When Is It Time to Speak Up?
We all need to know when it is time to speak up and when it is time to shut up. Knowing this is near the heart of wisdom because Proverbs tells us on the one hand that we should be cautious in speaking up: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Proverbs 17:28). And Proverbs also tells us, on the other hand, that there are times when words are needed: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 25:11). Clearly sometimes we need to speak up, and sometimes we need to shut up.
In this post I will give three points of biblical guidance on when it is time to speak up. Before doing to, however, I want to suggest that each of us takes a moment to recognize our own tendencies. Some of us err on the side of speaking up. When there is silence, our instinct is to fill it. Others of us err on the side of not speaking up. We may do this because we don’t want drama in our lives, or we don’t want to take the risk of looking foolish. If your tendency is to speak up, you’ll be tempted to read the rest of this post and conclude, “I knew that I should be speaking up; in fact, I should do so more of the time.” And if your tendency is to stay quiet, you’ll be tempted to read this and conclude, “I knew I was right to be reluctant to speak up; steady on.”
Know that growth in Christ involves us being stretched. If your instinct is to speak up whenever there is an opportunity, God will likely stretch you by calling you to stay silent when it feels like torment. And if your instinct is to stay silent, God will likely stretch you by calling you out of your comfort zone to take the risk of speaking up.
With that said, here are three points of biblical guidance on when we should speak up.
You Should Speak Up When You Know What You’re Talking About
James 1:19-20 says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” It is notable that James says we are to do two things slowly and one only thing quickly. What we should be quick to do is listen. What we should be slow to do is (1) speak and (2) become angry. In James’s mind speaking and becoming angry often go hand in hand. This lines up with much of human experience. If we are angry, we are quick to yell, quick to insult, quick to vent, and quick to post. James tells us to slow down and listen.
Notice that James doesn’t simply say that we should pause and calm down. He says that we should listen. Why listen? Because when we listen we end up becoming better informed and then our anger might dissipate and our words will be wiser. Proverbs 18:17 says, “In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines.” While these words refer specifically to a courtroom, we can see the principle played out in life in general. When one person tells us something, we assume we know what is going on. But then when we get a counterpoint from someone else, we have a whole new perspective.
I have been amazed at how inaccurate headlines and articles go viral on social media. For example, back in 2018 a headline went viral saying that President Trump had referred to illegal immigrants as “animals.” As much as I had grown accustomed to the president using insulting language, this story just seemed unlikely to me. After doing a tiny amount of digging, I found out that he used the term “animals” not to refer to illegal immigrants, but to refer to members of a particularly brutal gang called MS-13. While someone might still think he shouldn’t refer to any human beings as “animals” the reality of the situation was quite different from what was reported. And the misinformation was spread because people were quick to speak, but slow to listen.
On the flipside, a few years ago I remember seeing many people share a quote attributed to California Congresswoman Maxine Waters. The quote said, “The next Supreme Court Justice should be an illegal immigrant.” Again, although I was accustomed to Representative Waters saying some outlandish things, it just seemed unlikely that she would have said this. And again, after a very brief google search, I discovered that the quote had been invented out of thin air and that she never said this. But again the lie spread because people were quick to speak (share) and slow to listen.
On the more personal level, consider how you respond when a friend complains to you about their spouse or parent or child or boss. Are you quick to assume that you now have the whole story and that you can give helpful advice? It would be wiser to—at least—ask some questions. And it would be even wiser to hear to situation from the perspective of the spouse, the parent, the child, or the boss. Then you might have something truly helpful to say. After you’ve taken the time to listen.
There are times when we absolutely must speak up. But that time is not until we know what we’re talking about. Many of us read one article (or one quotation) and we suddenly believe that we are expert on inflation, on virology, on foreign policy, and on racial issues. Our words will only be beneficial when we take the time to make sure we know what we are talking about.
And to do this we must slow down on speaking and ramp up the listening.
You Should Speak Up When It Will Build Others Up
Ephesians 4:29 will be the key passage for both this point and the third also. In this verse the Apostle Paul says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” I want to focus in on the words “only what is helpful for building others up.”
When we speak, our goal should be to benefit those who listen. This is very different than our frequent goal of speaking in order to get something off our chest. In fact, let me share the word that summarizes what we are doing when we decide to “get something off our chest.” The word is complaining.
Now, I genuinely believe that there is a time and place for complaining. What I mean is that there is some benefit to being able to talk about the things that bother us. If someone cuts me off on the freeway and almost causes me to crash my car, putting me and my family at risk, it is not unreasonable that I would want to talk to a friend and say, “I’m really frustrated because a driver wasn’t careful and almost caused us to get into an accident.” In fact, I will probably be much more capable of moving on once I have gotten that “off my chest.” Complaining—if we don’t linger in it—can actually bring us some benefit.
But complaining never benefits those who are listening. Sometimes they listen because they love us and they want to help. But when we unload our burdens, others are not built up. This means that complaints should be rare—and almost always reserved for private conversations—while words that build up should be common and public.
Let me tell you a secret. People are starving for life-giving words. This is true even of people who seem to be secure and confident.
One practice that my family has for dinner time is for us to take turns giving one another compliments. By the time the activity is finished each family members has given someone a compliment and has received a compliment from someone else. It amazes me not only to watch my kids’ faces when they receive a genuine compliment, but it amazes me how much my own spirit leaps when I receive words that build me up. It is wise to go through our days assume that those around us could benefit from a compliment.
But words that build up are not always compliments. Sometimes the words that build up are hard words to hear. I remember a conversation in my office when I was calling a brother in Christ to persevere in his marriage instead of looking for a way out. He was tired and discouraged and I think he wanted me to let him off the hook. I lovingly called him to endure and sacrifice for his wife, and—thank God—he responded and he and his wife are experiencing joy and restoration in their relationship. Sometimes words build are up words of correction and exhortation. They are words that remind us of God’s truth and of his promises. They are sometimes words that lift our spirits with pleasure, and they are sometimes words that lift our heads with determination. But the common thread is that the words are meant to bring a benefit.
God gave us the ability to speak not so that we would drain the life out of other by burdening them with our frustrations, but so that we would give life and hope and truth to others so that God can be exalted and we can receive help.
You Should Speak Up When The Moment Demands It
Again we turn to Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” When Paul says “according to their needs” he is saying that we must wisely use words that will be helpful in response to the need of the moment.
Sometimes a word is true, but it is not timely. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word.”
- When the need of the moment demands it.
- Ephesians 4:29
- Proverbs 15:23
- Job 12:2-3
- Smoker who gets cancer. Parent with kids going astray.
- Our approach during COVID
- Romans 14
- We’re free from the fear of death.
- God works through evil governments.
- We must tell the truth when pressed.
- Carl Lentz on The View.
- Matthew 10
- Do I know what I’m talking about?
- Will it build others up?
- Does the moment demand it?
James 1:19-20: 19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
Proverbs 18:17: 17 In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right,
until someone comes forward and cross-examines.
Ephesians 4:29: 29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Proverbs 15:23: 23 A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—
and how good is a timely word!
Job 12:2-3: 2 “Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
and wisdom will die with you!
3 But I have a mind as well as you;
I am not inferior to you.
Who does not know all these things?
Matthew 10:32-33: 32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.