That is the question, and the Bible isn’t clear on the subject.
Have you ever been waiting in line at the coffee shop, and the guy behind you starts talking about his sex life? He starts informing his friend beside him about his “conquest” and how he was simply using her for his own ends. He shares intimate details about this girl, demeaning her body, discrediting her character, all the while praising himself for being so “manly” and somehow more majestic a person because of what he’s done.
Or have you ever been helping a customer, perhaps waiting on their table or helping them through the check out, and this customer just starts spewing hate and prejudice everywhere? They start telling everyone how they hate a certain people group. Chances are they are not directing their conversation at anyone specific, they are just complaining out loud and you happen to be in the front row seats. The customer goes on about how terrible this group of people are, how they are bringing about the destruction of their precious city and nation. They may even go as far as wishing that these people would leave their city and nation, and go back to some “native” land.
Or have you been a witness to someone speaking ignorantly about a situation? It’s not that they were stupid, but they were lacking critical information and didn’t seem to care. They may have even disregarded the possibility that there is more to this situation. They are content with what little they know. They are focused on sharing how they disapproved of things, how they could make everything better if they were in charge.
Have you been in a situation like that? Have you witnessed a circumstance similar to this? Chances are that you have been there or seen this happen. It happens on a regular basis for me. I work in an environment that is stereotypically known for being filled with loud, obnoxious, sex crazed men. I see truckers on a steady basis, and truckers are known for having potty mouths, or swearing the paint off the walls. I have opinionated people share their obscene and vulgar views and ideas with me, whether I want them to or not.
What is a guy to do? What is anyone to do?
Whenever these situations arise, my mind offers me two options. I have two different courses of action that I can take when faced with people like these. I can, a) Speak or b) Be silent.
The problem is that I don’t know which to chose, and it seems like the Bible doesn’t either.
If I chose to speak, it wouldn’t be to join in this kind of conversation. I would say something to correct, to let the customer know that it is extremely rude of them to be so prejudice against a certain people group. I would let the guy behind me in the coffee line up that’s speaking derogatorily about his “conquest” isn’t manly or admirable, but shows an abundance of self centeredness. If I chose to speak, it wouldn’t be to condone their words, but to instruct and enlighten. I would share that information with the person that thinks that they could do better in a given situation, even thought they have no clue what is going on.
If I chose to be silent, it wouldn’t be that I was agreeing with what was said. I would be saying in my silence that there is nothing that was said that is worth replying to. When people spew their venom and hate, when they express their disdain for their fellow man, their words need to be stripped of their power. And silence, the lack of a reaction, can do that. When prejudice rears its ugly head, we don’t have to look at it. We can say nothing.
But even as I write these words, I don’t like them. Being vocal, saying something could be disastrous. People get very angry and even physically violent when their ideas and points of view are challenged. But being silent, while intended as a move to ignore, can be misunderstood as a move in agreement, a move that says “I think the same way.”
So what should I do? What should we do?
When I turned to the Bible, I thought I would find a clear cut answer. But I didn’t. Even the Bible seemed to be unsure of what to do.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26.4-5 NIV
Well, which is it? Do I answer a fool, do I speak up when someone is saying something offensive and hurtful? Or do I keep my mouth shut?
I thought I would look in the New Testament. While the Proverbs are filled with wisdom, I wondered if the Gospels or the Epistles might have something a little more black and white for me.
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.“
Even in the New Testament, there was no straight forward answer. We are told that we should be slow to speak, or be quiet more often then not. At the same time, we are told to do what is right. If someone is being verbally abusive or discriminating against people, we should stand up and do what is right. Tell them they can’t say that. Inform that they are wrong. Which is it? Speak or be silent?
This question kept on bothering me, for a few weeks, to be honest. The moments where I could have said something or kept silent continued to come up. The tension was driving me crazy. It was actually causing me to feel stressed when I thought about having to go to work.
That was until I learned about an ancient Jewish way of thinking and dealing with issues like this.
For most people, especially people from this modern age, when we see things like Proverbs 26.4-5, we see a contradiction. We see the “Answer a fool” and “Don’t answer a fool” as an inconsistency. Thus, most people ignore what the Bible says, believing that it has nothing of value to say. But on the contrary, this is not an inconsistency. Nor is this a contradiction.
“Answer a fool” and “Don’t answer a fool” are polar opposites to show you the two extremes. Ancient readers of the Proverbs didn’t see this as the Bible going back on what it just said, rather they understood that these two responses to fools were perfectly acceptable. There was a time to answer the fool. There was a time not to answer the fool. Instead of being an either/or problem, it is an either/or solution.
When encountering someone that is saying things that are hurtful, when words of evil are being spewed, both answering and not answering are the right action to take.
But that isn’t the end of this ancient Jewish understanding. While the two extremes are both right, everything in between is also fair game. Instead of speaking only to bring down judgment and condemnation or saying nothing, it is right to speak to bring correction by simply stating a truth contrary to what was said. Let me give you an example with a story.
