Wisdom: Knowing When to Speak

It’s doubtfully a surprise to anyone to say that we live in an age of increasing division and polarization. This fact seems to accentuate the need for each of us to use wisdom in how we speak and engage with one another. It’s likely that each of us can look back at times in our lives when, in hindsight, we realize we should have kept our mouth shut, or perhaps we should have spoken up instead of remaining silent. This will probably be a lifelong struggle for many of us, but God has not left us to our own devices, trying to figure it out on our own. As with all the important aspects of life, He’s given us instruction in His Word, and in this specific case, true and perfect wisdom which we can utilize to tread this thorny path.


When seeking practical instruction about various aspects of life, Proverbs is always a great place to begin. One of the more famous proverbs comes in chapter 26. In verse 4, Solomon says “do not answer a fool according to his folly.” In a beautiful twist, immediately afterward in verse 5 he says, “answer a fool according to his folly.” This is not Solomon contradicting himself, but rather he is showing the wonderful intricacies of life in a fallen world. There are times when wisdom dictates that we speak up, but there are also times when wisdom dictates that we remain silent. The role of godly wisdom is to know the difference between the two, to accurately evaluate the situation one finds themselves in and know which path is the right one. It’s not an easy task, to be sure. Solomon adds weight to the dilemma just two verses later when he says that even the right message delivered in the wrong way is like cutting off your own feet. It’s not only counterproductive, but harmful to oneself.


More could be gleaned from Proverbs, but perhaps the clearest instruction on our speech comes in James 3. It is in this famous chapter that the epistle writer and brother of Christ Himself tells us about the dangers of the tongue. James uses some vivid analogies to show not only the power of the tongue, but the danger of it as well. Perhaps the most striking statement he makes comes in 3:6 when he says that the tongue is set on fire by hell itself. Immediately our minds could go to all the times when Satan has used unwise words to bring havoc into the world. From his very first interaction with Adam and Eve in the garden, an evil use of words, one of Satan’s primary means of destruction is a lie, or even a word misspoken.  Our immediate instinct should always be to wrestle with this, that mere words have the power to start wars. At the very least it should give us pause to think before we speak. But in that moment of thought, what should we meditate on?  James continues and gives us very helpful things to consider.


In verses 11 and 12, James uses two analogies, that of a spring and a tree, to demonstrate that it is incongruous for one tongue to spew forth both good and evil. But what both analogies also bring out is that the tongue, or the words that come out of us, is actually governed by what’s inside of us. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” says our Lord in Matthew 12:34. The tongue is set on fire by hell because the heart is as well (Jer 17:9). So the first step to tempering our words and deciding on whether to speak is to examine our own hearts. In fact James alludes to this himself in 3:14: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.” When deciding whether to speak up or not, we must be honest with ourselves. Is our desire to speak up somehow born out of a bitter or jealous heart, or a desire to elevate ourselves either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others? If so, it would seem wise to remain silent.


In 3:17 James gives a list which is useful for evaluating our motives and speech. He says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” He concludes this chapter by then saying, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” For James it seems the default setting whenever we approach the dilemma of considering whether to say something should be one which leads to peace. Peace, gentleness, and kindness are 3 fruits of the Spirit, and it’s easy for us to show forth our own sinful passions whenever we speak in a contrary manner to these. In fact, James opens chapter 4 by asking, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not your own sinful passions waging war within you?” A Christian should be characterized by a putting to death of our sinful passions, mortifying the flesh if you will, and speech which leads to quarrels and disagreements is often contrary to that great work of the Holy Spirit within us. Always remaining silent isn’t a hard and fast rule however. Christ spoke with righteous anger to the Pharisees and to those making a mockery of the temple. There is a place for strong words and rebuke. The truth is important and shouldn’t be withheld, but the manner in which it is spoken can be the difference between war and peace. Next time we open our mouths to speak or move our fingers to tweet, an honest evaluation of our own heart and the possible outcomes should be our opening move.

Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.

Keith Kauffman