Silence is the most ambiguous communication. It can mean so many things—or nothing. Perhaps it is slow and deep reflection. Maybe it is a stunned, awkward, or embarrassed silence.1 Is the person quietly plotting? Or is it a smug, unspoken, “I don’t need to answer you; I know better.”? How do people interpret your silences?
What do we make of the silences of Jesus? At His trial Jesus gave brief and respectful answers to the chief priests and Pilate’s direct questions (Matt. 26:63-65; 27:11). On the other hand, King Herod failed to get a response, perhaps because he was looking for a sign, not justice (Luke 23:8-9). Jesus said nothing in response to the testimony of false witnesses (Matt. 26:59-63), nor to the accusations of the chief priests and elders (Matt. 27:12). Content to see the Father’s will unfold, He behaved as Isaiah said He would.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
Silence can force other people to think. Perhaps Jesus’ accusers struggled with His lack of responses for that reason. When an innocent man says nothing, it could be for lack of a defense. But, in this case, Jesus was inviting the authorities to examine themselves. Theirs was an awkward silence with an uncomfortable conclusion—guilty judges.
The same thing happened when the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulteress as live bait for a trap to catch Jesus. After a call for the sinless to begin stoning her they heard nothing more than the quiet swish of a finger writing in the dust (John 8:8).
What about that poor Canaanite woman with the demonized daughter? Jesus said nothing when she begged for mercy. Was it racial discrimination, a silent rejection, or something else (Matt 15:21-23)? Perhaps silence was His way of drawing out her faith? How far did she really believe His merciful power would extend? How persistent would she be, especially when He laughingly compared her with a puppy-dog? As we get to know God we learn that He sometimes tests our faith in a similar way.
Knowing someone well helps us to guess the sounds behind their silence. Most likely the meaning of a person’s silence fits the pattern of their behavior under similar circumstances. From the person who is given to angry outbursts, silence is the calm before the storm, the billowing thunder cloud. From the weak, fearful, or self-pitying, silence suggests an inner drizzle of tears. In Jesus, it is surely wisdom, love, gentle conviction of error, a challenge to greater faith, or a welcoming of the Father’s will.
We should probably explain our silences. Those of us who are treading the path of Jesus to become more like Him still have a cloud of dust in our wake. People remember us for what we used to be like. They interpret our silences based on past behavior. It is hard for them to know when a silence is Christlike and when our old self is on a come-back. Jesus never sinned; His communication was always godly; no one ever needed to question the purity underlying His silences (1 Peter 2:22). Considering how to express our silences in words forces us to examine our hearts and welcome the conviction of the Spirit. How can my heart and my silences be more like Jesus’? When should I explain my ambiguity?
- Mark 3:4; Luke 14:4; 20:26 are examples of awkward silences, Mark 9:34 of an embarrassed silence. [↩]