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A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Speak

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A Time to Keep Silence And a Time to Speak

Gipsy Smith's name will be familiar to the older generation. To younger ones, let me just say that he was an illustrious and powerful British evangelist. When Gipsy was first saved he became anxious for the conversion of his uncle. He was reluctant, however, to witness to him because it was not considered proper, among gypsies, for children to address their elders on the subject of religion. So the boy just prayed and waited for God to open the way.

One day his uncle noticed a hole in the lad's trousers and asked, "Rodney, how is it that you have worn out the knees of your trousers more quickly than the other boys?"

"I have worn them out praying that the Lord would make you a Christian, Uncle," he replied—and then burst into tears.

His uncle uttered not a word, but put his arm around his nephew and drew him to him. It was not very long after that that both were found bending their knees in prayer to the Savior (Bosch 1976).

You know, that simple story beautifully illuminates our text. Solomon says, "There is ... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." More than 75% of communication between one person and another is "talk." So speaking is a large part of living. It is true that we have heard some people described as "all talk and no action." What is often overlooked is that for many of us, doing is actually speaking. An executive is "doing" when he is issuing orders. So the importance of speech cannot be overestimated. But as we are going to see in this chapter, the disciplined man of God is someone who observes that "there is ... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." "If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body" (James 3:2); and again, "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless" (James 1:26). With such weighty words in mind, we need to think seriously about:

The Mastery of the Tongue

Oswald Chambers points out that:

Sometimes it is cowardly to speak, and sometimes it is cowardly to keep silence. In the Bible the great test of man's character is his tongue (see James 1:26). The tongue came to its right place only within the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ, because He never spoke from ... Himself. He who was the Wisdom of God Incarnate said, 'The words that I speak unto you, I speak not of myself ... but from My relationship with the Father.' We are either too hasty or too slow: either we won't speak at all, or we speak too much, or we speak in the wrong mood. The thing that makes us speak is the lust to vindicate ourselves. How different it was with our Lord "who did no sin neither was guile found in his mouth." You see, "guile has the ingredient of self-vindication in it." It is the spirit which makes you say, "I'll make him smart for saying that about me!" [but] that spirit was never [found] in Jesus Christ. (27)

One of the greatest achievements of Christian discipline is to know when to keep silent and when to speak, and this involves the power of controlled speech. This power is not found in ourselves. This is why the Bible speaks of the tongue as an untamed member. Beasts, birds, and reptiles can be tamed, but not the tongue. Indeed, the Scriptures state categorically that "no man can tame the tongue" (James 3:8). It goes without saying, then, that the power of controlled speech must be supernatural; and thank God, the Christian can know the secret. When Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, He can control our tongues by first of all controlling our thoughts and tempers.

The apostle Paul speaks of controlled thoughts when he says, "For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:4-5). This means, of course, that Jesus must have sovereign control of all that feeds our thought life—what we inculcate in terms of reading and watching, and what we contemplate in terms of speaking and acting.

But the Lord Jesus must also have sovereign control of our tempers. Thoughts out of control are usually fired by undisciplined tempers. But thank God, there is an answer to this problem. When Christ is crowned as undisputed Lord, the Holy Spirit fills our lives, and the Bible tells us that "the fruit of the Spirit is ... self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).

I can testify to this power of controlled speech after many years in the Christian ministry. Time and again, I could have erupted like a volcano, but warned of this imminent danger by the inward radar of the Holy Spirit, I have claimed the self-control of the Spirit—to the glory of God and the good of my fellow man. So once again I affirm that there is a power of controlled speech; but, day by day, we need to pray, "Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips" (Ps. 141:3).

But this leads us to examine the purpose of controlled speech. A moment of reflection will convince any thoughtful person that there are times in life when "silence is golden." Indeed, speaking for myself, I can say without reservation that some of the most precious experiences of my life have been times when external voices have been stilled by "the silence of eternity, interpreted by love."

Paul S. Rees writes (1963, 23): "Let no man think [that silence is] useless! Give it a larger and more meaningful place in your soul."

As I see it, there is a twofold purpose in silence. There is the reverential silence that we must preserve. God says, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10). And Habakkuk reminds us, "The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him" (Hab. 2:20).

