You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All

by Jonathan Hamilton

Who knew that the lyrics to a cheesy Allison Krauss song (I’m proud to say I had to Google that fact) could provide a lesson in self-discipline?

If you’ve been alive recently you realize that the rhetoric in this country has reached a deafening roar. While we’ve always been a nation of enthusiastic narcissists, the din of unbridled and uninformed opinion-slinging has grown to an especially cacophonic level in recent days as the world continues spinning towards its eventual demise. What’s more, upwards of 346% of what is spoken and written is complete bilge (it is not lost upon me that you may judge this piece just so). Being a nation that has always loathed anything remotely smelling of aristocracy (see: U.S. History) we instead blindly race to the furthest thing from it: unmitigated, unrestrained, undisciplined, anarchic, total equality. We will have no experts to rule over us. Or better, we will all count ourselves experts and everyone’s voice will matter equally. Everyone’s an expert. On everything one decides to speak on. And I mean everything. Let me illustrate: perhaps you’ve heard of Facebook? [end of illustration]

Unfortunately, Christians are not exempt from this reckless, undisciplined way of thinking and acting. We are very often the ones pumping more bilge into the streets and splashing this sewage about on the pant legs of any poor fellow who happens to wander by our virtual barber shop while we are pontificating on things we’ve never bothered to research more thoroughly than a quick perusal of the blog that most often agrees with us and perhaps a sentence or two from a corresponding Wikipedia page (I fear that with many conversations I observe I am actually giving more credit than is due here). Who knew that years of effort in theology, philosophy, and history might help?

What I’m encouraging us to consider is shutting up.

Now hear me out. I’m not saying we can never say anything again. What I am arguing for is that we patiently work ourselves into a position such that what we say is first true, then substantive, and thereby contributes to a meaningful conversation. I have to warn you, this requires discipline and likely a greater amount of effort than we’ve put into most everything else in our lives.  There aren’t many things harder than controlling one’s spirit when an opponent’s bilge bombs start that little red flushing mechanism that turns one’s face into a stoplight (doesn’t Proverbs 16:32 have something to say about this?).

But doing the hard work necessary to transform our current way of doing business has some significant benefits.

First, it will actually build character. You see, saying no to oneself is the difference between a child and an adult. We help our children develop character by telling them no because they are (more or less) incapable of telling themselves no. As they grow and mature, the hope is that they become better and better at saying no to themselves. By the time they leave our care they need to be pretty doggone proficient at it. So you see, when someone who looks and smells like an adult cannot tell himself no, the question deserves to be asked: is he really an adult at all? Being large and smelly are not the only indicators of adulthood. There are intangible elements as well. And the more we tell ourselves no when we really, really, really want to lash out, the more like adults we are behaving.

Second, it will tone down the rhetoric and likely enhance the case you wanted to make anyways (especially if it was a correct idea that you simply aren’t capable of defending yet). Because bilge is flammable, it inflames. It does not soothe. The more you pump, the hotter the blaze rages and the less likely folks are to be able to hear the few comrades around you who have done the hard work to become experts (aristocrats, if you like); those who are trying to argue reasonably, properly, gently, and courageously in generally the same direction as you. Your silence actually increases the effectiveness of their work.

Third, it will make you a better interlocutor. I have no doubt, if you are as passionate about your subject as your warm red cheeks indicate, that saying no to yourself will provide the fuel you need to drive you to the place of study. I am convinced that there is no greater motivator for learning to argue a case well than realizing that you are really shoddy at it right now and, instead of lazily going forward and pumping more bilge anyways, forcing yourself to shut up until you have taken the time to dig up something of value to contribute (if you choose instead to pump bilge at this point you take a step backwards; that’s how it works).  Please understand, for many subjects it may take years of disciplined silence and study before you are ready to contribute. But, by and by, you’ll have a real chance to shape a meaningful conversation rather than hopping up and down with the rest of the clowns in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and hoping to be heard above the din.