Think Before You Speak
My thumb hovered over the Reply button. I had been watching a discussion play out on Facebook, and I had strong feelings about the topic. I was becoming more and more agitated internally as I read opinions that were swerving away from truth and into dangerous, murky territory. Verse after verse was coming to my mind, and I knew I could put an answer out there that would “set everyone straight.” (Well, that’s what I told myself.)
But a still, small voice was restraining me from tapping that button and sending my thoughts into the world for all to see. I knew that in this setting with this particular topic it wouldn’t be helpful to add my voice to the discussion, but would only cause greater dissension. So instead I put my phone down, prayed for the situation, and moved on to the next part of my day.
Half-Truths and Full Opinions
It’s so easy in this internet age to put our words out there in the open for anyone and everyone to read. And there are so many opinions flying around under the name of Christianity that are not actually truth from God’s Word. But, they have just enough truth mixed in to seem believable to us if we’re not careful.
My natural tendency when I see this is to panic internally and want to frantically plead, “SEE THIS? DON’T LISTEN! GET AWAY FROM THIS STUFF RIGHT THIS SECOND!” And believe me, I think it is very important to warn about dangerous messages, to speak truth, and to do so boldly and openly. But the way it’s done and when it’s done are so very important.
What Does the Word Say?
There is so much in Scripture about speaking—instructions and warnings for how we are to use our words and how we are not to use our words. Here are just a few examples:
- “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
- “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)
- “The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.” (Proverbs 10:32)
- “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” (2 Timothy 2:14)
Is There a Formula?
As followers of Christ, we’re called to exercise wisdom in regards to our words. This means knowing when to speak and when not to speak. It also means knowing what to say and how to say it. But there’s not necessarily a formula in Scripture for this, no “A + B = C” answer. I think a couple of verses that illustrate this well are Proverbs 26:4–5:
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
In essence, sometimes we are called to speak up when someone says something false or controversial. Other times, we’re supposed to stay silent. And knowing which is called for comes from walking in submission to the Holy Spirit and exercising the wisdom God gives to us, His children.
Christ Shows the Way
We see this reflected in the life of Jesus while He was here on earth. Sometimes He addressed things (Matthew 12:22–37), and other times He stayed silent (Matthew 26:57–63). And this knowledge came by knowing and obeying the Father. He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30).
Through Jesus’ gift of salvation, we’ve been given His Spirit to know how we ought to live (John 14:26). But this requires continually seeking Him, depending on Him, and obeying His will for our lives that He’s revealed through His Word. We can’t passively sit and wait for the wisdom to be dropped into our minds. We have to actively pursue it and “search for it as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4). And when we do this we’re promised that we will “understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5).
Here are a few ways I’ve put this wisdom into practice in my own life:
When we hear someone say something (or we read something on social media) that isn’t right, it’s so easy to become reactionary. We can respond without taking time to think. But this is where the action steps of James 1:19 become applicable, “…Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Why? Because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (v. 20).
When we pause before we respond, it gives that still small voice of the Holy Spirit a place to give direction. It reminds us that we need to seek the Lord first before we speak, so that our words are honoring to Him and loving to those we’re speaking to. And learning to pause before we speak can keep us from saying things we may regret later.
Once we pause, we then need to actively seek the Lord for His wisdom. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” There is no detail in our lives that doesn’t need God’s wisdom applied to it, including our words (maybe especially our words). If we’re relying simply on our own intuition, logic, or insight, we are certain to get something wrong. We need to humbly seek the Lord, submitting ourselves to His wisdom, remembering that He is God and we are not. He desires for us to use our words only for His glory and for the good of others; only He can give us the insight we need to do so. So, let’s actively submit our mouths to Him.
Once we’ve paused and prayed, these are helpful questions to ask ourselves, and ones that have been super helpful to me when evaluating how best to speak:
1) Is this the right place (or context) in which to talk about this? For example, there are certain things I simply won’t talk about on social media, especially not in a public way. But, I would talk about those things with someone face to face when there is less room for misunderstanding and no one else to “weigh in” on the conversation unnecessarily. This can mean the difference between a life-giving conversation or one that causes division among believers.
2) Is this the right time to address this? There might be times when I feel the freedom to talk about a certain topic with someone, but it’s just not the time. Maybe because the other person is walking through something really tough, and it’s not going to be very edifying for them right then. Or maybe it will be a distraction rather than a help to those who are listening in that moment. Or maybe we’re tempted to speak out of frustration rather than love, and it’s better to wait until we are sure we’re speaking with the right motive and attitude. Whatever the case may be, we need to be sure that what we’re saying is fitting for the time.
3) What is the right way to say this? We see this in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (vs. 1–2). We need to be sure that we are speaking in the manner in which we are called, as Christians, to speak. If we’re saying what is true, but doing so in anger, in rudeness, in impatience, in pride, then it will almost certainly do more harm than good. When we speak, it needs to be in love, in humility, in patience, and in graciousness. This doesn’t mean we don’t speak boldly when the time calls for it. Jesus spoke boldly, but every word was perfectly loving and perfectly true. When He was reviled, He didn’t retaliate (1 Peter 2:23). And this is the example we are to follow, in the grace we’ve been given.
We’re told that life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). We need to remember that the words we speak and write matter. As followers of Jesus, we must be using our mouths to represent our King in a way that reflects His character well to a watching world. Jesus came to transform these lips, and what an incredible privilege to be freed to use them for His honor and glory!
Your Friend, Heather
Heather Cofer is a wife and mother with a passion for encouraging others to love Jesus with all their hearts. This comes through writing, leading worship, and being actively involved in life-on-life discipleship alongside her husband, Judah, who is one of the pastors at their church. She is a regular contributor to the ministry of Set Apart Girl, and you can follow along on Heather’s journey through her blog, Instagram, or Facebook.