Don’t Speak Up: On the Spiritual Discipline of Silence
One of the main things I do as a pastor is to encourage church members to speak. I want them to speak about the gospel to non-Christians. I want them to speak words of encouragement and correction to their fellow church members. Evangelism, discipling, and preaching—three of the nine marks—are all about speaking.
Yet it’s worth spending a moment on the flip side of the coin. There is a time for Christians not to speak.
Listen to Jesus: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt. 7:6).
Here and elsewhere, Scripture teaches that sometimes we should be quiet (see also Prov. 11:22; 23:9; Ecc. 3:7). Obedience does not always mean speaking up.
WE MUST EXERCISE DISCERNMENT
Jesus means for us to exercise discernment when we speak. He wants us to ask ourselves, “Is this person going to respond like a dog or a pig?”
So Solomon teaches in Proverbs 9:8: “Do not reprove a scoffer or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” The same action, but two different reactions. The same words, but a wise person responds one way and a scoffer another.
Sometimes, we love others by correcting their sin, as in Matthew 18:15. Other times, however, we should leave them alone, as in Matthew 7:6.
David was a wise man. He accepted Nathan’s rebuke. But we could also list many scoffers in Scripture who didn’t.
SPEAKING CAN MAKE THINGS WORSE
As evangelicals, we often feel guilty for not evangelizing more, or not speaking a word of correction to a friend in sin. And sometimes that sense of guilt is correct! But here, Jesus identifies another way we can err: speaking up wrongly, at the wrong times, and to the wrong person.
If you watch a young person who’s very excited about a particular idea, you will often observe a trail of people in their wake who now oppose that idea. Why? Because they haven’t yet learned how to read their audience. So they argue and argue, and people respond by taking the opposite side. In fact, the knot of their opposition grows tighter the more a person argues.
We once had one brother around our church who believed in infant baptism. My keen and passionate Baptist staff all had the instinct to argue with him, yet I quickly forbade them from doing so. I explained that arguing with him would harden him in his position, and he would only get better at making his arguments. “Instead,” I said, “ignore the topic, love him, encourage him in the fruits of the Spirit, and let him find on his own what Scripture says in that contested territory.”
I’m happy to say that that man, by God’s grace, is now a Baptist minister.
DON’T SPEAK TO THOSE WHO WON’T LISTEN
Jesus had hearers who did not believe; he knew what it was like to be attacked. So he is certainly not telling us in Matthew 7:6 to avoid talking to unbelievers about the gospel. Instead, he’s referring to a category of persons who actively reject the message, whether through their indifference or hostility. You have shared the gospel or offered a correction, and they have proven unteachable.
His words about dogs and pigs in chapter 7 is similar to what he says in Matthew 10: “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town” (Matt. 10:14).
Three times in the book of Acts we see Paul make this decision—in Pisidian Antioch (13:44–51), Corinth (18:5–6), and Rome (28:17–28).
It’s not that Paul didn’t bring the message to people. He brings the gospel to everyone. But after a certain amount of time, he knows it’s time to move on. He knows he cannot force people to believe.
What does this mean for us practically?
Suppose you share the gospel. The person proves unresponsive or even oppositional. Sometimes you do well to bring up the gospel again. But sometimes it’s best to be quiet and to pray.
We need boldness, but we also need wisdom.
We need humility about ourselves, but we also need discernment about others.
We should pray that God will lead us by his Spirit to know when it’s best to be quiet, to pray, and to live a life that commends the gospel, and when it’s best to add more of our own words.
I’m reminded of what Peter wrote to the wives of unbelieving husbands: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2).
In other words, ask God for the wisdom to know when continuing to evangelize someone or correct someone might only harden them—when it’s better to simply turn around and talk to others. If you need help, ask your church’s elders. They will have sincere, if not inerrant, guidance. Ask them and other Christians to pray with you.
Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:6 that loving others involves exercising discernment. And sometimes discernment results in prayerful silence.