When to Keep Silent

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

NB: This is the rough manuscript (most of which was) preached to a Men’s Fellowship at Morningview Baptist Church on 5/16/2021. If the Lord wills, I hope to fill it out and preach it as a full sermon one day. I hope it is a blessing.

Some lessons tend to be a little deeper, a little more abstract. They can take us to the mountain peaks of theology, pull back the curtains and let us hear of the internal relations of the godhead, or ponder the mystery of the doctrine of Christ, how he has within his person a union of divine and human natures. Some of you might be relieved to hear that this will not be one of those messages. In fact, if there is a spectrum, this is probably on the other end of it. I want to talk about how we use or tongue; or, more precisely, when we are NOT to use our tongue. In various ways you’ve heard from this lectern about using our tongue before. That we’ll be called to give an account of every single word we say, about how our words should be useful for building up, about how we should avoid course jesting and crude speech.

But today I want to address not our speech, but our silence. the Bible gives us lots of commands about when we need to shut our mouths, and I’d like to highlight a list of those situations this evening.

Silence is hard, because everything in our culture, everything in our hearts, and everything in our world pushes us to run our mouth off and express our opinion. Op-Eds in the paper, chat around the water cooler at work, the news media, social media, and the others things temps us to rashly voice our opinion, rather than be silent. But we Christians need to have control over our tongue and remember that sometimes the best possible thing we can do in a situation, it to sit silently, not open our mouth, and pray.

A few Caveats: First, most of these points are drawn from the book of Proverbs and other related wisdom literature. That means that they are not universally applied in the same way; it takes wisdom. There ARE times that we are commanded not to be silent (e.g., on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the orphans, the widows). The Bible addresses times that we are not to remain silent. I’m assuming the validity of all those times where we should speak, but I am not addressing those this evening. I’m simply looking at when we should not speak.

Another Caveat: Everything I say here is immediately and directly applicable to spoken speech, written words, and typed words. Just because you haven’t said it out loud, doesn’t mean that you’re not liable for what and how you’ve communicated.

Final caveat: If you think this sermon is not for you because you are naturally a quiet person, or your thinking to yourself that I hope so-and-so takes good notes, let me encourage you to humbly hear this as God speaking to you. Jesus tells us very clearly that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, so it’s possible for you to be the most mute person in history and yet still have sinned in each of these areas. What I’m addressing in these points is not the volume of our words, not how much we speak. These points address times when we should not speak. So hear God’s word this evening, consider how you measure up to the standard, and how you might possibly need to repent, before you turn and consider pointing a finger at someone else.

1. Be silent when can’t control what you say. Proverbs 29:11 (“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds back.” He is a fool who speaks everything that pops into his mind, —who tells everything he knows, and has in his mouth instantly whatever he has in his thoughts. A wise man will not speak all of his thoughts at once, but will take time for a second thought, or reserve the present thought for a time more appropriate.

2. Be silent until you’ve heard the end of a matter: Proverbs 18:13 says “if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Have you ever run your mouth off prematurely, said something that you regretted because you didn’t have the whole story? Imagine this comical illustration, if someone came up to me and said: “Pastor, my wife and I were having argument a while back…” But then I cut him off and began to tell him about the merits of marital counseling, and my appointment availability, and the nature of my counseling program. And when I finally stop talking the man then continues, “Like I was trying to say, we were having an argument a while back, that lead us to get counseling. We’ve successfully finished counseling and we’re doing great, and wanted to ask your opinion on where we should go eat in town to celebrate.” In that moment, I would be the living illustration of the shamed fool who gave an answer before he heard.

Let me give you several reasons why we ought to be silent until we have heard a matter fully.
• 1. It is arrogant of us to speak before we have heard fully. In our pride we feel that we can fill in the blanks, we know how people will act, we know how so and so will respond. Speaking before hearing a matter fully is a great way to jump to a wrong conclusion, and thereby attest to our own arrogance.
• 2. Speaking before we have heard someone fully is rude. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that Love is not rude, which could be translated discourteous or acting unseemly. When we cut someone off before they can finish what they are saying, we are acting in an unloving and offensive manner.
• 3. Remaining silent until we have heard someone fully is a great way to let someone know that we honor and respect them, to reassure them that they are worthy of dignity, and to affirm that they are made in the image of God. When we give people our ear, we are not only providing an occasion for them to be heard, as important as that is, but we are also validating that they are worth listening to. We are loving them through listening. Just think about Jesus: how he spoke with great sinners and yet spoke to them with great dignity, how much he listened and asked questions before he spoke. When you read the gospels take note of how skilled he was at listening, at probing into someone’s heart by asking thoughtful and disarming questions, and how he could communicate his sympathy to the other person. What do you think Mary would say about Jesus? Or Lazarus? Or the Widow at Nain from Luke 7? Would they say that Jesus is a good listener? I think so. Could the same be said of you?
• We need to be silent until we’ve heard the end of a matter.

