We are probably more responsive today than ever before, partly because we now have the tools to respond publicly to anyone or anything, and at any time we see fit. We can post, like, tweet, and retweet, and we are delighted to do so. We love to respond. No, we need to respond.
Sometimes a response is appropriate. Tragic and heartbreaking events happen, and seem to be happening at an increasing rate. It can be good and right for Christians to respond in a timely, grace-filled, and truthful manner. But our compulsion to respond runs much deeper than pivotal events in society and culture.
What drives this need to respond to even the smallest of things? What fuels our itchy tweeting fingers and twitching lips? What drives our desire to have the last word? Though we might talk ourselves into believing in our own rightness and therefore the right to defend ourselves, our need to respond more likely comes from our inflated ego and our continuing need to justify ourselves.
Our Felt Need to Respond
You know the feeling. Someone brings something against you — an accusation, a criticism, a rebuke. They do something, say something, or insinuate something, and you, in return, feel compelled to return fire. It’s a burning down deep in your gut. I must respond.
Unfortunately, when our response comes, it’s often part and parcel with what has just been dealt to us. If it was anger, we respond in anger. If criticism, we respond with criticism of our own. If accusation, we respond with defensiveness. Whatever the case, we respond in kind.
We should find it curious, though, that Jesus did not seem to feel the same need.
The prophet Isaiah predicted the non-response of Jesus:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion reflect the same silence.
When he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:12–14)
[Herod] questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. (Luke 23:9)
Interesting, right? Maybe even a little maddening? It gets under our skin because of the injustice. Here is Jesus himself being falsely accused and maligned, with all sorts of groundless accusations and insinuations, and he responds with — nothing. Silence. A closed mouth.
Freedom of Speech
His silence speaks volumes about our urgency to respond. It’s almost as if Jesus has some kind of freedom that we do not have — a freedom producing the fruit of silence — while we are enslaved by a need to have the last word, a clever quip, or some kind of drop-the-mic self-justification. Why, then, does Jesus have this freedom not to respond, this right to remain silent?
Perhaps Jesus felt this freedom because he knew who he was. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus knew absolutely who he was and what he was here to do. He was, and is, the Son in whom the Father was, and is, well-pleased. At every moment of his earthly life and ministry, he was completely confident in his identity and mission. Even when the crowds wanted to hoist him on their shoulders and carry him to power, Jesus felt no need to succumb to their praise.
We feel the need to respond in such situations, in part, because we lack the same assurance and confidence. We don’t know who we are, or at least we haven’t fully embraced who we are in Christ. We, because of Jesus, have become the sons and daughters in whom the Father is well-pleased, and because we are, we have no need for any more self-justification. If this truth had deeper roots in our hearts, we might be slower to speak.
For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free
Jesus felt the freedom of non-response not only because he knew himself, who he was, and why he was here. He also felt free because he knew his accusers. In fact, he knew them better than they even knew themselves. He knew they were deceived slaves to the prince of this world, fully indoctrinated into a corrupt and fading worldview. In fact, he pitied them enough, with deep compassion, to pray for their forgiveness even as they put him to death.
What about us? We are often far more concerned with responding than knowing. We are much more focused on our next word than the heart that motivated the criticism or accusation. We forget, in a day and time of easy and cheap social interactions and confrontations, that the ones on the other side of the tweet are actually people made in the image of God. If we knew who they were, we might be much slower to speak and quicker to hold our tongues and listen.
If you find yourself enslaved to your next response, chained by the need to have the next and last word, join me in trying to focus our eyes on Christ who lived in the freedom to remain silent. As we do, perhaps we will be reminded again of who we are in him, and be free enough to invite others — even our accusers and our enemies — with our attitudes and words, to come and enjoy being found in him, too.