We have all found ourselves in conversations we wish we had not entered. Perhaps the conversation turned in a direction we did not anticipate, or we realize that the conversation, turned out to be simply not worth having.
This common experience illustrates the need to be thoughtful on when to speak and when to shut up, when to lean into a situation and when to walk away. In today’s culture, which is replete with talking heads on cable news networks and bumper sticker slogans on social media, this need is especially felt. We find ourselves often in situations that produce much more heat than light. In light of our current cultural climate, it is important for us to discern what the Bible says about when Christians should speak into issues and when they should be silent. While many biblical texts impart wisdom on this point, the book of Proverbs especially has much to say.
Principle from Proverbs
First, Proverbs teaches that there is great power in speech. What we say can bring life (Proverbs 10:11; 13:14; 15:1), healing (Proverbs 12:18), and joy (Proverbs 15:23), but what we say can also bring death (Proverbs 18:21). Even saying the right thing at the wrong time can be unhelpful (Proverbs 25:20; 27:14). Such power commends wise, judicious and timely speech.
Second, Proverbs teaches that at times we need to be silent. “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life” (Proverbs 13:3), and “when words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Proverbs 10:19). The wise man restrains his words (Proverbs 17:27), whereas the fool does not know when to stop talking (Proverbs 10:8, 10; 29:20). Holding back one’s thoughts at the right time is a form of self-control, which the fool lacks (Proverbs 29:11).
Third, Proverbs teaches that at times we need to speak forthrightly. “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). We don’t wish the fool to remain in his folly (Proverbs 26:5), and we don’t want to give way to falsehood (Proverbs 25:26). Indeed, if we know the truth but keep quiet when we should speak out, we are complicit in the destruction that follows (Proverbs 24:10-12).
The Right Time to Speak
With these principles in place, under what circumstances should we speak or shut up? In short, we should speak to the right person at the right time with the right motives. If the person won’t listen to us, we should refrain from the conversation. The fool in Proverbs despises good sense and attempts to argue with a fool will only make the fool quarrelsome (Proverbs 23:9; 29:9). This is what it means to respond to a fool “according to his folly,” and it will only make us a fool ourselves (Proverbs 26:4).
Conversely, if someone is willing to listen to us, then we have an opportunity to impart wisdom to them. To the listening ear, “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” and “a gold ring or an ornament of gold” (Proverbs 25:11-12). So, before you speak, think about whether the person will listen. Perhaps you aren’t the right person to engage them, or perhaps you can try at another time when they are more apt to hear from you.
Finally, consider your motives. Are you merely wanting to quarrel and argue as does the fool (Proverbs 20:3)? Are you interested, like the righteous, in listening in order to give a more thoughtful response (Proverbs 15:28; 18:13), or do you just want to express your opinion as does the fool (Proverbs 18:2, 13)? Is the issue worth defending, or should the fool be ignored (Proverbs 12:16)? Is it an issue that involves you, or is it someone else’s conversation to have (Proverbs 26:17)? Entering a conversation with the right person at the right time with the right motives is crucial if we wish to see lasting fruit from our speech.
These are the ways in which the book of Proverbs addresses how and when we should speak or shut up. In today’s world, it is difficult to have a productive conversation, especially on social media. Perhaps it can be done well but keep these principles in mind before rushing headlong into a debate on your Twitter feed or Facebook page. Indeed, Christians should be known for their willingness to speak out on what is right and true, but we should also be known for our self-restraint and thoughtfulness when doing so. May the Lord strengthen us at GCU to speak to the right person at the right time with the right motives.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.