when silence makes you strong

It’s been almost five months since I’ve published a blog post. Sure, some of the pause was due to exciting developments taking shape outside of this space: working on the first draft of my manuscript (coming out in 2020 with WaterBrook!); taking on a new hobby; preparing our home and hearts to welcome the newest addition to our family.

But, admittedly, some of that pause was paralysis.

My husband and I were riding the emotional waves of seeing a church we loved so dearly go through (and cause) so much pain and turmoil. I was physically, emotionally, mentally drained, barely scraping enough energy from the bottom of my reserves to play with our kids and put together well-balanced meals after work (or, let’s be honest, use finger strength to dial Lou Malnati’s pizza delivery). I ate sugar like my life depended on it. I stopped exercising regularly. In short, I was trying to cope and it wasn’t working out so great.

Add in a laundry list of overwhelming, seemingly debilitating, cultural events and tragedies (Chinedu Valentine Okobi; Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old girl who died in Border Patrol custody; Jazmine Barnes, just to name a few), and I felt as if my voice were on ice, like my words and any traces of wisdom were constantly trying to keep up with the headlines and the dashed lines of other peoples’ Insta stories. It seemed as if others had hope and rally cries encapsulated in perfect squares with inspiring quotes and calls to action. They had clapbacks and retweets. But I didn’t.

I had stillness. I had lament. I had silence.

The minute I felt as if I had something to say, another shooting. Another death. Another controversy would cut in line. I couldn’t keep up. I’d start to find my words at the end of a news cycle, and just as I was about to string a thought into a caption - I’d be too late.

And so I’d sit in silence one day after the next after the next, watching others’ words, wondering if I’d truly lost my own.

Do you ever feel this way? As if your reflexes are stunted? As if you’re late to the party?

Why couldn’t I speak? Was it fear? Or, worse, cowardice? Had I become so used to the trauma that I was tapping out of the conversation, convinced my perspective wouldn’t make a difference?

Just a couple weeks ago, we brought our third baby home. A girl. Journey is her name. I remember hearing the nurse’s footsteps as she carried Journey from the agency’s nursery to our waiting room where my husband and I were anticipating seeing her for the very first time. Before the nurse had even fully made her presence in the door frame, I felt tears spring to the corners of my eyes. I hadn’t seen this baby’s face, and yet my heart was immediately connected. I couldn’t explain it. I had no words, just tears. I had no camera, just two real eyes scanning frantically to find this child’s face. I remember making sounds, but they were more like tripped-up sobs than well-formed sentences.

And as I think back on that moment on that life-changing day, I realize now that, sometimes, the most formative moments in our lives don’t just take our breath away - they have the power to absolutely silence us, if we’ll let them.

In this instance, the formative moment was filled with awe, wonder and joy. I was about to lay eyes on our child, a child we’d prayed for for over a year. Seeing her face, I knew I was looking at a prayer, answered.

I was silenced because of basic heart physics. The gravity of the moment was more powerful than my limited human reaction. And so it halted me. And in the halt was the absence of word or thought. Silence is what’s meant to happen because the pull of holy moments are meant to force us still.

Sometimes, though, the gravity of the moment isn’t filled with good. It’s filled with hard: anger, incredulity, grief, heartbreak. The gravity pulls just as strongly, but perhaps you’re like me in that you try to fight it by swimming the other direction - to a friend, a bottle, a snack jar, a bed with cool sheets.

Whether good or hard, I think there are moments when silence is meant to be the greatest teacher. It’s meant, not to shame us into insecurity or lies about who we are or aren’t, but to a depth of strength that we cannot find in the middle of noise, whether real or white-screened.

