My neighbor must have been in a good mood—or maybe a spectacularly bad one—because, for the first time since I’d moved into my apartment five months earlier, I could hear music blaring from next door. Only the bass tones reached my home office, but it was distracting. Do I say something? I decided not to because I knew she had recently overcome significant challenges and, if the music was that loud, she probably needed it to be.
Sometimes, it doesn’t take more than a second thought to decide whether to speak up or move on. Many situations, however, are more difficult to navigate. Whether face to face or online, most of us are constantly subjected to commentaries, conversations and confrontations. If we’re plugged into even one or two social media sites, it’s hard to escape the “noise.” Everyone has an opinion, and most are only too eager to make sure others know what it is. If we’re not careful, our reactions and responses can get us into trouble.
To Speak or Not to Speak
Social media isn’t the only arena where we need discernment. Board meetings, family meal times, sporting events, and even a trip to the grocery store can be rife with opportunities to voice our views on a hot topic, ask a troubling question, or offer a word of either encouragement or criticism. At church or on the phone with a friend, we may wonder whether it’s appropriate to share a prayer request (is it gossip?) or a praise report (is it boasting?).
We may have the right to express ourselves, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the wisest thing to do. As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to remain silent and a time to speak. When we’re not sure which to do, we get the best advice when we search God’s Word with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And the best way to receive that advice is to listen while we read. We often talk about how it’s important to listen to understand, and that applies to how we read Scripture, too.
The Power of Listening
A wise old owl lived in an oak;
The more he saw, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard.
Why aren’t we all more like this bird?
This may be a nursery rhyme, but it asks a poignant question well suited to most adults today. It reminds me of what so many of our mothers used say, that God gave us two ears and only one mouth so that we would listen twice as much as we talk. Or, as Jesus’s brother put it in James 1:19, “Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry” (GNT).
Scripture is full of warnings to either be silent or to watch our words. In Proverbs 10:19, we read: “The more you talk, the more likely you are to sin. If you are wise, you will keep quiet.” And Proverbs 17:28 is likely the inspiration behind the oft-quoted adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
Listening can be difficult because it requires humility and the willingness to risk being wronged or misunderstood. Human nature tends toward self-defence and protecting our rights, but a Christ-like attitude prompts us to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34). What better example of this do we have than when Jesus stood on trial before his accusers and remained silent, except to answer one specific question (Mark 14:53-65). Later, while he hung on the cross, instead of calling down a multitude of angels to rescue him, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who wanted him dead (Luke 23:34). In similar fashion, Stephen did not defend himself when he was attacked for preaching the gospel; instead, he asked God to have mercy on those who were stoning him (Acts 7:54-60).
The Power of Words
Asking God to guard our mouths (Psalm 141:3) may mean we need to hold our tongue at times—for example, when we are tempted to gossip, lie, curse, complain, argue or criticize—but it may also mean speaking up when there is an opportunity to glorify God, speak the truth, or speak well of someone else. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus cautioned that one day our words will either justify us or condemn us. Proverbs 18:21 also tells us that the tongue has the power of “life and death.”
Our speech “should always be pleasant and interesting, and [we] should know how to give the right answer to everyone” (Colossians 4:6). A handy tool to check our words before we speak is the acronym THINK. Is what we’re about to say. . .
It may not be possible to apply all five characteristics to our speech, but this principle reminds us that it isn’t enough that our statements are true, if our motives are to humiliate someone. Conversely, we may offer a kind word to someone who is hurting, but if that’s not paired with a willingness to be helpful, our words are useless.
Before engaging in an online debate, sending an angry email or confronting someone, we should first pray, asking the Holy Spirit to quiet our hearts so that we can hear God speaking to us. Then we can turn to God’s Word and seek insights and truths that will help us know what to do. Also, the more we absorb and meditate on the powerful words of Scripture, the more our own words will be filled with grace and wisdom. We may find that the Lord wants us to remain still, or we may be given both boldness and wisdom to speak up. Either way, let us always make sure it is not for our own satisfaction and self-interest but for the glory of God.
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