3. Be silent when you haven’t verified the story: Deuteronomy 17:6 tells us that two or three witnesses is needed to condemn a man. This is very much related to the previous point. We shouldn’t speak until we have all the facts, and biblically, we should seek out witnesses before we render a judgement. This is wise behavior for a civil judge or jury, and it is wise behavior for parents that need to investigate a squabble between young children.

We see the same logic applied in the New Testament too. In 1 Timothy 5:19 we read: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” A wise person should not automatically consider an accusation valid until some sort of corroborating evidence is found. Be silent until you’ve verified the story.

4. Be silent if your words will offend a weaker brother. 1 Cor 8:11 warns against destroying the weaker brother with our knowledge, the weaker brother for whom Christ himself died. Shawn has already preached on this theme when he encountered it in Romans, so I won’t linger long. But consider this, which I’ve paraphrased from a commentator: “Those whom Christ has redeemed with his most precious blood should be very precious and dear to us. If he had such compassion as to die for them, that they might not perish, we should have so much compassion for them as to deny ourselves, for their sakes, and not use our liberty to their hurt, or to be the occasion for their stumbling. THAT man has very little of the spirit of the Redeemer who’d rather his brother should perish than himself be censored, in any respect, of his liberty.”

5. Be silent when you are tempted to make light of Holy things. Making light of holy things is a species of sin comprehended within the command: do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Ecclesiastes 5:2 warns us “be not rash with your mouths nor to let your hearts be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and we are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” This passage is about the public worship of God. The preceding verse warns us against vain or insincere worship. The author tells us in verse 1 that “To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that what they are doing is evil.” That means that we need to be warned about how we approach public worship. God knows when we are proclaiming truth with our lips by singing, but we proclaim a vastly different truth with our lives. He hears when we make light of holy things, joke about sacred truth, and especially when we mock his bride, the church.

6. Be silent when you are tempted to joke about sin. Proverbs 14:9 tells us that fools mock at the guilt offering. They joke about someone trying to atone for their sins because they take sin too lightly. We ought not be making light of sin. The world is full of people that are reaping the fruit of their sin, and we should look upon them with compassion, and not in derision and jest. People suffering under the weight of their sin, suffering under judgment, and bearing the blows of foolishness ought never be a punch line. Similarly, Proverbs 10:23 says “Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding.” Unbelievers make light of sin and unrighteousness because their heart is hard and they are rebelling against a holy God. But we believers must never be counted among that number. We’ve seen in Christ the heinousness of our own sin, how it offends a holy God, and how great a cost it took to redeem us from our sin. Let us never be found to mock holy things, or make light of sin.

7. Be silent if the issue is none of your business. Proverbs 26:17 tells us that whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who grabs a passing dog by the ears. This word picture is perfectly suited to the principle being illustrated. If you grab a passing dog by the ears, one of the most sensitive parts of a dog, then you’ve immediately angered him. Similarly, if you jump into a quarrel that is not your own you will immediately jump into a situation that is very sensitive to both sides. And, whatever you say, you’ve immediately angered one of the sides, if not both. It is a no-win situation. But, just like after you’ve grabbed the dog’s ears, you can’t let go. As soon as you release the dog’s ears, he’ll turn around and bite you. Similarly, when you jump into somebody else’s fight, you’ll often see that you’ve been sucked into a battle that you can’t escape. You’re brought in, you’re no longer an innocent party, you’ve become a witness, or an accomplice, or a victim, or some part of the investigation. In short, you’ll regret ever having been involved, and wish that you hadn’t grabbed that dog at all. Be silent if the issue is none of your business.
8. Be silent when you are tempted to tell a lie. Proverbs 4:24 tells us to put away crooked speech and to put devious talk far from us. Similarly, Proverbs 6:17 warns us that a lying tongue is one of the things that God hates. Let me give you several reasons why lying is something God hates.
• First, speaking falsehood is contrary both to our design and to God’s nature. We were made in the image of God, one aspect of which means that we are to imitate God. God is holy, and pure truth; it’s contrary to his nature to lie. So when we speak falsehood, we’re not acting like God; rather, we’re acting like Satan, the great deceiver, as he is called in scripture. So speaking lies is contrary to our design.
• Second, speaking a lie is contrary to the principle of holiness that has been implanted in us. If you’re in Christ, you’ve been given the Holy Spirit, who helps guide us all in holiness. When we lie, we can grieve him, and if we continue in unrepentant deception, we make ourselves liable to God’s loving discipline. Rather than painful discipline, we should follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and walk in truthfulness.
• Third, telling a lie shows some unbelief in our heart. We lie because we don’t trust that God can protect us. Or we lie because we want something and we don’t think that God will give it to us. Or we lie because we don’t find security in God’s promises and instead want other’s to think we are better than we really are. Or we lie because we don’t believe that on the cross our sin was actually punished and atoned for, so we have to try and cover up our sin and act as if we are more righteous than we actually are.
• So, God hates lying because its contrary to our design, to his nature, contrary to the Holy Spirit within us, and reveals remaining unbelief in our hearts. When we are tempted to tell a lie, we must be silent instead.

