The Ministry of Shutting Up
It was excruciating, frustrating, even cringe-worthy. I was in a place of business, as a customer, talking with an employee about their services. Except… I wasn’t really talking at all. She was looking at me, but it was a completely one-sided conversation. I couldn’t get a word in. In her defense, she had no idea she was dominating the conversation. She was completely oblivious to my frustrations. But therein lies the problem.
We live in a world that teaches us to be endlessly self-centered. It is no surprise then, that this disease often infects our conversations. We interrupt. We interject. We take the floor and refuse to give it up. We turn someone else’s story into a story about that one time the same thing happened to us, only ours was more interesting.
In a self-centered world like ours, sometimes the most godly, counter-cultural thing you can do is shut your mouth. This is a practical, down-to-earth way you can apply Philippians 2:3, which tells us that as believers, we should be those who consider others more important/significant than ourselves. Or perhaps the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.
Listen. Take a genuine interest in what someone else is saying. Refuse to turn the focus back on yourself. Allow them to talk about themselves. Shut up.
All the way back in 2011, the Art of Manliness website published an article entitled How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism. I’ve never forgotten it. It felt distinctly Christian from the moment I first read it. The idea was that most of us are complete narcissists when we talk to others. We’re either talking about ourselves or waiting for our turn to talk about ourselves. We rarely take a genuine, supportive interest in what the other person is communicating. As Christians, we should do better at this. Sadly, conversations between followers of Christ are often just as narcissistic as those between unbelievers.
So, how can we improve in this area? Here are three simple suggestions.
Close Your Mouth
First, close your mouth and listen more than you speak. The next time you’re in a group, or even one-on-one, try to actively think about selflessly serving others by letting them talk. The book of Proverbs teaches us over and over again that the wise are not the ones who talk most, but the ones who shut their mouths (Prov. 10:19, 13:3, 17:27-28). Refusing to talk, and sacrificing your chance to grab the spotlight, is a distinctly Christ-like way to serve and forfeit vain glory for the good of someone else.
Ask Sincere Questions
Second, ask genuine follow-up questions about what others are saying. These are questions that keep the focus on them and allow them to continue talking about themselves. This must flow out of a sincere interest in the other person. We must truly care about them, their lives, and their feelings. It is extremely rare to see this in group settings. Asking good questions is a wonderful way to deny yourself and love someone else.
Listen With No Agenda
Third, don’t just wait for your turn to speak. When someone else is talking, don’t spend that time thinking about what you are going to say next. Listen intently and process what they have to say with no agenda other than to love and serve them. Listen to them as you would want someone to listen to you.
When Job first began to experience his extraordinary suffering, his three best friends heard about it and came to his side. Scripture tells us, "they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:14-15) They simply sat with him for an entire week and kept their mouths shut. This was the most helpful thing they did throughout the entire book. After that first week of silence, they opened their mouths, and that’s when they became “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2).
Brothers and sisters, we have been called to imitate Christ by loving others more than we love ourselves. Let us not only do this with our deeds, but with our words (or lack of words) as well.