In this connection, Dr. Rees (1963, 23) says that silence is "an aid to memory. When we are still, the past comes back to haunt, perhaps to humble, or to make us happy." David says: "Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still" (Ps. 4:4). The Psalmist here "looks back on troubles at the time seemingly unbearable, but troubles that have left him a bigger man, with a richer soul and a finer faith. Yes, silence is the setting in which memory has its best chance, and does its noblest work" (Rees 1963, 23). But again, silence is:

a response to mystery. Before any mystery [we are to] "stand in awe, and sin not." Among the mysteries [we should] consider the holiness of God. Do we stand in awe of his holiness? "As he who has called you is holy," cries Peter, "so be ye holy in all matters of conduct" [1 Pet. 1:15]. There is a hushed response that should be evoked by the unsullied holiness that our poor eyes behold in God. This response is a part of worship, of penitence, of sensitive discipleship. In the presence of such mysteries how [we need] to be silent! When no other response is ready, "in silence reflect." (Rees 1963, 23)

Samuel Chadwick (1934, 25) once said, "The soul needs its silent spaces." In the rough and tumble of our noisy world, we need to welcome reverential silence to perfect "holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). I know this conflicts with the flippant testimonies, empty songs, and sloppy behavior that prevails in the religious world of our day, but we have only to reflect upon the life of our wonderful Lord to see heaven's pattern of reverence and godly fear.

But, then again, there is the preferential silence that we must observe. Reverential silence is our response to supernatural encounters, whereas preferential silence is our response to Situational encounters. No one can read the Scriptures, with any sense of discernment, without noting that there are situations in the church, in the home, and in the world where we need to be silent.

There are times in the church when we need to be silent. Solomon says, "Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few" (Eccl. 5:1-2). No doubt James had these words in mind when he exhorted his readers to be "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19).

We are living in a day of emphasized publicity in matters religious. Young and old alike are pressured to express themselves and to do their own thing. Not all of this is bad, but much of it can lead to "the sacrifice of fools." Before we know it, we have been rash with our mouths and have committed ourselves to vows that we do not intend to keep. All this points out the need to exercise restraint until we have truly counted the cost and claimed the power to go through with the demands of discipleship.

Then there are times in the home when we need to be silent. We have all lived long enough to know that often relationships that are strained call for silence. The Bible says, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov. 15:1). Alas, without God, without Christ, and without hope in the world, many a home has witnessed tragedy because of the violation of this biblical counsel. Angry words have led to flying bullets or to inevitable divorce. It is amazing how a "gentle" answer can cool the tempers, clarify the thoughts, and restore common sense. Paul tells us that "a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all" (2 Tim. 2:24).

Relationships that are sad call for silence. When Job passed through his valley of sorrow we read that his friends "sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great" (Job 2:13). As a pastor, I can identify with this. Often I have gone to a funeral parlor, or a home, to face friends or relatives to whom grief has recently come. At such times, words—however well expressed—would mean very little. The clasp of the hand, the look in the eyes, and the divine vibrations of healing silence more adequately conveyed the comfort and consolation in moments like these.

Again, relationships that are sweet call for silence. I love those words in the Song of Solomon where the young maiden reveals that she sat under the shadow of her beloved "with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to [her] taste" (Song 2:3). This is the pinnacle of true friendship. When love reaches its consummation, silence is golden because of a mutual understanding that is more eloquent than words.

My wife and I have often sat watching a glorious sunset on a summer's evening in silent communion. We have sat before a crackling fire on a wintry night without a single word, and yet in rapturous fellowship. We have sat alongside of each other driving through the country, hour after hour, enjoying one another's presence without wasting a moment on needless verbosity.

There are times in the world when we need to be silent. When our Lord was arraigned before Pontius Pilate we read that "He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly" (Matt. 27:14). And yet when Paul comments on this very incident he says, "Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate" (1 Tim. 6:13). There are times when silence is a good confession. For our Lord to have spoken on this occasion would have been self-vindication, so he remained silent. When questioned concerning his kingship, however, He was at once articulate and declared that for this reason He had come into the world, to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). But when His accusers attacked Him personally, He chose to be silent. This is a pattern for those of us who follow in the Master's footsteps. Peter says,

For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: "Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth"; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Pet. 2:21-23).

Self-vindication calls for silence.

Self-depreciation also calls for silence. There are times when to speak would be casting pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). David could say, "I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me" (Ps. 39:1).

I can recall occasions when to have opened my mouth in defense of the gospel would have done more harm than good. The people concerned were so drunk or irresponsible that the mention of Jesus would have elicited nothing but blasphemy and abuse. I am sure this is why Peter gives that great word on Christian witness when he writes: "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed" (1 Pet. 3:15-16).

There is "a time to keep silence!" But there is also "a time to speak."

The Ministry of the Tongue

Professor R. V. G. Tasker calls attention to the fact that:

History affords numerous illustrations of the power of great oratory to encourage the depressed, to rouse the careless, to stir men and women to noble action, and to give expression to the deeper human emotions. The magic of words has played an incalculable part in the long [history] of human endeavor and human suffering" (1956, 74-75).

