On pages 57 – 59 Bonhoeffer explores the relationship between “silence” and “speaking”, and then in pages 59 through the end of the chapter he focuses on meditating on the Word, prayer, and intercession. He first establishes the place of silence in The Day Alone and then proceeds to demonstrate how silence is to be exercised, for silence is not passive, it is listening to God and His Word; silence is communion with God; silence is conversation – not a conversation in which one person speaks over another, not a conversation in which we interrupt God, but rather fellowship (communion, koinonia) in which we, the children, listen and then respond.
There is nothing meritorious either in being silent or in speaking. To be silent does not make us spiritual; neither does talking.
“Silence is misunderstood as a solemn gesture, as a mystical desire to get beyond the Word. Silence is no longer seen in its essential relationship to the Word, as the simple act of the individual who falls silent under the Word of God,” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015, Reader’s Edition, page 58).
Bonhoeffer continues His emphasis on the community living under the Word of God; this is an emphasis from which he does not depart – his thinking and writing are anchored in God’s Word. Speaking, silence, prayer, intercession, meditation, vocation – all of life for Bonhoeffer is to be lived under the Word of God – life together is found living under God’s Word.
“In the end, silence means nothing other than waiting for God’s Word…” (page 58). James writes that we are to “in all humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls,” (James 1:21b). Waiting for God’s Word does not simply mean audibly hearing the Word any more than throwing seed on the ground means planting seed. The ground must be prepared, the furrows plowed, the seed sown, the seed covered, the seed watered.
“Receiving the word implanted” means allowing the Word to germinate and take root in our souls, and this means that we need to be still, to be silent, submitted to the Word and the Holy Spirit. Seed sown on shallow soil may quickly spring up, it may appear to be a good and exciting experience – but because there is no root the plant will not last and therefore religious life and preaching and teaching become one quick experience after another with little sustainability. There are congregational gardens with no perennials and even few annual plants – most of what is in them are cut flowers with short life expectancies.
Bonhoeffer writes on page 58, “But everybody knows this [silence before God’s Word] is something that needs to be learned in these days when idle talk has gained the upper hand.” If everybody knew this then (which I doubt Bonhoeffer really thought) can we say they know it now? What is idle talk?
It is too easy to relegate idle talk to things outside the church world; the world is the world is the world – the present age is the present age. While Bonhoeffer was concerned about the talk of the world, the context of Life Together, and of much of the struggle of his life, was the professing church. Bonhoeffer fought for substantive talk in the church, for talk grounded in God’s Word; he fought for the life of the German church and he strove to imbue the international Ecumenical Movement with thinking and language that mattered – much of what he encountered in both the ecumenical movement and the German church was idle talk. Idle talk led to moral, ethical, and spiritual capitulation. Words matter, God’s Word matters the most.
Conversation in life together ought to be the fruit of listening and receiving the implanted Word of God rather than a telling and retelling of religious fads, of the “spiritually” popular, of the latest self-help program, of the newest program to make life better. Sadly idle talk is found through all academic and economic and social groups of the church. In much of academia new thoughts and new ground must be advanced in order to publish papers and books and gain advancement. In the masses the faddist and popular are marketed to appeal to immediate needs and feelings – the focus is often on experience. The Word is not viewed as transformative, Jesus Christ is not the image we seek to be conformed to – the salvation of men and women and children is no longer the call of the church – we want a “better life” we do not want “life eternal”. Of course “idle talk” can be dead tradition as well, that tradition which stifles the living Word, which displaces the Head of the Body.
This all means that we must seek Christ in His Word today and tomorrow, building on the foundation of those who went before us. It means that we must build on Jesus Christ and only on Jesus Christ. It means that outside of His Word all is idle talk. This does not mean that all talk needs to be “religious” or “churchy” or “spiritual” – otherwise we then have idle talk. God has given us all things to richly enjoy and He desires that all of life be lived in communion with Him and with one another – when we live unto Him and in service to one another, doing all in the name of our Lord Jesus – then we have talk birthed of the Word that builds up, that encourages, that has its roots in our souls – talk born of the Word that is from eternity past into eternity future – the Word and the talk of God birthed out of our silence before God.