About five years ago, my then 20-year-old son was having mysterious issues with his cell phone. I was anxious about the direction of his life, so like any decent dad, I often called to offer him free life coaching. Naturally, I assumed he appreciated my wise advice. But in the middle of our calls, he would often abruptly say, “Hey Dad, I’d love to chat, but my battery is dying. Gotta go.” Then I noticed my 18-year-old son started having the same issue with his cell phone.
What a coincidence, I thought. My sons both have substandard batteries. It’s a technological mystery. Finally, the truth came out when an innocent gathering with my four adult children turned into an intervention—for me. Respectfully but honestly, they said, “Dad, you explain too much, you talk too long, and you repeat your main point until we feel bludgeoned by your insights—hence dying cell phone batteries and other assorted coping mechanisms to tune you out.” I was shocked. I thought my words were always clear and helpful, my counsel perceptive, riveting even. So why not pile on more words? But talking too much? Me, an over-talker? Is there even such a thing?
The Danger of Over-talking
Apparently it is a thing—and it’s bad. Shortly after that surprise confrontation, I discovered many early church leaders had warned against garrulousness, or incessant talkativeness. Around A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria cautioned that the long-winded “chatterer” eventually starts sounding “like an old boot. When all the rest has been used up, there is only the tongue left.” The seventh-century Christian leader John Climacus sternly warned that garrulousness is “proof of ignorance [and] the door to scandal-mongering [that] gives rise to boredom … distracts attention, obliterates fervor, and cuts off prayer.” At times early Christian thinkers compared our mouth to a sauna door: Keep it open too often and too long, and all the heat escapes—a fitting image in light of the psalmist’s simple prayer: “Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
The Bible is filled with similar warnings. According to Proverbs, a fool takes pleasure “only in revealing his own mind” (Prov. 18:2). A fool doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut (Prov. 21:23). A fool is hasty with his words (Prov. 29:20) and habitually “opens wide his lips” (Prov. 13:3).
Our lives and our loves require a wise rhythm of speech and silence, working and waiting, pushing forward and letting go, acting for God and surrendering to God.
Of course there’s also the sin of under-talking—withholding words of love or instruction or failing to confront sin. But modern culture seems bent on unleashing a tsunami of language. We’re awash in words. A few quick examples: Every day the average American receives about 54,000 words on social media platforms. More than a billion tweets are sent every hour. And by the time you finish reading this one sentence, 20 million new emails will have been sent around the globe. No wonder some observers have identified “Information Fatigue Syndrome” (or IFS), the sense of being overwhelmed by a daily Niagara Falls-like deluge of words. And yet, for some reason we’re convinced that we must habitually and liberally add our remarks to this flood, or nothing of importance will get done. The world needs more of my words right now, we think. God needs my words. How will people change and improve without them?
The Art of Verbal Restraint
At some point it hit me: Maybe God can get things done even if I keep my mouth shut. Maybe my silence can actually accomplish something more powerful and permanent than my words can. Maybe I need to start practicing the art of verbal restraint. “When there are many words,” Proverbs 10:19 tells us, “transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” In other words, when it comes to that mini-lecture, that witty but cutting reply, that clear-cut spiritual “solution” to a friend’s problem, that slam-dunk argument proving your point, that incisive critique—maybe it’s better to close your lips. Even a fool is considered wise for doing that. (See Prov. 17:28.)
There’s a simple reason why this is harder than it sounds: We like to talk, especially about ourselves. According to a recent article in Scientific American, researchers at Harvard scanned the brains of participants as they talked about different subjects. Surprisingly, when the participants talked about themselves, the same part of the brain associated with eating comfort food lit up with pleasure. In other words, talking about myself (my life, my opinions, my advice) is like eating a warm, gooey caramel roll slathered with butter. Who doesn’t want more of that? I would imagine future brain scans might prove that listening is more like eating a raw kale salad without dressing—in terms of classic Christian theology, it cuts against the grain of our sin nature.
I want my words to flow from a deep place of union with Christ, allowing Him to use what I say for His good purposes.
