Knowing When to Speak and When to Be Silent

Welcome to the new millennium, when we are provided constant opportunities online to voice our opinions and slay any opposition. But what happens when our beliefs and opinions are challenged? We prepare for defense, we prepare for verbal retaliation. And when we do this, we ultimately disregard Christ’s commandment to love one another.

As believers, we are put in a position to influence those around us. The power of our words can be used to build up or tear down. Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us that there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. But when? How?

To discern the difference between knowing when to speak or be silent, we need to humbly seek the Lord through prayer, immerse ourselves in Scripture, and ask for his wisdom and discernment.

When Is Silence Best and Blessed?

Naturally, when we are not opening our mouths, we are more inclined to open our ears – whether toward others or toward God. We are forced into self-reflection and obedience in our silence, which will only further our ability to listen to the Spirit.

Silence is best in moments of anger. When we are angry, there’s a high likelihood that our words will not be produced by the Holy Spirit. James 1:19 instructs us: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Similarly, “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10).

Scripture tells us that silence can help us avoid sinning (Proverbs 10:19), gain respect (Proverbs 11:12), and is deemed wise and intelligent (Proverbs 17:28). In other words, you may be blessed by holding your tongue.

Ultimately, refraining from speaking in certain situations means we are practicing self-control. Maintaining our composure can be challenging! We are to seek wisdom in controlling our tongue, for when we control it, we are ultimately walking by the Spirit. And we know that self-control, a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), is a discipline that is blessed.

When Is Silence Unhelpful or Harmful?

Fear, lack of self-confidence, and anxiety can tempt us to keep our mouths shut when we need to boldly speak truth in love. But walking with the Lord means we must give justice to the weak and fatherless (Psalm 82:3), correct oppression, utter wisdom (Psalm 37:30), and plead the widow’s cause (Isaiah 1:17). When we take a cowardly, quiet backseat to injustice, we are doing more harm than good in our silence.

Additionally, if fear is keeping us from sharing the gospel with others, this too is an example of our silence being more detrimental than helpful. Remember, “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And just as the Lord said to Paul in Acts 18:9, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent,” so must we obey the call to evangelize in the proper setting and time.

When Is Speaking Apt and Gracious?

The Bible shares an abundance of accounts where Christ’s disciples speak boldly for others and for the Lord, and we are commanded to do the same. Sharing the gospel displays that we are not ashamed of the cross. Christ’s last commandment he gave to his disciples was to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) – and it shouldn’t be overlooked that these were some of his last words.

Can you imagine if Christ’s disciples and other witnesses chose to disobey this command? You and I would not know the gospel if his followers hadn’t stepped out in courage and boldness to speak of him.

So how are we to speak? 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to “give an answer to those who ask,” to do it with gentleness and respect, and to keep a clear conscience. Colossians 4:6 instructs us: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Our goal is “to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).

And what do we speak of? We are to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and put away falsehood (Ephesians 4:25). We are to speak the truth in Christ and not lie (Romans 9:1). And when we speak in godly clarity and truth, we are teaching and admonishing one another with wisdom (Colossians 3:16).

Just as Paul asked the church in Ephesus to pray for his boldness (Ephesians 6:18-20), so we should ask the Lord that “words may be given to [us] in opening [our] mouths boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which [we are] ambassadors in chains, that [we] may declare it boldly, as [we] ought to speak.”

When Is Speaking Worldly or Evil?

How easy is it for our flesh to dominate an argument? In our pride and foolishness, we itch to prove our point and end up speaking in anger. The Psalmist in 141:3 wisely says, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!”

James tells us:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. (4:11)

Keeping from slander, gossip, deceit, evil, perversity, quarreling, and lying sounds like a long list of obvious commands. But we must know that our words can feel like sword thrusts (Proverbs 12:18), sharp razors (Psalm 52:2), and fire (James 3:5). They can break a person’s spirit (Proverbs 15:4) and destroy our neighbor (Proverbs 11:9) – so if our intention is not to build one another up and give grace to those who are listening (Ephesians 4:29), we should control our tongues.

When speaking without the Spirit’s leading, we may also fall prey to blasphemy, which we need to take seriously. We are to make every prayerful effort not to speak of twisted theology or unbiblical opinion, which could potentially draw believers away from the truth (Acts 20:30).

Speaking in the Spirit

Whether we are led to speak or to be silent, we remember that it is our duty and privilege to represent Christ’s cause. It’s crucial to seek the Lord and study what his Word says so that we’re prepared to walk boldly in knowledge and truth. Let us always remember Christ’s words in Matthew 12:36-37:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

Judgment for our words sounds frightening, but not for those saved by Jesus Christ. Our sinful nature will cause us to fail, but we can rejoice in the truth that Christ has fulfilled every commandment to love God and others. So when we eventually stumble into speaking harshly or are tempted to avoid speaking from fear, we can rest on Christ’s perfect record on our account and move forward with this assurance and motivation.

Ultimately, we can be confident that the Holy Spirit will give us wisdom, discernment, and power when we’re lacking: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). In his great mercy, grace, and love, he gives believers the power to be effective.

Today, pray and ask the Lord to remind you of this: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Colossians 3:17).

Are there other ways that you discern when to speak and when to be silent?

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Meredith Hodge lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband Matt and their Goldendoodle Rudy. She is a freelance writer and editor who loves coffee, spending time in nature, and serving others. Meredith is the author of "It's Positive!," a blog bringing gospel-centered hope and encouragement to those struggling with infertility.

Date Posted: Apr 1st, 2016