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We know that physical murder is severe, dramatic, and permanent, as the perpetrator seeks to erase someone from this world. Physical murder is far worse from a consequential perspective, but we know that anger is on a spectrum with one label for all its forms—murder. Where the two forms of anger intersect is the commentary they make about its victim.
Physical murder says, “I do not like you. Therefore, I am going to make sure you do not exist anymore; I’m going to kill you.”
Silent treatment says, “I do not like you, but I’m a civilized human, so I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to pretend you do not exist by ignoring you for an indefinite, undetermined period.”
The silent treatment is a sanitized version of murder. If a person does not have clear biblical categories for their sin patterns, they can dull their conscience to the point of being okay with their behavior. The silent treatment permits them to accomplish a pragmatic result: the virtual erasure of another human being while dulling their conscience to make the “murderous” behavior acceptable.
The silent treatment is not about an inability to communicate but a deliberate choice to not speak to someone. Of course, we want to be careful before judging the silent partner too harshly. Sometimes the person may not say anything because they feel inadequate when the communication becomes competitive. They do not sense they can speak in such a way to make a situation better, so they clam up.
Their partner is such an accomplished jouster that they pick the path of least resistance. Motivation for silence might not be as clear-cut as you think. You want to examine each situation with competence, courage, and compassion. Before uncharitably judging the silent person, you want to collect all the available data. Rarely in conflict is one person entirely innocent and the other fully guilty.
While thinking through these things, one of our Mastermind students came up with the following questions for the person who resorts to the silent treatment. The questions are in three categories: (1) motive, (2) Trinity, and (3) community. These question sets would be great for any interpersonal squabble, assuming both participants are mature enough to engage with humility. Perhaps working through them in the context of a small group would prove transformative for the relationships and the group.
I’m not suggesting all silence is wrong. James did say that being slow to speak is a good thing (James 1:19). There are times when biting your tongue is the best path forward for the short term. However, never saying anything forever is not God’s plan for your relationships. God is a speaking God, and His image-bearers must emulate this attribute.
Emulating the Trinity is one of our highest privileges (Ephesians 4:1). Hence, as you examine your motives, you want to make sure you’re aligning your heart and practice with who you want to represent by your speech patterns. Perhaps there can be temporary justification for silence, but carefully address any log that may have lodged in your eye socket (Matthew 7:3-5).
You can do many things by yourself, but sanctification is not one of them. There are too many one another passages in the New Testament for any of us to take the posture of isolating from the community. And to live in community is part of what it means to image the divine community—Father, Son, and Spirit. As you think about these transformative truths, reflect upon these questions.
I trust these questions aid you in exploring your motives for choosing sinful silence in a problematic relationship. While the silent treatment may never come close to physical murder, it would be humble of us and helpful to others if we saw our anger the way James did (James 4:1-2). The temptation is to compare our sins with the sins of others. That attitude is not a redemptive way to think about ourselves. Perhaps if we saw our sin as the same as any other sin (James 2:10), we would be motivated to change.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Maybe you’re in a situation where speaking would cause more trouble than silence. If so, your relationship needs outside intervention. If you cannot talk, you need someone to speak for you. A pastor or other spiritual authority might be the best option. Don’t choose silence, whether it’s your choice or someone else is forcing you to self-censor.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).