Of course, this doesn’t imply that all my words (or even my words about myself) are inherently selfish. The practice of verbal restraint begins by acknowledging that our words aren’t the only or even the best tool in co-laboring with King Jesus. The sun doesn’t rise every morning, the earth doesn’t turn from winter to spring, a blueberry bush doesn’t produce its fruit because we cranked out the right words. We quickly forget that so many things in nature—and in the spiritual life—do not require us to talk. The art of verbal restraint involves a long process of training ourselves to realize that God’s good work often happens in and because of silence. He causes the growth. In the apostle Paul’s assertion, as we quietly behold the glory of the Lord, we “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” And then he emphatically adds, “which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV).
This is the basis for verbal restraint: Spiritual transformation ultimately comes from the Lord, not us. That’s not a justification for apathy, withdrawal, or under-talking. It simply implies that our lives and our loves require a wise rhythm of speech and silence, working and waiting, pushing forward and letting go, acting for God and surrendering to God. In the midst of this rhythm, at times our words can do more harm than good, drowning out the deeper work that takes root in silence. And this rhythm creates space for prayer, as we ask and then wait for God to accomplish the work that only comes only “from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
We All Need Help
Naturally, there’s still a place for our words. (See Eccl. 3:7.) The Bible constantly reminds us that they have tremendous potential for good. God can use them to heal wounds, warn the wayward, dismantle falsehood, encourage the weary, build up the church, fight injustice, and proclaim good news. The tongue of the wise can bring healing (Prov. 12:18) and spread knowledge (Prov. 15:7). A gentle tongue is a tree of life (Prov. 15:4). For us as followers of Jesus, the totality of our life, including our words, should exude “a fragrance of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:15).
But here’s the problem: Out of the millions of things I could say, how do I know which combination of words will actually bring life? As I consider a person before me, with his or her unique spiritual journey, how do I apply the right dose of verbal medicines and/or complete silence that will bring the deep healing or correction or challenge or encouragement that his soul needs? I have a habit of botching my word combos (just ask my son). So how do I know which will release the aroma of Christ in each concrete situation? How do I discern the best way and time to speak into the perplexing and heated issues of our culture so that people’s hearts and minds actually change? The answer is: I don’t. I don’t have enough wisdom, life experience, training, or Christian maturity to make my words like a tree of life.
That’s why I can relate to Paul’s poignant cry, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). I need help. I am not adequate. I need the “wisdom from above” that God is willing to give generously (James 1:5; James 3:17). I need the “competence [that] comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5 NIV). Of course, not every conversation needs to be deep or dramatic. Some are just breezy and playful. But when it counts, I want my words to flow from a deep place of union with Christ, allowing Him to use what I say for His good purposes.
More than anyone else I’ve met, my friend Dave demonstrates the beauty and power of verbal restraint. While serving on the leadership board of a church on Long Island, we often had long discussions about important but controversial issues. Since the church was close to a major university, our board had a fair share of academics and successful business leaders. We all loved to talk. So we’d discuss, debate, share, opine, and analyze, prognosticating and pontificating until the late hours.
Out of the millions of things I could say, how do I know which combination of words will actually bring life?
Dave, the chairman, usually didn’t say much. He just sat, attentively listening to the brouhaha and taking notes. Then, as the conversation started to wind down from exhaustion (and usually without a conclusion), Dave would speak. Sometimes he’d ask a few questions. But eventually he’d interject some brief but utterly sane, sensible, and even prophetic wisdom into our morass of words. After a minute of silence, we’d look at Dave, then at each other before someone would say with a wry smile, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what we need to do.”
Dave was our sensei of verbal restraint. Because he had walked with Jesus and listened to the Holy Spirit so deeply and habitually over the years, he knew how to keep his mouth shut and keep that inner spiritual fire aglow. So whenever this man of God opened his mouth, he gave all of us a good blast of spiritual heat. He didn’t under-talk or over-talk; his words were just right.
As for me? Apparently there’s still hope. The other day, I was talking to my now 26-year-old son—the same guy with the mysterious cell phone battery issues—about those good old days of Dad’s lectures. I asked if I was a better listener now. He thought for a moment, and said, “Dad, are you kidding? You’re the best listener I’ve ever met.” An uncommon compliment, to be sure, but one I’ll gladly receive from my son. I take it as a sign that regardless of age, we remain moldable—and if we cooperate, God will change us all, by and by.
So here’s my new discipline: not talking. I’m trying to listen to God and others and let my non-talking speak. Try it sometime. You might be amazed at what God can do in the silence.
Photography by Dan Saelinger