Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2
In the ongoing aftermath of our family’s Covid-19 infections, I’ve been given the opportunity to practice “letting my words be few” this week. Silence has had to be the code of the day. For the most part, from the perspective of physical health, the strategy seems to be working. I’ve seen improvement most days, and will likely manage to preach on Sunday morning without too many disruptions.
Silence is good for other things, too, and this is what the author of Ecclesiastes is getting at. There are in this world more important words than our own. For Christians, who are “people of the Word,” having to shut up and pay attention to the words of others (whether by listening more than talking in conversations or by spending extra time reading books) is good practice for listening to God, which is primarily done by reading and meditating on the Bible.
We live in a world that doesn’t exactly prioritize giving extended attention to anything. Most of us have trouble reading even our emails very carefully, because they contain too many words (paragraphs, even!) for our Twitter-trained minds. But for Christians, who believe that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus and in the Bible, the vitality of our relationship with him is tied to our attention to Scripture.
Our hearts are led by what we pay attention to. Jesus meant something like this when he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). Where we focus our attention, our hearts follow. In the movie Lady Bird, a seventeen year-old girl named Christine sits at the desk of her Catholic school guidance counsellor, an elderly nun named Sister Sarah Joan, discussing her life plans. She has spent most of her senior year longing to get away from what she believes to be the boredom of life in her hometown of Sacramento, California. As part of her application to an east coast school, she has written an essay, which the guidance counsellor has read. Sister Sarah Joan’s comments surprise Christine.
SISTER SARAH JOAN: I read your college essay. You clearly love Sacramento.
CHRISTINE (incredulous): I do?
SISTER SARAH JOAN: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
CHRISTINE: I was just describing it.
SISTER SARAH JOAN: Well, it comes across as love.
CHRISTINE (with a shrug): Sure. I guess I pay attention.
SISTER SARAH JOAN: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?
You could argue that God’s love, displayed to us in the coming of Jesus, is the supreme act of paying attention. The words of Exodus 2:25 set the Old Testament story of salvation in motion: “So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” God looked at us, the whole broken humanity, and met the need that he saw by coming to us, living among us, seeing the people nobody else saw (think of the lepers, the outcasts, the poor woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, for example), and carrying all of our burdens (including the self-inflicted ones, our sins) to the cross.
What about our love for God? If our love is measured by our attention, I’m guessing most of us have room to grow in our love for God. A good place to start is to assess how much time we give to paying attention to what God has said to us in Scripture. “I have hidden your word in my heart,” the Psalm writer famously said. Once again, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
When I was a child, Scripture memorization was highly encouraged in kids’ programs and in church in general. While my own discipline of memorizing Scripture isn’t as consistent as I’d like it to be, there is no question that memorization of a passage of Scripture involves and encourages a lot of paying attention. Spending time poring over words so that they first make sense and then find a home in our heart is a wonderful exercise in attention. Or, as Sister Sarah Joan would have it, it is a wonderful exercise in love. As people who might find it hard to know how to put into practice Jesus’ first command, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart,” we might find that memorizing Scripture, the great witness to and revelation of God’s heart toward us, is a worthwhile place to begin.
While I’m looking forward to having an easier time talking again in the (I hope!) near future, I’m taking my time of silence as an invitation to love God by paying attention to his words.