Christians should be the most careful speakers in the world. We ought to be characterized by two kinds of trembling when it comes to words: we should tremble at the words God speaks and we should tremble at the words we speak.
We know we should tremble at God’s word, for he tells us,
“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
But why should we tremble at the words we speak? Because Jesus said,
“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.” (Matthew 12:36–37)
“Every careless word.” That should stop us in our tracks. It should set us trembling, considering how many words we speak. And by “speak” I mean every word that comes out of our mouths, our pens, and our keyboards. We speak thousands of words every day, sometimes tens of thousands.
When we experience these two kinds of trembling, they occur for the same reason: we love and fear God and don’t want to profane his holy word or to profane his holiness with our unholy words. Such trembling makes us want to speak carefully and sometimes not speak at all. Because we believe,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7)
A Time to Be Silent
There really is a time to keep silent. And that time comes more often than most of us are conditioned to think.
We live in an age of unceasing talk. Never in human history has the noise of human communication been so constant. Even when we are quiet we are not silent, as we receive and dispense talk through our digital media. Our culture does not believe that “a fool multiplies words” (Ecclesiastes 10:14).
On one level, it believes that multiplied words brings multiplied knowledge, and multiplied knowledge brings multiplied wisdom. On another level, not fearing God, it simply doesn’t really care how many words flow. So it relentlessly inundates us with information, analysis, commentary, critique, punditry, and mockery through every communication stream. We cannot help but be conditioned by this environment.
And with the advent of social media, nearly everyone now has a broadcast platform from which they can publicly hold forth on any social, cultural, political, economic, or theological issue, any controversy, any scandal, any whatever anytime they wish, regardless of what they know. And while the democratization of public communication is a remarkable historic phenomenon and certainly has some wonderful benefits, it is a dangerous thing, spiritually speaking. It’s an immense, cacophonous forum of multiplied, foolish, careless words, for which every participant, whether they know it or not, will give an account to God.
The Beginning of Wisdom
Christians know that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and “the beginning of knowledge” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7). And one expression of that fear is trembling at God’s holy word, and at our own.
We are taught that it is profoundly wise for us to cultivate the discipline of being slow to speak (James 1:19). Slow to speak implies that there is a time for silence. Sometimes it means we are silent for some appropriate brief or extended period of time while being quick to hear (listening carefully), so we gain an accurate understanding of an issue before we speak carefully. And sometimes it means we don’t speak at all. The former is always a necessity for us; the latter is often a necessity.
God calls us to live counter to our hair tongue-trigger culture. In a world where rapid-fire information, rapid-fire commentary, and rapid-fire counter-commentary are continually igniting raging forest fires of words (James 3:5), the sons and daughters of God are called to be fire-quenching peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). And one of the underutilized ways of peacemaking is recognizing the time to keep silence. Less words can be less fuel for the fires.
A Time to Speak
But Christians must not always keep silence. There is a time to speak and there are things we must say. Our God is a speaking God and we know he most definitely wants us to speak (Matthew 24:14; 28:19–20).
But when God speaks, he speaks very intentionally and, considering his omniscience, he speaks with tremendous restraint. And that’s the way he wants us to speak, as his exceedingly non-omniscient children and ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20): intentionally and with restraint. He wants us to learn to speak like Jesus.
We, like Job, have the tendency to speak rashly and confidently about things we really don’t understand (Job 42:3). But Jesus often said less than he knew because he was prayerfully listening to the Father and saying only what he discerned he was supposed to say (John 8:26). Just because he had a mouth and a public platform did not mean he should always employ them. Rather, he said, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). He perfectly lived out and modeled for us this verse:
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! (Psalm 141:3)
God deploys his children strategically in every sphere. He gives us each a few assignments and gives us each some things to say in order to bring the gospel to bear in our limited spheres. Each of us must prayerfully discern our spheres and limitations. None of us, as individuals, churches, or organizations, is called to address every current issue. And if this is true of issues we have knowledge about, it’s especially true of issues with which we have little or no personal experience.
If we are in some form of leadership where we are called to address such an issue, we should first pray for wisdom, then we should be publicly honest about what we don’t know and not succumb to pressure and try to speak more than we do know. And then, if the Lord leads, we should pursue the understanding required to speak more helpfully.
And when we do discern God’s direction for us to speak, we, like Jesus, remember that our mouths, fingers, and platforms still belong to God. We are not free to say whatever we wish about what we know. We do nothing on our own authority, but must say only what we discern God wants us to say.
Tough, Tender, or Quiet?
We speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we don’t speak for human “likes”; we speak for God’s approval. So that means we sometimes speak a loving truth that’s tender and sweet (Proverbs 16:24), and other times we speak a loving truth that’s graciously hard (Proverbs 27:6). This is speaking like Jesus, who sometimes said things like, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), and who at other times said things like, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
Discerning when to say a loving tender truth, when to say a loving tough truth, and when to say nothing at all is the tension God has purposefully designed to keep us prayerfully dependent on him. It is frequently not patently obvious. There are times we really want to speak and we should not. And there are times we really don’t want to speak and we should.
What will help us most in discerning when it’s a time to keep silence or a time to speak is cultivating a holy trembling at God’s word and at our words. The right kind of fear of the Lord is our best mouthguard.