Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Practice of Holy Silence

Or, "How and why to silence the haters."

by Ben Hein
310 views 12 minute read

If the haters had their way, I wouldn’t be here.

I first encountered severe resistance to ministry as a young, bright-eyed, new convert to the faith. As I sensed my own call into ministry, I found myself in the office of a pastor at the megachurch where I had become a Christian and discerned a call to ministry. What I thought would be a helpful meeting on my journey turned out to be the beginning of a long season of deep spiritual and emotional wounding. Not only did this pastor tell me I didn’t belong at his church, but he tore into my theological views, making all sorts of character accusations about me without even knowing me.

My critics were not found only among the faithful. Even in my workplace, where I made a living as a software developer, my managers were unwilling to make room for my studies. Hearing that I now had classes at a local seminary two evenings each week, they fired me.

Having found myself in the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” camp, I turned to the most popular expression of these convictions at the time: Acts 29. Through his YouTube videos, I had become a disciple of Mark Driscoll. Acts 29 fed my bitter, harsh, critical spirit that I had developed over years of pain and trauma in my personal life. I felt strong, powerful, ready to unleash my Reformed views on the dumb evangelicals and ignorant non-Christians around me.

As it turns out, spiritual movements built on bitterness and pride will crush you by the same.

I was never quite good enough to be considered for leadership in Acts 29. In my local church, there was always a reason why I wasn’t given an opportunity to teach or lead. Men in my congregation told me I was unfit for leadership because I was unemployed while going to seminary full-time, relying solely on my wife’s (excellent) vocation. At their conferences, Acts 29 leaders yelled at me for not being manly enough, bold enough, loud enough.

I was overwhelmed by depression and anxiety. I questioned my faith, my calling, my decision to lead my wife into crushing disappointment in our first years of marriage.

I briefly looked to the local SBC networks in my area. Meeting with one of their most prominent leaders, I was challenged to just go and plant my own church. When I pushed back on this leader, saying that I had not yet completed seminary and still wanted mentorship in ministry, he echoed what I assume Driscoll himself would have told me: “If you won’t take this money I’m offering you to plant a church, then you’re too timid, too afraid, and you’re not fit for ministry.”

Was I crazy for thinking there ought to be a healthier path into ministry than what I was being offered?

I looked to the PCA, where I was promised a path toward growth and opportunity. This too led to crushing despair.

My pastor told me I was too damaged by this point for ministry. There was truth in his voice that I recognized – I needed help. But his truth was mixed with more wounding words. I was told that if I went anywhere else, I would only be used by other churches and leaders. Only he could fix me, he said. Behind the scenes, he cut me down, pointing out my insecurities, keeping me stuck in my pain and depression.

I soon found myself in healthier church environments. I am eternally grateful for the care I received from church leaders and members, who filled me with encouragement and life-giving presence to continue my journey toward full-time ministry.

This brief reprieve was just enough to prepare me for what came next.

During the years of Trump’s presidency, COVID-19, and increasing racial violence, I did my best to faithfully lead Christians in my spheres of influence through a faithful witness in these difficult cultural moments. For that I was labeled a liberal, dangerous, woke. I received anonymous accusatory emails; I was accused of bowing to a liberal agenda. Other leaders in my denomination told me I was a threat; that it was their job to stand against me and protect the church.

When I wrote this piece to engage in some denominational discourse around sexuality, my peers in my denomination – fellow pastors – wrote about me in their private Facebook groups. They labeled me immature, childish. I was called soft, unable to engage in serious theological disagreement. They said I was not a serious thinker, and called into question whether I really had a theological education.

As we have moved forward in the work of church planting these last two years, plenty of critics have made themselves known. Some have said we are losing the gospel because of our emphasis on ministries of mercy and justice to the poor. Others have said that we don’t belong in our neighborhood. Still others have told us that Presbyterians simply can’t have churches in poor neighborhoods; our work is destined for failure.

I could go on.

If the haters had their way, I wouldn’t be here.

The haters were wrong.

Anyone who has ever stood on their convictions and acted boldly in faith knows what it is like to receive resistance and criticism. Sometimes we are scorned by our family for what we believe. We experience relational separation as friends walk away for standing our ground. Other Christians accuse us, demean us, and actively try to prevent us from having a voice.

Christian leaders wound, attack, abuse.

Our response is often defense and retaliation. We argue, we make our case, we fight, we hope others will change their minds. We respond in kind, using bitterness as a defense mechanism to return wound for wound.

But if we are ever to grow from our wounds, then at some point we must learn whose voice really matters.

For years, I thought defense and retaliation were my only options. I went toe-to-toe with those who opposed and attacked me. I lost sleep at night, I wasted hours, days, weeks, trying to make my case and change their minds.

This, too, let to an overwhelming experience of depression and anxiety. I was in no better shape fighting the haters as I was when I listened to them.

I found myself asking once again, “Surely there must be a healthier way than this?”

Here, at my lowest point, I learned the value of holy silence.

There is, no doubt, a time for speaking against accusers and those who do wickedness. The prophet Isaiah commands us to defend and speak for the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17). The Apostle Paul exhorts us to expose evil deeds that are done in darkness (Ephesians 5:11).