This is why Solomon says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21). So quite simply, the ministry of the tongue is twofold. There is the ministry of death. In the Epistle of James there is a full chapter on the power and potential of the tongue (3:1-18). We are told how the tongue can harm life.

It is likened to afire; and you and I know what devastation a fire can work, for "how great a forest a little fire kindles!" (James 3:5). Just like the fire, the tongue can be equally destructive.

It is likened to a beast—and what a beast the tongue can be, in more senses than one! Man has been able to tame mammals, birds, and reptiles but has never been able to tame his tongue; for as we have seen already, "No man can tame the tongue" (James 3:8). Consequently, the tongue can effect unspeakable damage. The tongue that was given to man by his Maker, in order to communicate truth and enjoy fellowship, has become the means by which he so often deceives his fellow and dishonors his God.

It is further likened to poison. In fact, it is called "a deadly poison" (James 3:8). With it man can curse, and swear, and even slay. God alone knows how many lives have been poisoned and destroyed through the power of the tongue. How solemnizing it is to know that you and I are capable of such destructive power—and yet in so many instances this is the influence of the tongue in our world today. No wonder the Lord Jesus said, "Every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36).

Thank God, however, there is another aspect of the power of the tongue. There is the ministry of life. In that same third chapter of James we are told that the tongue can guide people. It is likened to the bit, and just as the bridle controls and directs a horse, so words rightly spoken, in the power of the Holy Spirit, can guide and gladden human lives.

This is further strengthened when James goes on to speak of the tongue as a helm, or rudder, which steers a ship through troubled seas. How often a word fitly spoken has enabled our fellow man to see his way through a stormy situation.

James then proceeds to tell us that the tongue can bless people like a fountain. What a beautiful picture of the Spirit-filled ministry! It reminds us of the words of the Lord Jesus who said, "Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water" (John 7:38). All around us are thirsty men and women who need the water of life, and unless we open our mouths to speak out of the abundance of our hearts, how are people going to come to life in Jesus Christ?

But James hasn't finished. The tongue is not only like a fountain, but also like a tree. Solomon expresses the same idea when he says that "a wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit" (Prov. 15:4). And David tells us that the blessed man is "like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper" (Ps. 1:3). What a portrait of a witnessing Christian!

He speaks with authority because he is like "a tree planted by the rivers of water." His roots go deeply into the revelation of the Word of God and the resources of the Holy Spirit. His message is never a question of human speculation, but rather of divine declaration; he speaks with authority.

He speaks with propriety because he brings "forth [his] fruit in [his] season" (Ps. 1:3). There is not only fruitfulness in his content, but fitness in his challenge. The Christian should be the first to speak against the wrongs and evils of the day. His mandate is ever to "Preach the word.... Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2).

He speaks with vitality because his "leaf also shall not wither" (Ps. 1:3). There is nothing dead or boring when he utters the word of truth. Like an evergreen tree he is perennially fresh. When he utters the word of truth there is life, love, and light in every word.

And then he speaks with fidelity, for "whatever he does shall prosper" (Ps. 1:3). Such a man has no doubt as to the results of his personal witness or his public declarations. He knows that the Word of God which goes out of his mouth "shall accomplish what [God pleases], and it shall prosper in the thing for which [God] sent it" (Isa 55:11). Isn't it significant that it is recorded that "the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise" (Prov. 11:30?

How true are the words that "death and life are in the power of the tongue!" (Prov. 18:21). May God ever enable us to minister life instead of death.

In some small measure, then, we have examined what Solomon means when he says, "There is ... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Eccl. 3:1, 7). How important it is, therefore, to know not only of the mastery of the tongue, but also of the ministry of the tongue, for we will never know when we will speak our last word on earth.

A young man had cancer of the tongue. Only by removing the tongue could his life be saved. Before the operation the doctor said, "If there is anything you want to say, say it now, for these will be the last words you ever speak!" After thinking a minute, the young man exclaimed, "Thank God for Jesus Christ!" Lovely last words! (Choice Gleanings Calendar 1977).

Remember, we communicate either by silence or by speech. Oh, that these tongues of ours would ever bring praise and glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!

Think on These Things (Phil. 4:8)

As a chaplain in the Second World War, I was stationed in Newport, South Wales. The hardest task I had to perform was to preach to the troops as they boarded the ships to storm the Dunkirk beaches. I knew that most of these precious young men would never return. The verse that nerved me to be clear, concise, and courageous in presenting the gospel was Proverbs 18:21, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." It was certainly not the time to be silent. Souls were at stake and eternal issues had to be faced. This was wartime pressure, but I wonder if peacetime leisure is any less compelling for you and me?

— Time for Truth, A

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