“Silence is deep as eternity,” the 19th century public intellect Thomas Carlyle once penned, “speech is shallow as time.” If Carlyle is right it is only in the sense that there are times when it is better to remain silent than to speak, much like the quote often attributed to the sixteenth president, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
But silence isn’t always the best option, and for a Christian, it is often no option at all. The recent martyrdom of twenty-one Christians by ISIS is a stark reminder. The terrorist group broadcast their horrific act intended to evoke fear in the Christian community in the video to which they gave the title, “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross.”
Reports say many of the men could be heard chanting “Lord Jesus Christ” until the very end. The Egyptian Catholic Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina gave a powerful summary of the scene, “The name of Jesus was the last word on their lips. And like the early church martyrs, they entrusted themselves to the one who would receive them soon after. That name, whispered in the last moments, was like the seal of their martyrdom.”
They made their choice. There was something for them of far more value than life itself. And so they spoke. And so must we.
But for Thomas Carlyle, who adopted a deist worldview in later life, he was under no divine obligation to speak. For him God was silent, which might shed light on his statement that silence is as deep as eternity. But if there is only silence then we really have no objective way to say which is of greater worth: silence or speech. But if God is there, and if he is not silent, then we find ourselves in a very different situation altogether.
We should follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul who in Acts 18 is described as being “occupied with the Word” (18:5). Though he worked as a skilled tradesman (read business as mission) by day (18:3), he prioritized time “in the word” and time “in the world.” He devoted his free time to reasoning and seeking to persuade others of the truthfulness of the gospel (18:4, 28).
In short, he pointed men and women to the gospel as the exclusive foundation for human flourishing; the way of abundant and eternal life.
Paul’s persistent ministry in the word and in the world led to natural opposition (18:5). He found comfort and courage in the message he received from the Lord, ““Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent for I am with you . . . ” (18:9-10). And so should we. Hint: This should remind you of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
But after a year and a half of skilled labor in work, occupation with the word, and ministry in the world, Paul ended up in court. And an interesting thing happened. The charges were dropped by Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, because Paul’s offense was merely a matter of words and not a “vicious crime” (18:14-15).
Of course these categories of words versus crimes are often blurred, and sometimes rightfully so. Some things some people say are criminal in nature. But likewise, silence can be a crime as well. And though Christians should never leverage our words to do harm, we cannot help but speak of the way of life. We must point men and women to the gospel as the exclusive foundation for human flourishing.
But let us not be naïve: Occupation with the Word will lead to opposition from the world. The God who has spoken has called us to speak. And we must speak this truth in love. But we cannot love if we refuse to speak. Silence is not an option. God has not intended for the categories of truth, speech, and love to be separated. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
And in this case, contrary to Carlyle, it is silence that is shallow as time and speech as deep as eternity.
(All Scripture quotations taken from the English Standard Version)