Let Your Life Speak
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Things are not going well for the church in Corinth. This is a big city on a major trade route. A lot of people pass through. Some who have come to Corinth are preaching a gospel in the name of Jesus, but the message is not consistent with the gospel Paul has been preaching. Paul is away from Corinth when he gets this news. He does not tell us exactly what these so-called “super-apostles” (11:5) are teaching, but he vehemently opposes it. Not only that, they are making fun of Paul himself: because he does not speak eloquently; because he receives no payment for his teaching ministry; because he tells no fanciful tales of spiritual rapture and revelation (1). The Christians in Corinth have apparently been swayed by these super-apostles and have written to Paul seeking “proof that Christ is speaking” through him (13:3).
Paul must be crestfallen. He loves the Corinthians deeply. He has visited them twice and is hopeful for a third visit. More than anything else, Paul wants the gospel of Jesus Christ to take deep root among this community. This must feel like both a personal assault and also a failure of Paul’s gospel mission. There is a great temptation here for Paul to go toe-to-toe with these super-apostles, and on some counts he does: proving his Jewish pedigree and lifting up the suffering he has endured for the sake of the gospel. But on the question of visions and revelations, Paul holds back. Paul insists that he could tell of a spiritual experience that outshines anything spoken by his challengers, but he declines. “If I wish to boast,” Paul says, “I refrain from it so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me . . .” (12:6). Paul knows that “my revelation is better than his revelation” will do little to advance the gospel, and so he exercises the discipline of silence on this matter.
This silence does not come naturally to Paul. You do not have to spend too much time with Paul to know that he probably does wish to boast! It is not personal discipline that gives Paul the strength to bite his tongue; it is some affliction that Paul refers to as a thorn in the flesh and a messenger from Satan. Commentators have spilled much ink trying to figure out what afflicted Paul so terribly. A medical condition? Mental illness? Temptation to some particular sin? An outside adversary or enemy? The bottom line is that we do not know and Paul does not think it necessary to tell. Instead, Paul does want us and the Corinthians to know that while God did not send this trouble to Paul, God has used it to teach this true apostle about humility, trust, and power that comes from beyond himself.
In his weakness, Paul is learning in a deep and personal way the meaning of Ecclesiastes 3: there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak. When he wants badly to boast, to defend his work and his reputation, Paul’s weakness enables him to keep silent so that his life can speak even more powerfully than this words. And that is where Christ’s power becomes evident.
More recently but still the way back in 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described his era as a time when “talkativeness prevail[ed]” (2). It is a sentiment that resonates even some 75 years later in our era of 24-7 media coverage, where anyone with an internet connection can have a blog, where a Facebook post can generate a maelstrom of ranting and raving, and where we engage in endless self-promotion through our words and photographs. Talking heads spout off in our living rooms and we echo their words among friend and foe alike. We grow tired of the all the rhetoric even as we participate in it. We are compelled to engage all the chatter and noise around us and so contribute to it. Or, on the other extreme, we reject it altogether, turning off our televisions, “unfriending” our friends, and burying our heads in the sand until we reach blissful ignorance.
Nearly all of the spiritual masters write of the discipline of silence. The discipline of silence is more than the absence of words. At their heart, all of the disciplines are about shaping an inward reality that draws us closer to the heart of God. Silence is a practice that leads us first quiet our hearts so that we will know when it is time to speak with our words and when it is time to close our mouths and let our lives do the talking. Holy silence comes not because we bite our tongues but because we cling to the Spirit which reminds us constantly that God is with us, that God is trustworthy, and that God is in control. When we nurture and practice this holy silence of the soul, then we will know when is the time to keep silence and when is the time to speak.
Richard Foster writes that silence often makes us feel helpless because “we are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others. . . . We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding” (3). If we can explain ourselves, then we are in control. In silence, we learn to trust that God is in control. If we can explain, then we can justify ourselves. In silence, we allow God to be the one who justifies us.
Let me give you an example. About a month ago I talked with a woman on the phone who asked if the church would pay for one night in a hotel. After doing a bit of research with some of our community partners, I decided not to pay for the room, but I did take dinner to the woman and her adult daughter. As I was getting ready for bed that night, I checked Facebook (a bad habit) and I was dismayed to find that this person had written a terrible review of this church on our Facebook page and had attacked me by name. I was angry and indignant. The story she told was a mix of twisted truths and outright lies. I wanted so badly to justify myself by defending my actions and the work of the gospel carried out by this congregation. I wanted to take control by getting the review removed from Facebook so no one else would see it. As I lay in bed, embarrassed and incensed, the words of Richard Foster came to mind: “God is in control. God is the one who justifies me.” That terrible review is still out there, but in keeping holy silence I was able put my trust in God and draw closer to him.
Surely, though, Christians are not called to perpetual silence, particularly when the gospel is threated or injustice perpetrated. What we learn from Paul is that if there is ever a time to speak, it is when we find ourselves weak and afflicted. This challenges our usual speech patterns. We post pictures on the internet of our adorable children and covetous vacations. We send Christmas letters detailing all the accomplishments of our children or grandchildren in the year past. When someone asks, “How are you?” we say we are good, even if it is not necessarily true. When we do share our trials, it is often in the spirit of complaint or entitlement rather than the boasting that Paul describes.
Boasting in our weakness is not a kind of competitive complaining that says, “My pain is worse than your pain.” It is not a self-deprecating false humility that manipulates others into giving me encouragement or praise. Holy speech never tries to one-up or manipulate others. When we rightly boast in our weakness as Paul does, we experience the grace of God that allows us to identify our suffering with the suffering of Jesus Christ and with the suffering of our neighbors. There is the sense that when we suffer, we are invited into solidarity with all others who suffer, whether justly or unjustly. While we may join Paul in praying for our suffering to be removed, we find too that suffering leads us into deeper dependence upon God. It is here, when we are weak and in union with Christ and neighbor that we experience the strength of Christ – the power of resurrection. Like holy silence, holy speech that is born out of suffering also teaches us that God is with us, that God is trustworthy, and that God is in control.
Again, let me give you an example: a seminary classmate of mine wrote an extremely vulnerable blog post about his diagnosis with a mental illness. It is difficult for me to even use that stigmatized phrase in reference to a friend who is bright, articulate, creative, and accomplished. He wrestled with whether to share not only the diagnosis but the torment that has accompanied him for the last six months. He did speak, and in speaking he is finding others who have been in deep need of a companion in their suffering. In speaking, he is finding the power of Christ working through him to share good news. His is holy speech that is teaching him and others to trust in God and draw closer to him.
In the face of endless noise coming from your television, your computer, your smart-phone, your friends and your neighbors, I invite you walk a little ways with Paul. Is there some place where you know you are right but perhaps it is better to remain silent, let God be in control, and let your life speak louder than your words? Is there some place where you are weak and hurting – something you would rather hide – but you have the conviction of the Spirit to share it? In this age where injustice still stalks and talkativeness still prevails, the world and the church need neither foolish speech nor ignorant silence. In the name of Jesus Christ, and in the example of Paul, may we remember together that God is with us, that God is trustworthy, and that God is in control; and may we let our lives speak to prove it.
May it be so. Amen.
1. John T. McFadden, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009) page 206.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1954) page 79.
3. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998) page 100-101.