Words. The tongue. Communication. It’s complicated, with plenty of opportunity for sin. That is why I find the book of Proverbs so convicting. Too often I sin with my speech; I sinfully wound with my words—sometimes by speaking, sometimes by my silence.
Sometimes silence screams. Sometimes holding one’s tongue, or refraining from the keyboard, can communicate a negative message, a painful one. A silent killer. When we fail to use words to communicate appreciation, we may in fact be communicating rejection. This can be cold, even cruel. Christians should be a lot more deliberate at voicing affirmation. The apostle Paul was great at this. He often expressed thankfulness for what he saw God doing in the lives of others. He commended Christians for faithfulness and love. Simple words like “thank you” and “I appreciate what you did, said,” etc. and “I am grateful to God for …” can minister a great deal of encouragement. On the other hand, the bad manners of the silent treatment can be destructive; not to mention that it may reveal a pretty ugly heart.
But though silence can be grievous, sometimes silence is golden; it can be godly. Consider the words of Solomon: “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive” (Proverbs 17:28). Sometimes we Christians appear foolish because we ignore this precept. I know from experience that I often would have proved to be wise had I kept my mouth shut. Mark Twain once quipped, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” That’s pretty harsh, but I think that I get his point.
Sometimes we speak about things with great authority and yet we are really clueless. I read a lot of news. But that makes me vulnerable to foolishness. Being regularly exposed to the latest (and fleeting) news cycle can fool me into the assumption that I am an expert on ISIS, student protests, the global market, and various political issues around the world. However, as someone has put it, the world we see depends on the news we get. And the news we get may very well be skewed. The pressure in the media to be the first to know often results in half-baked stories that hang on a thread of very disputable testimony. On the other hand, personal agendas of reporters, and other factors, often distort the real situation. Therefore, I need to make sure that I really know what I am talking about. Otherwise silence is the better option.
This matter also applies to social media, such as Facebook. I suspect that one of its accompanying temptations is the idea that our opinion is so important that we must comment on every post and on every controversy. We should be careful. We may expose ourselves to the charge of zeal without knowledge. We should ponder before posting. Silence may be golden.
Unfortunately, when it comes to responding to a post, people are too slow to give the benefit of the doubt while being too quick to respond. Consider those posts which highlight an important issue yet are worded rather clumsily. In such cases, let’s be gracious. Perhaps silence is a better response than an immediate and perhaps intemperate response. The words of James are helpful: “Be swift to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19).
Recently, John Piper posted an article, one that was biblically clumsy. It was not John Piper at his best. It required a response. And many jumped at the opportunity. Sadly, some of these displayed foolishness. They should have remained silent. On the other hand, men like Douglas Wilson responded biblically, both in content and in charity. He gave Piper the benefit of the doubt. I am glad that Wilson did not remain silent. His response was helpful—because it was respectful. It was like “apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Unfortunately, too many responses were like rotten bananas in settings of styrofoam. Silence from most would have been golden.
Silence is sometimes golden in the midst of crisis. It has been noted that Job’s counsellors were their most effective during the seven days in which they merely sat with him and said nothing (2:13). It was when they opened their mouths that they became Exhibit A for Proverbs 17:28. Perhaps Mark Twain had them in mind!
One of the most valuable lessons that I learned as a young pastoral-intern was the value of sometimes saying nothing in the presence of deep grief. Just being there is sometimes the best healing balm to be applied. No doubt, there are times when, in the midst of heartache, words are most appropriate, and certainly God’s Word is a means of grace. But we need to be sensitive to know when to quote the golden chain of grace of Romans 8:28–30 and when not to. Sometimes wisdom calls for the gold of silence accompanied by the tears of mournful identification.
On a final note, sometimes silence can be golden when given the opportunity to criticise.
Clearly, criticism is sometimes called for as a means of helping someone to improve in a particular area (Matthew 18:15; Galatians 2:11; 2 Timothy 3:16—“reproof”; etc.). But such criticism is to be constructive. It is to be coupled with a commitment to help the person, or the institution, or whatever, to change.
The chancellor of my alma mater used to say, “Anyone can criticise.” It takes no particular skill to identify error, incompetence or failure. But it requires the skill of love and wisdom to add constructive engagement alongside critical examination. In other words, are you willing and committed to coming alongside the “deficient,” or are you satisfied with merely pointing out what you perceive as a failure or shortcoming? If the latter, then silence is worth its weight in gold.
The local church, with its members, ministries, and ministers, provides ample material to critique. But perhaps we should live by the rule that, if we are silent to affirm and to assist, then we should remain silent to criticise. And if we are silently screaming rejection, then we have little business breaking that silence to critique. In such cases, silence is not only golden; it may, in fact, prove to be godly. And there is nothing foolish about that.