Introductory Note:

Measuring our words with wisdom does not mean turning a blind eye to evil. Today, Carolyn Arends shares a recent piece from Faith Today about “the quiet power of a life shaped by God” that does not always need to shout to be heard—or to be an effective agent of positive change. John Woolman and a reticent co-worker lend a hand.

Renovaré Team

As my cowork­er Jus­tine and I fin­ished a project, she con­fessed she’d had mis­giv­ings in its ear­ly stages. Why didn’t you say some­thing?” I asked. She shrugged. Speak­ing up in this case didn’t seem like the right thing to do — and it turns out my con­cerns were unfound­ed. Nine-and-a-half times out of ten, I’m glad when I hold my tongue.”

Why does Justine’s response seem so coun­ter­cul­tur­al? I think it’s because we live in a soci­ety obsessed with speak­ing up. 

Find your voice and shout!” we exclaim, hop­ing to encour­age the oppressed and the shy alike. 

Speak truth to pow­er!” we cry, urg­ing our­selves to resist sys­temic injustice. 

We’re haunt­ed, of course, by the human track record — all the times evil has got­ten an assist from our silence. First they came for the Social­ists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Social­ist,” begins the emblem­at­ic Mar­tin Niemoller poem. We know how it ends. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

This empha­sis on rais­ing a ruckus in the face of oppres­sion is right and good. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are des­ti­tute,” says Proverbs 31:8.

Yet I won­der, with all this speak­ing up, is there any­one left to listen? 

Our cul­ture is vibrat­ing with polar­ized rhetoric. Many of us have easy access to soap­box­es on social media. Under these con­di­tions it’s easy to con­fuse speak­ing truth to pow­er” with vent­ing when I’m annoyed” … or spout­ing off to show I’m right.” 

How do I dis­tin­guish between the times I should speak, and the times my voice will only add to the noise? 

How do I rec­og­nize those moments when my advo­ca­cy would be artic­u­lat­ed bet­ter in actions than in words? 

How can I dis­ci­pline myself to lis­ten more read­i­ly than I speak — par­tic­u­lar­ly if there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate space for the voice of some­one who’s not heard often enough? 

I’m learn­ing — slow­ly — that if I want to be a per­son who knows when to speak (and what to say) in pub­lic, I must become a per­son who’s lis­ten­ing to the Spir­it in private. 

A sto­ry about John Wool­man, one of America’s first abo­li­tion­ists, brings this truth home. Wool­man indeed spoke truth to pow­er” — resist­ing slav­ery, injus­tice to Native Amer­i­cans, cru­el­ty to ani­mals and conscription. 

It’s easy to assume Wool­man was the kind of guy who loves a good fight. But his jour­nal reveals a soft-spo­ken man, one who only entered a con­fronta­tion — or even spoke at all — when he felt a divine prodding. 

In their book Life with God, Richard Fos­ter and Kathryn Helmers point to Wool­man as an exam­ple of the qui­et pow­er of a life trans­formed by the grace of God.” Liv­ing in the mid-1700s, Wool­man didn’t set out to become an abo­li­tion­ist, but the more he prayed, fast­ed and attend­ed to the pres­ence of God and oth­er peo­ple, the more he was afflict­ed in mind” by injustice. 

Once Wool­man was invit­ed to stay at the home of a wealthy fel­low Quak­er named Thomas Wood­ward. When Wool­man real­ized over din­ner Woodward’s domes­tic ser­vants were slaves, he said noth­ing. But that night he wrote a let­ter to his host, explain­ing why he couldn’t stay. Then he slipped into the night, stop­ping briefly at the slaves’ quar­ters to pay them for the day’s service. 

The next morn­ing Wood­ward, con­vict­ed by Woolman’s emp­ty bed and gen­tle let­ter, freed all his slaves. 

Wool­man was the kind of per­son who shrinks from giv­ing offence to oth­ers,” write Fos­ter and Helmers. What gave him the strength to act against his own nat­ur­al incli­na­tions?” The answer, they sug­gest, was Woolman’s sus­tained, inten­tion­al life with God. 

His spir­i­tu­al prac­tices allowed the Spir­it to shape him into some­one who knew when to be silent, when to speak, and when to let his life do the talking. 

Work­ing with Jus­tine I know three times each day an alarm goes off, and she dis­ap­pears for a few moments to pray. It’s out of the flow of a steady con­ver­sa­tion with the Spir­it that she decides whether to speak or hold her tongue. I’m guess­ing that’s why, when Jus­tine does speak, she speaks with pow­er. That’s the truth. 

First pub­lished in Faith Today (July/​August 2017).

Text First Published June 2017

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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