‘Sitting Shiva’ with the World

by Jared C. Wilson June 1, 2020

In Times of Pain and Anger, Sometimes Prayerful Silence is the Revolutionary Act

"And 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 2:13

It took me a few days to say anything online related to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery by a group of white neighbors and George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But it wasn't because I didn't have any thoughts about these tragedies. I have spoken up with much more alacrity about such incidents in the past. But something in my spirit didn't feel right in publicly opining just yet. The pain caused to these families and their communities seemed much too heavy into which to throw a fresh round of thin, little tweets.

As I write this, multiple cities are burning. Anger has, once again, boiled over. This is no more an historic anomaly than the incidents that have provoked it. For the most part, I am still finding words hard to come by.

Some voices I respect and admire are saying that the silence of white leaders is complicity in the injustice. I totally understand that perspective. Some other voices I respect and admire are saying white leaders should shut up for once to listen and learn from their black neighbors. I understand that perspective, as well.

I see the circumstantial value in both responses — there is indeed a time to speak up. But there is also, perhaps — and here I am trying to tread lightly — a time to be silent. There is a time and season for everything. And these may not be the same for everyone. For my part, I am trying not to be led by what varying voices expect (or demand) of me, for indeed, these expectations vary and to please some is necessarily to displease others. Like you, I want to love God with all my heart, and my neighbor as myself. I think these aims are frequently possible without "making sure my voice is heard."

To be clear, I am not arguing a kind of neutrality about the events in play here. I'm not trying to "fine people on both sides" this thing. For what it's worth, here are my takes on the relevant incidents:

I believe Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, and whatever he was meaning to do in that job site is beside the point that he was cornered, threatened, and killed unjustly. I believe George Floyd was murdered in the street. These are just two in a long historical string of the treating of black bodies like animals, even less so, as nothings. Additionally, as it pertains to riots and looting, while I think many different forms of civil disobedience are acceptable means of protesting injustice, violence and robbery are lawlessnesses the Lord abhors (Heb. 1:9; Titus 2:14). 

What we are witnessing, of course, in all of these incidents, is the uproar of utter lostness. The murder of God's image-bearers and the raging and wanton destruction of lives and livelihoods are both symptoms of a Christless kingdom. And what I am trying to say is that trying to say a bunch of stuff about it — you'll forgive this blog post, I hope — feels, to me, sometimes less pertinent than inclining a heart to the brokenness and my tongue to the Lord.

When the sufferer Job was deep in his anguish, his friends showed up. And for seven days they just sat with him. It was when they opened their mouths that things started getting screwy. This is the precursor to the Jewish tradition of "sitting shiva." When one is in mourning, his or her relatives enter the grief with them for a week, sharing the lament, largely in silence. 

This obviously isn't a law binding Christians in times of pain and grief, but I'm convinced it has many merits in our age of universal platforms and social media. I don't think every situation requires this for every person. If you have been regularly remarking on the headlines and RT'ing your favorite voices, you've got no judgment from me. "The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice" (Ps. 37:30). If you've been too overwhelmed to say too much — not sure what you even can say — you've got no judgment from me either. "Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (Prov. 29:20).

The wonder of much of the Bible's wisdom literature is that we do not find minute prescriptions all-encompassing, but rather supernatural guidance for circumstantial and seasonal application. Many of the Proverbs are universally applicable, and the Spirit helps us discern when certain other Proverbs ought to be employed. (We answer fools and don't answer fools at different times, for instance.) I am finding it difficult lately, even before these most recent headlines, to sense it right to be providing a running commentary on everything going on in the world. I am not that wise, nor is my voice that necessary. 

A couple of years into my last pastorate, a dear lady in my church lost her son to a drug overdose. As circumstances had it, I was able to join her at the scene and, later, at the hospital while she waited to identify her son's body. I sat with her in a busy hallway, holding her hand. I kept thinking of things to say and then thinking better of all of them. I said, as far as I recall, nothing. And I was hating myself for it. I felt like I was really blowing it as her pastor. I should have had the right words, some spiritual encouragement, some tidbit of hope for her. But I just sat there. Like a loser.

A couple of years later, I worked up the courage to apologize. I said to her, "You know, I really felt like I failed you then. I should have known how to help you." She looked at me with a deep kindness and said, "Jared, I don't remember who said what or didn't say what. All I know is that it was the worst day of my life, and my pastor was beside me." I learned a very valuable lesson hearing that.

I fail this lesson a lot, and I am not totally sure of my application of it now. All I know is that, the pain I see in the world is so immense, so chaotic, so agonizingly unwieldy. Who is sufficient for such things? 

The Lord is. 

It is interesting that Jesus began his public ministry around age thirty. He spent quite a bit of time as a grown man without the public platform. It certainly wasn't because he wasn't qualified! Rather, he lived among his people, loving his neighbor, and I don't think it's wrong to imagine him listening a lot, embracing a lot, comforting a lot. Perhaps it was a decade of a kind of "sitting shiva" with the oppression and expectancy of his countrymen. Even after his ministry began, he spent a fair amount of time in silence (Lk. 5:16).

As the embodiment of Wisdom, Jesus knew when to speak and when to be quiet. He is certainly sufficient for these days.

And I certainly am not. I have said a few things here and there. I've said more here than I had originally set out to. I intend to speak up, but, by his grace, only as the Lord leads, not as my need to be heard or seen or thought a certain way may dictate. Instead, I want to mainly "sit shiva" with the broken world, not presume it constantly needs my privileged advice, my pastoral bon mots, my spiritual tweety koans. I want to listen a lot more to people not like me, consider what God may be teaching me through others whose experiences are unlike mine. "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19). And when I do speak up, I want to prioritize the preaching of the good news of Christ's grace.

To be silent about injustice is indeed complicity. But entering into periods of public silence in order to lament with one's church and neighbors and to intercede on others' behalf with the God of the universe is not silence. It is a strategic appeal to the only One who can heal what ails us. In a world erupting with grief, fear, and wrath, sometimes prayerful silence is the best revolution.

Christ is king. He does uphold the universe. He does love justice. And he is coming quickly. He can be trusted above all others.

"O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more."

— Psalm 10:17-18