I was listening to a pastor speak on this issue of speaking and being silent. He was out with some non-church going people. One of the guys started to talk about his sexual conquests and bragging about his abilities. Like me, and I’m sure you are too, the pastor was disturbed and upset by this man’s cavalier attitude towards women and sex. So, the pastor spoke, completely interrupting the man’s story.
“Bill, do you like sex? I know I do. I think I would be hard pressed to think of something more beautiful and holy that a husband and wife can share together.”
The pastor shared how his little interruption shut his friend right up. Everyone in the group was silent. They didn’t know what to say. The atmosphere completely changed. The rest of the pastor’s time with these people went by without any more talk of sexual conquests, and no one mentioned the pastor’s remark. Between speaking and being silent, this pastor found a middle ground.
This may all be a new idea for you. It was for me, and it took some time for it to grow on me. But now, I think this may be the most helpful way of approaching this issue of when to speak and when to be silent. It gave me room to decide what to do. With this way of thinking, I do not have to come down and harshly condemn someone for what they have said when I decide to speak. With this way of thinking, I am not silently agreeing with them when I am silent. With this new way of thinking, I am given the OK to a range of options. I can say something that is true, like the pastor did, and completely derail their train of thought. I can make a statement with physical action, indicating a disapproval of what has been said. I can interject and move their hatred and evil slowly toward the real issue, not the subject of their rant. The reality is, this option gives me endless possibilities as to what I could do in response. How I speak, what I speak, how I am silent, when I am silent, are suddenly flexible options, not rigid answers. This is a very freeing answer. When I realized this, there was no more stress, no more anxiety about what to do when I encountered these kinds of people and situations.
But before my mind started to reel with all those possibilities, God reminded me that while I have this freedom to speak and be silent, I must be careful not to abuse it.
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts…Therefore love truth and peace.”
Just because I can say anything, it doesn’t mean that I have a license to lie, or stretch the truth. With this freedom I must still be obedient to God. I have to be honest. I have to tell the truth when I choose to speak. In my actions, in my silence I have to be conveying God’s reality rather than a fictitious one. Truth needs to reign, truth needs to be what comes from my mouth when confronted with peoples’ prejudices and evil. Truth is what needs to be demonstrated in my actions when I am silent.
And with that truth, I must seek peace. Truth can sometimes be used to tear people down, to destroy them. That is not how God calls us to act. Truth and peace need to go hand in hand. Whatever truth I speak, whatever truth I act out, it should be for the peace of everyone. What I say or demonstrate shouldn’t cause a fight or an argument. A discussion, maybe. A disagreement, sure, but not a war. Peace needs to be present in what way I choose to act or speak.
Humbled by this, I asked God, how am I going to know what to say? How am I going to know when to speak or be quiet? I would love to say I am quick on my feet and can come up with a clever and spiritually poignant comment, but not the kind that speaks to the heart. Not the kind that convicts the human soul.
This lead me to one more piece of Scripture.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.
Living with the freedom to speak or be silent doesn’t make the situation any easier to live in. Sometimes speaking does make you like the fool, sometimes being silent is a dumb thing to do. Deciding on what action to take, and how to take that action is not a simple thing. It requires wisdom.
One of the men, “Charlie”, in my bible study told me about a time where his actions could have ended him up in the hospital. He was in line at the grocery store and the man in front of him was swearing and screaming at the cashier. Apparently she had made a mistake, but was trying to correct it. The angry man didn’t seem to care that she was trying to fix it and continued to harass this poor girl. Charlie instinctively spoke up, telling the man that she was trying her best and that yelling at her wasn’t helping. The angry man turned to Charlie, swore and then was silent.
Charlie shared that at the time he didn’t think about his action, but realized after that it could have gone poorly. Since Charlie is a senior citizen, and the angry man was much younger and in peak physical condition, a physical altercation could have been quite damaging to Charlie. Thank the Lord it didn’t go that way, said Charlie. But he said, next time it might not be that easy.
This is where we need the wisdom. Our words and actions may not always be well received or correctly understood. Even though what we say or what we do may be the most theologically correct and Christlike, we need to be careful how they are done. Sometimes a blunt statement of truth is needed. Other times, a very slow and gracious action, or a pondering question is what is best suited to the situation.
Not every situation is the same. Not every reply will work for the circumstance. If we are going to speak or be silent, we need to do so with a great deal of wisdom. And for that, we need to ask God.
So, when we are faced with a situation where someone is spewing evil, what should we do? When we are in a group of people and the conversation is about belittling or slandering a particular people group, what should we say? When a coworker or the person next to you in the grocery store starts degrading people, what action should we take?
We need to speak, sometimes. We need to be silent, sometimes. That is up to us. But when we do decide to speak, we must do it with wisdom. And we must do it in a peaceful way. When we are silent, it must be wisdom that tells us to say nothing. It is in this way, we can all take a stand against the evil and vile things that are said in our lives.
What do you think?
Is this way of understanding helpful or harmful?
What do you do in situations were you could say something or not?
Let me know in the comment section.
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