Editor's 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. 

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