A verse of scripture which was formative for me through the early years of my christian journey encouraged a preparedness to explain my faith: “…in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16a). It was a catalyst for rational exploration of the christian faith, and a fascination with the works of C S Lewis (Mere Christianity) and John Stott (Basic Christianity) amongst other great thinkers. When I journeyed through theological college, this same ability to express and explain the christian faith made a deep impact on me. It became apparent that explanations were highly valued, and that faith required and was enhanced by words.
In recent years I have learned that, while this remains true to a point, God and christianity can be greatly diminished by words. When Job was confronted by God - after all his challenges, complaints and requests - he was silent. Similarly Ezekiel found himself unable to speak after an encounter with God. So also Zechariah… and others like them. A mark of faith is sometimes silence: the willingness not to explain, but to enjoy, savour, even suffer the moment.
It may also be that in the journey of faith there are both different stages, and different experience. When the joy of discovery is fresh and new, it is only natural to share it. Our words overflow from within as we are filled with the excitement and joy of discovery. But as the realisation dawns that God is far bigger than we can even imagine, we find ourselves drawn back into a silence born of awe and wonder. In addition, there will be experiences of God in life which are awesome to the point of silence, where to speak of such would be to cheapen it. The experience of the numinous is always difficult to share, just as efforts to explain one’s love for another is fraught, and often rests on poetry and art more than logic and reason.
The danger faced by those who stand in the evangelical tradition is that we reduce God to mere words, mere constructs of our own rational mind. We forget that God reminded Isaiah “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:9). The danger of silence is no greater than the danger of speaking: both risk missing expression the reality of God and His work.
In the words of an ancient proverb, “There are times when silence has the loudest voice”.
June 19, 2005