9. Be silent when your words will damage someone else’s reputation. Proverbs 16:27 warns us against our speech being a scorching fire that spreads strife. Similarly, Proverbs 6:14 says a worthless person or a wicked man continually goes around with a perverted heart that devises evil, continually sowing discord.

10. Be silent when your words will damage a friendship. Proverbs 16:28 says that a dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer (a gossiper) separates close friends. My friend once wrote that “Corrupt talk is the opposite of gospel talk. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul seems to have such unbridled talk in view: ‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, so that it might give grace to those who hear.’ Thus, I ask: Are our words gospel words? Do they convey grace? Are they consistent with the gospel? Profanity, slander, gossip, quarrelsome words, “zingers” that garner laughs at the expense of another, all fail the test of “gospel talk.” Paul seems to be saying the profession of our mouths should reflect our confession of the savior.” So, if you are tempted to convey that juicy bit of gossip, if you know that you’re particularly prone to succumb to the temptation to be a whisperer that separates close friends, then Proverbs warns you that it’s better to be silent. Be silent when your words will damage a friendship.

11. Be silent when you are feeling critical. James 3:9 reminds us that with our tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and we can curse people made in His image. Similarly, Proverbs 30:14 describes those whose teeth are like swords and whose fangs are like knives, who devour the poor and the helpless with their words. Are you the kind of person that leaves people encouraged when you walk away from a conversation? Or are the first words out of your mouth: “why’d you do it that way?” “Is that the best you could do?” Or dare I say, “Are you really going to wear that?” Rather than using our tongue to encourage, edify, and love others, we weaponized it, file it sharp like a spear, and cut people right to the core. If you know that you’re often tempted to be critical, or if you know that you’re in an especially vulnerable state, it’s better for us to remain silent. For me, I know that when I am hungry or tired I am very tempted to be impatient and critical. So, in moments of extreme hunger or tiredness I try and actively keep my mouth shut until I can get some food or rest. Know what your weak points are, and when you’re feeling weak, remember that it is better to remain silent than to use sharp, critical words.

12. Be silent in the heat of anger: proverbs 14:17 says “a man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil desires is hated.” Similarly, we should Be silent when we can’t say it without screaming in anger. Proverbs 25:28 warns that a person without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls. Speaking, without first speaking from a self-controlled heart, is sinful speech.

13. Be silent when you may eat your words later. Proverbs 18:21 says that death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those that love it will eat its fruits. 1:30-31,

14. Be silent when if you have already said it more than one time. Proverbs 19:13 describes a quarreling wife like continually dripping rain.

15. Be silent when you are tempted to flatter a wicked person. Proverbs 24:24 says, “whoever says to the wicked ‘you are right’ will be cursed by people’s and abhorred by nations. (Proverbs 29:5 says “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.”).

16. Be silent when it is time to listen, especially to God’s word: proverbs 13:1 says “a wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to a rebuke.

17. Be silent when you are supposed to be working. Proverbs 14:23 tells us that in all work there is profit, but mere talk tends only in poverty.

More ideas: Proverbs 29:20, 30:5-6, 9:7-8, 10:10 10:19

I know that this lesson was probably convicting for many of you; it sure was for me to write. But I want to leave you with some encouragement. We have in Jesus not only his teaching that helps us to determine when to speak and when to be silent, and not have only his example (which was perfect in holiness and judicious in speech), but we have the promise of himself. Turn with me to Isaiah 53. In this chapter, which is really the mountain top of a glorious book of prophecy, Isaiah is speaking about the coming suffering servant, the promised messiah. We know now in light of the New Testament that this prophecy spoke about Jesus. It tells us about how Jesus would grow up among men, how he would be despised, how he would be rejected, how he would acquainted with grief and sorrow, how he would be struck by God himself, pierced for our sins and crushed for our iniquities.

But then in verse 7 we see how the suffering savior chose to remain silent:
“he was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to slaughter, and like a sheep that is before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth”( Isaiah 53:7). There was never a person who so had the right to open his mouth and defend his righteousness, yet he remained silent. His tongue had the power to call down legions of angels in judgment, yet he remained silent as he was cursed and spat upon on the cross. His tongue had the ability to publically vindicate his name, and yet because of his love for his people he remained silent, like a lamb being led to slaughter. This is your Christ, the one who at incalculable cost and pain remained silent so that you could be forgiven of all the times you used your mouth foolishly. He bore the wrath of the father knowing full well the sins that would be committed by his people; and yet, for the joy set before him he willingly endured the cross and despised the shame. This is your Christ. Rejoice in him. Be encouraged in him. And, when necessary, be silent like him.

In closing, I offer one final exhortation for all of us: Proverbs 21:23, “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.”



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