As he tentatively approached that man after services and asked what the problem was, he was startled to hear him ask, “What do you mean?’ When Keith explained the reaction he saw, the brother laughed and said, “Oh that. I was just having some indigestion.” He added that he thought the interpretation was sound. What a relief!
Despite that little misunderstanding, the Bible talks a lot about body language and what it means.
But first, a little history. What we call "body language" is technically known as "kinesics," which is defined as the study of the way body movements and gestures can serve as nonverbal communication. The term was originated by Dr. Ray Birdwhistell in 1952, who estimated that no more than 30-35% of communication is actually accomplished through words. Really? Yes, just think about it. Holding your forefinger and thumb together in a circle with the other fingers straight up, patting the seat next to you, breaking out in a big grin, blowing a kiss, raising a hand in class, rolling your eyes—all of these are movements and gestures we see every day, perfect examples of body language.
Dr Birdwhistell was born September 18, 1918, and his studies in kinesics, which he named after the Greek word for movement, are legendary in the fields of anthropology, folklore, and psychiatry. And now back to body language in the Bible.
And the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people, Ex 32:9. That phrase must be the most commonly used one I found in regard to body language. You know exactly what it means. Talk to someone you have an issue with and you will see his shoulders draw up and his chin point down, his chest poke out, and his jaws clench—all signs of tension in the neck area. It means here is a man who has already decided not to change his mind regardless what you say. Nehemiah says it this way…and they turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey, Neh 9:29.
Centuries after God’s words to Moses, we find this: Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the LORD…2 Chron 30:8. You can only “yield” when you are pliable, and these people were rigid, determined not to listen and yield. And the trait was passed down to the sons, not because of genetics, but because children take their cues from their parents. Still later we find, You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you, Acts 7:51. Body language does not change like spoken language. It remains the same for thousands of years.
Have you ever had a discussion with someone only to have that person start shaking his head no before you have even presented your reasoning? The Bible describes people who were just like that. But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear, Zech 7:11. You automatically know that you will make no headway with that person. In fact, you also know that you will not receive whatever benefits you might have from his study because the conversation is over before it even starts. Isaiah says it this way: They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand, Isa 44:18. You are only hurting yourself when you won’t at least listen with an open mind.
Body language works with the righteous too. He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure, Isa 33:15,16.
Yes, you have to be careful when judging body language. Sometimes a frown is simply a matter of indigestion. But a teacher knows when the same person wears the same look of indifference, boredom, or agitation every week. He knows when his words have struck a nerve. Most of us are so obvious it’s embarrassing. But he also knows when someone is eating up the study of God’s word, perhaps thinking of its application to his own life, perhaps eagerly wondering where a deeper study on the same subject might lead him when he returns home. A speaker sees the nods of encouragement from the older members and even the light bulbs going off in people’s minds.
Just as so many years ago, we speak a silent language, one that is obvious to anyone looking at us, even those who do not speak English. It’s a language that God can speak fluently. Be careful what you “say.”
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, Heb 4:12.