Time to talk or time to zip it?

“… a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” – Ecclesiastes 3:7

A major theme of Arguing with Friends is the observation that some people are drawn to the first “time” and others are drawn to the second. Some tend to remain silent more often than they ought to while others speak too frequently. Many of the tools that I outline in Arguing with Friends are intended to help those who are unsure about when to speak, and what to say, so that raising your voice is less intimidating and less likely to strain your relationships.

But what about the other side of the equation? When should we be silent?

We sing a song in our church with a chorus that encourages us to go out and tell the nations, even shouting it from the mountain tops, that Jesus is God. The Bible is replete with passages that encourage us to get out and spread the news from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) to Paul’s reminder that other people’s salvation is on the line if we don’t (Romans 10:14-15).

As I’ve blogged before, even some Atheists recognize the need for evangelism, though they reject what they are told! I particularly love his one insight, “how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” Yikes, he called it!

The drive to tell other people about the truth, whether it is religious truth or even something as “unspiritual” as a workout plan that could really help another person drop a few pounds, is something innate to us all. We typically have a yearning and an impulse to share our knowledge with others, but are there times to keep quiet? When should we just zip it?

I have to admit that I find this subject quite tricky and I certainly do not have any profound insights on the subject that I do not simultaneously question in my own mind. Perhaps readers will be gracious enough to add their comments in the comment boxes. Here are a few guidelines I generally run with; let me know if you agree or disagree (or would add more).

  • If the person is in an emotional state of mind, probably best to keep quiet. Perhaps they are fuming mad because of something that happened, or in deep anguish because of a recent loss. Whatever the reason for their emotional state it’s almost certainly best to just listen and be there as a friend at that time.
  • If you hardly know the person. There are obvious exceptions to this rule in particular, but I feel it is more effective to get to know a person and develop a deeper friendship with them before you move into the deeper issues of life. They need to know they can trust you before they will trust you; crazy thought!
  • If you are acting as a representative for another person / company / organization. For instance, I don’t really think it would be right for a car salesman to start going on at length about why I should vote a certain way. Similarly, I don’t think it would be right for pastors and priests to use the pulpit to advertise for local businesses. Along the same lines, I think that if you are representing your company then you should probably keep political and religious views to yourself. Of course, you may develop friendships with clients that extend beyond work, but be careful how you wade into the bigger life questions.
  • When you really don’t know what you’re talking about. This may seem obvious, but I see so many people who make their ignorance obvious the moment they open their mouth! If you do speak up when you don’t know a lot about the topic at hand, preface it with something like, “to the best of my knowledge…” or “My understanding is…”
  • When you are virtually certain the other person simply will not respond well to the truth. For instance, if you are in a social setting with a large group of people who are all going on at length about how horribly wrong a certain political view is, and how heartless and insensitive it is to hold that view, in that context it probably isn’t best to take them all on at once. This is especially true on certain issues where people have a whole lot of emotional baggage strongly secured to their perspective; bringing it up is only likely to get them really mad without moving either of you closer to the truth.

In each of these situations I do not suggest we keep silent forever. Far from it! Rather, there are some times to keep silence (as Ecclesiastes reminds us) and there will come another time in the future when remaining silent would be a mistake. In some of these situations, though, opening our mouths would be a mistake.

And when we broach some of the difficult subjects, how we go about that is also critical. This is especially true when we know the other person is deeply emotionally invested. Ravi Zacharias describes when a young man asked Ravi if he agreed with the Bible’s anti-gay stance. Warning! Trap ahead! Ravi brilliantly moved right past the surface issue and dove straight to the heart of the matter. He asked the young man whether he believed there were any issues that were right or wrong for all people, everywhere. That is the more critical question, the particulars of whether the Bible is right or wrong on this or that moral issue is quite secondary to whether it is possible for anybody to be right or wrong on any moral issue.

Again, though, Ravi was in a situation where remaining silent would have been a mistake. When you are in that situation do be careful how you speak. But before you speak, please consider carefully whether this is the appropriate circumstance within which to speak in the first place.

What do you think? Am I right or wrong in my views here?

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