Photo Courtesy Christa Wickman (Age 12)
It’s hard for me to shut up.
I’m not kidding.
If you know me personally, you know I like to talk. I’m a verbal processor. Some people like to take ideas, stew on them, and let them seep. Not me. I like to “puke” them all out onto the table. Then I can see all the moving parts of an idea, a problem or a concept, and I can move all the pieces around and make them fit.
But even I have had to learn when to stop talking and listen. If I hadn’t, I would have ruined my best relationships long ago.
There’s no better way to stifle communication than to constantly talk.
If you want a healthy, growing relationship, you’ve got to learn how to shut up.
When I asked Kelcy to marry me, we had been dating almost four years. We knew each other pretty well, but we had a small problem that, over time, would have become a big problem.
As we went through pre-marital counseling, I brought up this nagging concern. Kelcy, who I loved and thought the world of, rarely expressed her own ideas or thoughts to me in a deep and meaningful way. Knowing what books said about the importance of communication in marriage, I began to complain about this to the man who was counseling us.
I didn’t like what I discovered.
I went into the session assuming that Kelcy’s lack of expression was her problem, that she was somehow unwilling to share with me what was really going on in her head and her heart. Come to find, out, it was my problem.
I am outrageously extroverted. I thrive in a crowd. I love to talk. I love to be heard. God simply made me to be around a whole bunch of people often, and to communicate constantly. My tendency is to spit out a mind-numbing number of words before I actually kick my brain into gear.
My wife, as it turns out, could not be more different. Although she loves people, she does so in a way that’s completely distinct from me. She takes her time. She gets to know people thoroughly. She slows down and really listens. She is gentle and patient. When she finally speaks, her words are thoughtfully and intentionally formed. What a novel idea.
So what was our major malfunction in our interpersonal communication?
I was out-talking her at a rate of 10 to 1. I would rattle off one idea, then the next and the next after that. Without a pause I would launch into the next mode of conversation, not allowing her time to express herself.
Our wise counselor realized he was going to have to rattle me pretty hard if he was going to get through to me. He said, “Joe, I have a suggestion for you. When you get to the end of a thought, stop talking.” I was floored. Having jarred me just enough for all the air to leave the room, He continued, “You’re going to be uncomfortable with the silence, but Kelcy needs time to process what you’ve just said. Allow her time to respond.” This seemed like a completely unreasonable request. He followed that up with, “After you stop talking, I want you to be quiet until Kelcy responds.” I had never tried this before. “Joe, you’re going to think there’s something wrong. There is nothing wrong. She is just thinking before she speaks.” Can you do that?
He even went as far as to make me count on my hands until Kelcy responded to the last question I had asked her. The following weeks were painful. Each time Kelcy and I had a conversation I practiced what I had been taught. At times I felt like I would burst. What could possibly be taking her so long? Why isn’t she saying anything yet?
But then it happened.
Once I committed to shutting up, Kelcy started opening up. This precious girl, soon to be my wife, began expressing a level of thought that I had never heard before. I discovered that she was more interesting, more complex and more thoughtful than I had ever anticipated.
Now after 16 years of marriage I am still learning to shut up. Left to my own devices, I can still shut down our communication by flooding our house with words. I can still overwhelm her by spewing out all my ideas before she has a chance to process and respond. But more and more I am learning, as a husband, father, friend and pastor, to shut up and listen.
Every time I do I learn valuable things about the most important people in my life.
Shutting up is important in my conversations with God.
God is not like my wife. He is not needing me to stop talking so that he can process my thoughts. He knows what’s in and on my heart and mind long before I come to Him in prayer. But the same truth applies, that if I do not eventually cease talking, I will not hear from God.
We are tempted to approach prayer with a bullet list of needs, rattling off requests to my Father in heaven one after another. We can. Our Lord affords us that privilege. But should we? Should we enter into His presence only to lay out my list of needs, and then leave the conversation without pausing to listen?
I wonder how long we’d keep talking to a friend who only made demands of us, never listening to a thing we had to say.
God is not going to reject us for bad prayer hygiene. But if we approach him with incessant speaking, we’re going to miss out on the richness of what He has to say.
Consider God revealing Himself to the prophet Elijah. This man had powerfully represented God in the face of tremendous adversity. He had seen The Lord answer miraculously time and time again. But when Elijah came to a turning point in his life and ministry, God chose to reveal Himself to his faithful servant in an altogether different way.
By standing up for God, Elijah had made some very powerful enemies. Now he was being hunted, and was running for his life. He needed to know that God was nearby. He needed to know that God was attentive to his plight. So The Lord told Elijah to head up a mountain, where He would reveal Himself to him.
How would God make Himself plain?
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
A gentle whisper.
Sounds kind of anticlimactic, doesn’t it? Considering the severity of Elijah’s problems, the fact that he was being pursued by armed men, I imagine he might have preferred that God showed up with lightning bolts, splitting the earth and terrifying all around Him.
God doesn’t move the way we want Him to.
This is what we know about Him:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Once again, God is God and I am not. He doesn’t always act the way I think He should act. He doesn’t move according to my demands. And He certainly doesn’t speak just because He’s been spoken to.
God will speak.
- He will speak in the storm when the wind and waves are crashing.
- He will speak when you’re crying out, wailing too loudly to hear yourself think.
- He will speak in the boredom and blah of a Tuesday afternoon.
- But sometimes His voice can only be discerned when we quiet ourselves long enough to hear His still, small voice.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God…”
Of all the lessons I’ve learned, and am in the process of learning, this may be the most difficult.
When I stopped talking non-stop, my relationship with my wife began to blossom.
Why? Shutting my mouth spoke volumes about how I valued her. It communicated importance in a way that my continued blathering never would. And of course shutting up gave me the opportunity to listen at a whole new level.
How could your walk with God be enriched by silence?
- How much of your prayer time is focused on you talking?
- Whose words carry more weight in prayer, yours or God’s?
- Do you truly believe you can “hear” God in prayer?
- Are you willing to pray, pause, and wait for God to speak?
If you’re anything like me, this exercise sounds terrifying.
- What if God doesn’t speak?
- What if I can’t hear Him?
- What if I’ve been “doing it wrong” all this time?
Relax. This is your loving Father in Heaven. He’s not looking to wrap you on the knuckles. He’s been waiting for a long time for you to come before Him with all your burdens and simply be before Him. Talk is great. But silence is best.
When the prophet Jeremiah was in the midst of carrying out God’s will in the midst of trying times, the Lord came and said to Him,
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.”
How would you like for God to tell you “great and unsearchable things”? He will. You just have to get quiet enough, for long enough, to listen.
No matter what your circumstances, no matter how far off you think God is, He is right there. Maybe He’s just waiting for you to pause, slow down, shut up and listen.
So go ahead. Pour your heart out to God. Then get quiet. Listen. You may find yourself speaking less, and Him speaking more, as you learn to be still and know that He is God.
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