O God, do not remain silent;
do not turn a deaf ear,
do not stand aloof, O God.
– Psalm 83:1
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
– Romans 3:19-20
The Scripture above shows two different views of uncomfortable silence. When God is silent and we want action, we get upset with God. We are discomforted by His silence. But when God is sitting on the judgment seat and we know that we are guilty of sin, it is a completely different type of discomfort. We are now at His mercy. Both paint pictures of uncomfortable silence – just drastically different pictures.
I was first introduced to this psychological phenomenon when I was taking a course on team-building facilitation. The instructor posed a question that was very personal. No one wanted to answer the question, but after 12 seconds, someone broke the silence – not with an answer, but a complaint. The instructor had done it on purpose to illustrate that people are naturally uncomfortable with silence. The instructor never wanted the question answered. The instructor wanted to create silence to measure how long it took before someone got too uncomfortable. For that group, 12 seconds.
To facilitate meetings, we had the power to control silence – if they didn’t want to talk. Some facilitators would be the one who broke down and posed a different question. Often the facilitator interjected themselves into the topic, instead of maintaining the process from outside the topic. I enjoyed the uncomfortable silence. I once made a show of checking my fingernails during a prolonged silence at a management meeting. The silence was finally broken, about 30 seconds in, by someone not addressing the issue nor how to solve it. It was my boss’ boss yelling at me to stop playing with my fingernails. The twelve guys around the room, all making a lot more money than I did, started laughing – a common psychological response to a stressful situation, but then people started giving me their ideas about the issue to be solved. My letting the group live through the silence got the group to solve their issue. (‘Issue’, not ‘problem’. Management never had ‘problems’. – They were the problem, just kidding.) By the way, my antics did not get me fired. I was their facilitator of choice before and after this particular meeting, because my style matched the psyche of the group – and I never tried to solve their problems, I just guided them to solve their own.
As an industrial training manager, I could live with silence, but I knew when people were getting uncomfortable. I would then rephrase my prompt, giving a hint to the answer. The key is that I wanted them to figure it out instead of me simply giving them the rules to follow or steps to take. The silence stemmed from the fear that they might not be right. I always had gentle nudges in the right direction, if someone was off track.
As a Sunday school teacher, I used the uncomfortable silence by posing personal questions that I knew would not be answered. But I knew they were answering the questions in their minds and stopping themselves before saying anything out loud. Thus, they learned what I wanted them to get from pondering the question.
Only problem is that for a short while I had this one person who would always call my bluff. This person would ask a question for me to answer that had nothing to do with the topic being discussed. The discomfort was broken, and the introspection was lost. That was a shame. They could have learned so much about themselves.
But then, there was a time when I attended someone else’s class. I could relax and just go with the flow. With about 20 people in the class, two people were very willing to answer every question, instantly. Over several weeks, I noticed that one of the two didn’t always answer the question. That individual just quoted Scripture, maybe related, maybe related in that person’s mind, or maybe just a means of breaking the silence. In a way, it became a battle between the two combatants, each quoting one thing or another. But the point was, there was never any silence, and only two people did 90% of the talking – not counting the teacher.
Is this bad? I had no idea how the teacher felt back then. I knew the teacher was not on a schedule. The teacher may have loved the interest given to the topic. But what of the many silent people in the room? Did they get anything from the battle of words?
I am not only an old veteran of Sunday school teaching, but a veteran of classroom instruction and a veteran of team-building facilitation. In those environments, I found it important to use every tool at my disposal to silence the talkative ones, while drawing anything, even a grunt, out of the reticent ones. I had to keep everyone engaged. Everyone had to pass the course or be committed to the team’s issue resolution. Thus, everyone had to contribute.
Does everyone need to contribute in a Sunday school class? In one Sunday school class, it took years, but one person started making comments, and profound comments at that. We all benefit when that happens. Everyone learns, and everyone grows.
So when you next teach a Sunday school class and no one wants to touch a question that you ask, be comfortable with uncomfortable silence. If it lasts 30 seconds, I would be shocked. If it lasts a minute, you have a hardy bunch on your hands. But everyone’s minds are talking more during the silence than they would hearing you or someone else break the silence. In fact, God is talking during the silence. That is why, in silence, we learn so much.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.