The Philosophy of the Pause

Pauses are imperiled today. An unintended pause on the radio is dead air. Pause in a conversation—to find the right word, right example, or right question—and someone will end it for you by filling in their words. Impatience demands it. Culture accepts it. Some of us hate it.

Pauses may be awkward or apt, affected or authentic. No one speaks a continuous stream of words. Our acoustic blasts are punctuated. But the pause is longer than standard punctuation. People speak at different speeds. There are gazelles and snails. The preacher and writer, D. James Kennedy spoke deliberately and slowly, but made every word count. He was not lethargic, but authoritative. Dr. Kennedy did not fear the pause, and his pauses were honored. Others speak at a breakneck rate. For those old enough to remember, their speaking is akin to playing a 33 rpm album at 45 rpm. But pauses are identifiable no matter what the rate of speaking. What, then, should we do with them?

As creatures, we are limited in every way. God is not. We are not God. We are personal and finite. God is personal and infinite. As my Denver Seminary colleague Dr. David Buschart says, we should own our finitude. Our goals often exceed our abilities. We make honest mistakes that are not moral lapses. This irritates us, and we find it difficult to rest within our limits. One small way to accept our finitude is to honor the pause in conversations.

Words matter. We are not speaking into the air. Our words are stored in a changeless past and affect the eternal future. Thus, we should select our words carefully and heed the words of others. When I listen to another person, I attempt to fathom the meaning of their speech. I should also honor their manner of speaking, especially the pause. Silence does not bracket noise; it is a positive condition, which should elicit patient listening.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame (Proverbs 18:13)

Honoring a pause in another’s speech affirms her as finite being, giving her breathing room—a portal to meaning in a world padlocked by ceaseless chatter, blather, and banter. How might this be done? How might we honor our finitude and that of another of our own kind? Consider an exercise.

Arrange a conversation with a friend in a quiet place. This may take some work. Listen attentively to what your friend is saying, noticing the pacing and cadence of his or her speaking. Resolve to neither fill in pauses (unless asked to do so) or to talk over your friend’s speech. If you fail, then apologize, saying, “I am sorry. I want to give you the space to say what you want and in your timing.” Also try to speak in a measured pace which allows for your own pausing. If your friend fills the pause or talks over you, discern whether it is appropriate to bring this to his or her attention.

There is no need to press the pause button. Machines do not have conversations. Even Siri—despite her billions of words—is not an interlocutor. Rather, pace your pattern of listening and speaking. Recognize, accept, and honor the pause. And ponder these inspired words from The Apocalypse of John (Revelation):

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake (8:1-4).

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

3 thoughts

  1. Not quite the same thing, but Jesus’ use of the pause in John 8:1ff gave the adulterer’s accusers time to think better of their plan and to drift off before their lives came into too sharp a focus.

  2. I would think that pauses for not only the spoken word but also the written word are very appropriate. Reading and pausing to reflect allows the written word to penetrate and the Holy Spirit to work within us to change us. Many distracting thoughts take harbor in our minds, and concentrated reflection (pauses) enable us to recognize them and brush them aside for more nobler thoughts. Just a thought.

  3. I love this Dr. Groothuis. Pause should be allowed, and pursued. Listening is one of the best gifts you can give to another person. How often it is initially granted but then taken back by interjecting all the things we want to say. I know I am guilty of this. To leave the space allows them to both have and finish their thought. No one usually says the really important things right at the beginning of a conversation. And most people solve their own problems just by talking it out. It is the same in other forms of communication. In my work, I am constantly encouraging my clients to shorten the number of words on that brochure to leave room for negative space. Negative space guides the eye to what is really really important. It frames it. If someone pauses during a speech, we all lean in. It means something important comes next. Pauses are the Selah of life. They are the dashes of Emily Dickinson. They are the reflecting pools of thought. Thank you for this beautiful post.

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