“Don’t speak unless spoken to.”
Did your parents ever tell you this adage when you were a kid and company was coming over for dinner? If so, they probably had good reason. Children can say a lot of foolish things, and adults often want to have mature and intelligent conversations. I remember watching Bambi as a kid and Thumper the bunny saying, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Double negatives aside, these were wise words. Trying not to insult people seems like a good way to stay out of trouble.
Recently, though, society has taken a different tune. Amongst several cases of social injustice going viral, the hashtag #silenceisviolence has become popular. The point is that we all must speak out about said injustices. This idea is partially inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, in which he said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” In his context, MLK was right. But like much on social media, the slogan #silenceisviolence lacks nuance and balance. A balance I think we can find in the Bible.
The Controlled Tongue:
“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Proverbs 17:27-28
In today’s internet age, we have a blowhorn at our fingertips. Social media lets us feel like writers, journalists, theologians, doctors, politicians, or activists, even though most of us aren’t any of those things by trade. We all have the power of our voice but forget that with great power comes great responsibility. As wonderful as this communication age seems, it provides numerous new opportunities to sin. Our culture is terribly reactionary. The apostle James’ command to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:9) seems to be a joke to the 21st century. A slanderous story is quickly shared, but when proven false, it is quietly retracted.
In his third chapter, James tells us that “not many of you should be teachers,” because God judges teachers with a “greater strictness.” We shouldn’t speak on things we don’t understand. Those who are more studied and experienced ought to be trusted above those who talk in ignorance. When we post things quickly and without adequate knowledge, we are acting as rash fools. It is better to have patience and listen.
Proverbs also says, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (11:12). Speaking does little good when we can’t hold back our insults. Tone matters. A good point is immediately sullied by immature language that personally attacks rather than graciously implores.
The Righteous Tongue:
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9
Though the tongue can be used for much evil, it can also be used for much good. How can we share the gospel without our tongues? How can we praise God without our tongues?
Similarly, we ought to use our tongues (and keyboards) for the vulnerable and voiceless. The righteous tongue speaks truth amid an evil world. The Old Testament prophets often serve as an example of this principle. Think of when Nathan confronted King David about his sins in 2 Samuel 12 or the several times Elijah spoke against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings.
There is a time for Christians to speak up with clarity and boldness against the sin in the world. We may do so broadly when we share the gospel, which says all men have sinned and all should repent and turn to Christ. We may also denounce sins specifically by speaking about select and prevalent evils that exist in our world today. Christians certainly ought to care about people’s souls, but we should also care about people’s rights and wellbeing. Fighting for justice and the common good is a practical and essential way to love our neighbors on this earth. David said that “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice” (Psalm 37:30).
The Wise Tongue:
“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Proverbs 15:2
There is a happy medium. A tongue that speaks truth kindly and graciously. A tongue that is controlled and reserved. A tongue that is bold, yet humble. A tongue that knows what it does not know. A tongue that doesn’t rush to judgement but is willing to speak up for righteousness.
We ought not use our mouths to “bless our Lord and Father, and with it curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9), but rather we should “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).