As we are reminded in Ecclesiastes 3:7, there is “a time to be silent, and a time to speak”. Silence can be golden at times, and often we need to learn when to zip the lip. But of course at other times it is utterly imperative that we speak up and speak out.
Here I want to discuss the importance of refusing to stay silent when our voices need to be heard. And let me do it by beginning with a little quiz. What would you think about the people in the following scenarios? Just what would you say to them?
-A doctor does some tests on a patient and discovers that he has a life-threatening illness that requires instant medical treatment, but he refuses to tell the patient this.
-A worker at an emergency dispatch centre gets a call from someone claiming that a powerful bomb has been planted at a busy shopping mall, and it is due to go off within a few hours. However the person receiving the call refuses to pass the message on to the relevant authorities.
-A worker at a day care centre is told that the snacks recently brought in for the kiddies have been contaminated and will be lethal if consumed. Yet the worker does not share this information with anyone.
-A pastor discovers that one of his youth workers is sexually molesting children in his care, yet he does not tell the parents or the rest of the staff anything about this.
Now if you are at all a normal, caring and decent human being, I think I know exactly what you would think of such individuals, and what you would say to them. You would be outraged and you would roundly rebuke these miscreants for staying silent when it was their moral obligation to speak, to warn, and to alert others.
Yet I can think of many similar such situations in Christian circles that also require that we speak out, yet so often we do not. Let me offer a few of these scenarios, and let me know what you think of them:
-A Christian knows that the gospel message is what all lost sinners desperately need to get right with God and avoid a lost eternity, yet he refuses to share this good news with anyone else.
-A church pastor knows that God takes the institutions of marriage and family very seriously indeed, yet he refuses to say a word from the pulpit on the attack on both divine institutions for fear of offending people or rocking the boat.
-A Christian leader knows what the Bible says about the shedding of innocent blood, and the need to stand up for those who can’t protect themselves, yet he refuses to ever publicly speak about the abortion holocaust.
-A Christian Bible study teacher has a cultist in his group spewing patently false doctrine, denying the deity of Christ and so on, yet he refuses to speak up and correct him, being fearful of what others might think, and wanting to appear loving and tolerant.
Now if you are a devout biblical Christian, your reaction to these four cases should be exactly the same as your reaction to the first four cases. You would be outraged at such craven and compromising silence. You would rebuke these individuals for shirking their biblical responsibilities and simply catering to their fears or to the masses.
And you would have full biblical warrant for doing so. Plenty of biblical passages speak to the importance of God’s people speaking out and not letting fear or the crowds intimidate them. Plenty of texts urge us to be bold as we proclaim biblical truth regardless of the hostile reactions we might get.
Let me offer just two such passages, one from each Testament, that so nicely illustrate all this. My first one comes from 2 Kings 6-7 and the times of Elisha the prophet. The context is this: Samaria has been besieged by Ben-Hadad king of Aram resulting in famine. Verses 3-4 say this:
Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’—the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here, we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”
Yet when they go out and investigate things, to their amazement they discover that the enemy’s camp is completely empty: it is deserted! So they ate and drank and took gold and silver. The passage I wish to highlight here is what we find in 7:9:
“Then they said to each other, ‘What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace’.” Yes indeed, “This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves.”
My NT text is just as forthright. While it is of course directed at one individual – the Apostle Paul – and certainly would be primarily about sharing the gospel, it seems we can also take this as a generic admonition, one that could be used in all eight cases above.
In Acts 18:9-11 we read these words: “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.”
That word from the Lord is worth repeating: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” And that command – not mere advice – would apply to all followers of Jesus Christ. With God on our side and the Holy Ghost residing within, we have no reason to fear and no reason to remain silent.
And let me return to the passage from Ecclesiastes that I first ran with. There is of course a place for tact, for wisdom, for prudence, and for discernment. Sometimes we do need to wait for the right timing before we share biblical truth. So I am not saying we should blurt out everything, everywhere and every time.
In some cases we need to prayerfully seek to know when the best time is to speak out. Of course at other times we do NOT need to pray, wait to hear from God, or get some divine guidance before we speak and act. As an example, if we see a toddler rushing on to the street and a truck is hurtling her way, we speak – indeed we shout – instantly, and do what we can to rescue her.
So I am not saying we should just keep our mouths open 24/7 and let fly anything and everything that comes into our head. Discernment and wisdom is needed. But in other matters we do not need a word of caution but a kick in the pants. Indeed, I suspect most believers need the latter.
They are cowardly and they are men-pleasers, and they simply will not speak out even when they know they should be speaking out. They will one day stand before their Lord to give an account of their silence, their compromise, and their denial of their Lord.
Let me finish by offering some notable quotes from some notable saints, both older and newer:
“A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” John Calvin
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Speak out for those who cannot speak. Who in the church today realises that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” Martin Niemoller, German pastor and Holocaust survivor
“What the world needs most is a voice that courageously speaks the truth, not when the world is right, but a voice that speaks the truth when the world is wrong.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King Jr.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King Jr.