Yet wisdom tells us there is a time for speaking and a time for silence (Ecclesiastes 3:7). The Proverbs warn that too much talk leads to sin; it is best to keep our senses and close our mouths (Proverbs 10:19). James tells us that our tongue, when it is not controlled, is like a tiny spark that can set a forest on fire (James 3:1-12).

I have learned that in the face of accusation and opposition, silence is a deeply spiritual practice of faith and trust in our God.

David’s experiences in the Psalms evidence a life of frequent opposition and resistance. Psalm 38 was written during a time of intense attack from his enemies. Not only did they make plans to harm him (Psalm 38:12), but even his friends and loved ones abandoned him.

Often, the pain of friends who leave our side is more difficult than the wounds of our enemies. “If it were the wounds of an enemy, I could have endured it,“ David once prayed. “It is not foes who attack me, but my friend who has broken their promises” (Psalm 55:12-14, 20).

David knew the futility of giving response to his foes. Rather than retaliate, he stayed silent and prayed:

But I am deaf to all their threats.
I am silent before them as one who cannot speak.
14 I choose to hear nothing,
and I make no reply.
15 For I am waiting for you, O Lord.
You must answer for me, O Lord my God.
(Psalm 38:13-15)

David’s silence is so complete that he compares himself to one born deaf. He was overwhelmed by the violence of his enemies. He saw no good could come from trying to gain a hearing with then. More than that, David knew that God would take up his righteous and just cause when David put all things into his hands. David prayed as much in the preceding Psalm:

He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn,
and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.
(Psalm 37:6)

John Calvin understood that there was a way to defend oneself by giving into bitterness and anger. Through firsthand experience, Calvin knew that silence is often the more faithful path. Commenting on Psalm 38, Calvin wrote:

Those who depend upon the world, and have respect only to men, if they cannot avenge the injuries that are done them, plainly show by their loud complaints the burning rage and fury of their hearts. In order, therefore, that a man may quietly and patiently endure the insolence, violence, calumny, and deceit of his enemies, it is necessary that he trust in God. The man who is fully persuaded in his own heart that God is his defender, will cherish his hope in silence, and, calling upon him for help, will lay a restraint upon his own passions.

In the face of injustice, Jesus knew that he could remain silent and trust himself to his father. Rather than retaliation, he remained silent in the face of the trial of the High Priest (Matthew 26:62-63). Rather than make his stand before Pilate, he was as one born deaf, silent against the overwhelming cry from those who wanted his death (John 19:9).

The Word who spoke before time began knew that it was better to stay silent and trust himself to his God than give in to the demands of his accusers. As Peter said,

He did not retaliate when he was insulted,
nor threaten revenge when he suffered.
He left his case in the hands of God,
who always judges fairly.
(1 Peter 2:23)

Jesus faced the justice of God so we too could put our lives into the hands of God. By his power in us, we can live for righteousness and experience healing through his wounds (1 Peter 2:24).

Through silence, I have found healing. And I want you to as well.

I have learned at least four key lessons from a practice of holy silence. I offer these as encouragement to you to look not to retaliation or argument as your hope, but to trust yourself to God.

First, I have learned that silence takes discipline. For me, this discipline required removing myself from spaces where I’d learned I was susceptible to attack. Private denominational groups on social media were one such space. I have also blocked a great number of people online so they cannot have access to me. In addition, I have muted countless words on Twitter to keep me out of spaces where I might be vulnerable.

In addition, I have had to discipline myself not to engage and remain silent. This has meant staying out of conversations I would have rushed into before. I have turned down writing opportunities, in part, to not open myself up to attack again.

Second, as I’ve disciplined myself toward silence, I have been better able to sense the leading of the Holy Spirit in my life and ministry. I have had greater confidence of where the Lord would have me engage, focus, minister, and speak. He has shown me that the people and places I used to argue with were a distraction from his calling for my life. Such things were a drain; I have greater spiritual vitality, and I am a greater force for righteousness, by choosing silence and following the Lord.

Third, I have gained a clearer grasp on reality. In particular, the Lord has shown me that when I chose retaliation and defense, I was blinded to see everyone around me as an enemy. I was like a bull filled with rage; everything around me was red. In silence, I can look back and see now all the people who stood with me in the face of my trials, threats, and accusers. I no longer have a read on my story that is informed by darkness alone. There have always been those who sought to encourage, support, and bring life.

I’ve also seen that not all those who claim the title of friend want what is truly best for us. Nothing is more infuriating to someone who wants you to give in to your bitterness than to choose silence. Some have wanted me to join in their bitter revolutions; silence has cost me their friendship too.

Finally, through the discipline of silence, I have seen that when I do respond my words carry far more weight. I am less reactive and more deliberate. I am better able to see and speak to the heart of an issue, rather than ramble on from an unsettled place. I can do more good, achieve greater justice, be more resolute in my cause, if I have first remained silent and trusted myself into the hands of my God.

If the haters had gotten their way, I wouldn’t be here.

They didn’t.

God has answered them for me, and as far as I am concerned their words are now weightless.

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1 comment

Andy Thrasher September 18, 2023 - 9:47 pm

Thank you for this brother. Wisdom for my own current circumstances. I’m thankful for you my friend.

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