin takes the tongue into its service, so that it is “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” that is “set on fire by hell” and “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is powerful.
We often think about the tongue’s power on others, but the tongue harms the one to whom it belongs. The poison that comes from the tongue poisons the speaker, the fire that spreads from the tongue consumes the source. This means that holding the tongue is important for others, as well as ourselves.
The Ministry of Silence
In the Christian community, we become servants of one another. One of the most significant, and perhaps most overlooked, ministries we have toward one another is that of holding our tongue. Because there is an organic relationship between what we do and what we think, between our actions, feelings, and thoughts, a necessary way to prevent evil thoughts from creeping into the community is to prevent evil words from being spoken. As James says, the one who holds his tongue controls both the mind and the body (James 3:2).
The best cure for judgmental speech, gossip, cruel and harmful words, and destructive thoughts is never giving our words a right to be spoken. Bonhoeffer says, “Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”1
“Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”
“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble”(Prov 21:23). “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding”(Prov 17:27). “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear”(Eph 4:29).
Sinful speech often disguises itself under the banner of help, good will, and perhaps most commonly as prayer concerns. These are simply small, hidden ways that the tongue works its destructive power, “for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when it is seeking to create mischief.”2 It can be easy to create clever ways to talk about others in the community, but we need to be careful, and not say much that occurs to us.
Silence, deciding not to speak about another, has profound effects on the community. It will save the community from a spirit of judgment, self-justification, and corruption, and help each individual fight sin that develops in the heart.
The Ministry of Freedom
Another profound effect on the community is that of true freedom. Rather than “scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendency over him and thus doing violence to him as a person…he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be.”3
We are so quick to attempt to create others in our own image, which always results in judgment and annoyance that the person is not what we would have them to be. Everyone becomes an affliction to us. When we exercise the discipline of holding our tongue, the ministry of silence, we discover “the richness of God’s creative glory.” We are able to love the other as God has made him or her to be, and thus find above the creature the Creator, and so the other person “becomes the occasion for joy.” “God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others.”4
God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God’s image should appear in others.
Holding our tongue frees us to see another as God has made him or her to be, and frees that person to be the person God has created him or her to be. We are then enabled to others for their own sake, and for the sake of God.
The ministry of silence is a crucial way that we minister to one another, and a crucial way we grow in grace. “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul”(Prov 18:6), but the one who guards his tongue keeps out of trouble, sees life and good days (Prov 21:23; 1 Pet 3:10). The health of the community depends on the ability of its members to put their hand over their mouths.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), 92.
- Ibid, 92.
- Ibid, 93.