Silence, then, isn’t just the absence of conviction or opinion or well-formed thought. It’s not always pointing to one who’s hiding or quivering with indecision. Sometimes silence points us to:

  1. Those who are living what they don’t have time to tell (or show) you they believe. I don’t want to just live out my convictions on Instagram. I want to spend the time I would be drafting a post actually doing the hard work of truth-telling and grace-giving. This doesn’t mean I’ll never speak out against white supremacy or bigotry or misogyny. This also doesn’t mean that those who regularly and unrelentingly speak out against things that hurt our humanity aren’t living it out. (Many of my friends are great at both!) This simply means that, if someone doesn’t hear you, you’re not worthless. Don’t believe the lie that silence means sloth or weakness. Maybe you’re already living out what others are encouraging everyone else to be about.

  2. Our own splintery planks. In Matthew 7, Jesus talks about sawdust versus planks in the context of judging other people. Silence helps us see the planks that are blocking our own proximity to Jesus in our discipleship. Or, if you don’t believe in Jesus, let me put it this way: silence helps us linger long enough in our own crap to get a good whiff. Let me tell you from first-hand experience, I’ve Tweeted too quickly - before I had a full picture. And it hurt someone else and it threatened to hurt one of my relationships. I was seeing sawdust, not my own planks. Give anything enough time and space and you’ll more often than not come to realize just how much work is still left to be done - in you.

  3. The truest voice we have. I know I have a voice. So do you. But my voice, once impacted by the heart of God, is so much more powerful and true than when I launch it out on its own without the conviction and leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. And, sometimes, silence - whether brought on by good or hard - calls me closer to God’s heart in ways I could never have imagined. Now, some people are absolutely led by the Spirit in the moment to speak up and out. GO! Do it. Be obedient. But for whatever reason, at least for me, I’ve come to realize that those moments have been fewer than the ones when the Spirit has invited me to speak slowly - or not at all.

The strength in silence is an invitation to actually do the thing that you wish other people would do. It’s to self-examination and repentance in moments when no one else is watching. It’s to slow speech that is marinated in the Spirit’s leading. It’s not always cowardice. It’s not always a mark of being lost or afraid or of having chickened out. Sometimes staying silent when everything and everyone else seems so loud is the exact example of defiance to the clanging gong of culture. This defiance may look a lot like what Christ defined as love.

Here’s what I’m not saying. For so long, certain marginalized people groups have been forcibly silenced - against their wills and in opposition to their worth. And the time is now for those people groups: people of color, women, the LGBTQIA+ community to be given full voice and dignity. This is not the kind of silence I’m saying is transformative.

It’s when you know you have a voice - and you’ve been given one - and when the silence seems thick and limiting - that’s when it’s right to pay attention to what’s forming below the surface in you and in your life. Resist the temptation to believe you don’t matter. Take time to heal and ask questions. Take time to be in healthy relationship and stay curious. And when the time is right, you’ll know what to speak.

A couple days ago, headlines struck again. Gravity. This time, filled with hard. Another tragedy, this time in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty lives were taken in the name of white supremacy. My throat tightened and I felt the grief wash over me. My knee-jerk reaction wasn’t to speak out against white supremacy - although I knew it needed to be said. My heart and spirit just wanted to grieve precious lives. The temptation was there again as I took to Instagram and Twitter. Leaders were saying such beautiful truths. Friends were springing to action and showing up. It was in one moment - a silent moment - that I realized once again what comes so naturally to many of you already: that what I said online wasn’t nearly as important as what I did in my actual life.

After months of feeling paralyzed by so many aspects of both the outside world and my own life, my eyes were opened wider. “Don’t say anything ‘out there.’ Just show up right here,” the whisper came. And so with shaky hands and sitting next to my sleeping baby, I called six mosques. I left voicemails with three, got busy signals from two, and talked to one imam. It was an awkward conversation. But he thanked me and I told him he was wanted. And listening to that leading - reassuring my neighbors that they were valuable and loved - that was my work. That was my “yes” in obedience.

Take your stillness and lament and silence. Listen to the voices that are speaking what’s true and good and right. Listen to them, no matter how loud or soft they are.

Then listen to The One.

Let the weight of each and every holy moment shut your lips and open your eyes, even if just for a moment.

And in the moments of silence, however brief or long, let the silence do its work. Let the silence strengthen you, for this world will need your strength.

Ashlee Eiland