“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.”
I admit feeling the irony of waxing eloquent about keeping your mouth shut. If I wrote nothing, you might be tricked into believing that I have more profound thoughts on the matter. Communication is too vital and freedom of speech is too precious to ever reckon silence as wielding some intrinsic, universal advantage over speech. The problem is, speech can tear down as well as build up. It is not as if everything you say adds some value – sometimes small, sometimes great – compared to saying nothing.
Proverbs 10:19 gives us virtually the same principle: “When words abound, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” The uncomfortable reality is that oftentimes when we open our mouth, people are worse off than if we had said nothing. There are times when, as the principal in Billy Madison says: “Everyone in this room is now dumber because of your response.”
Our words have the frightening ability to produce a net negative when compared to our silence. This is jarring to our pride. One of the drawbacks of the Internet is that we are now exposed to unprecedented levels of ignorance that we would be better without. The freedom of bypassing communication gatekeepers comes at the expense of numerous words that contribute a net negative.
The Internet may be the chief purveyor of harmful speech, but it is not its source. Young people grow up in a world which tells them that self-expression is not a means, but the end itself. The more frequently you express yourself, the more authentic your gushings are, the more consistently you give vent to every thought and emotion, the more you contribute to the general welfare. So the reasoning goes.
We see from this proverb that verbal restraint is tied to a cool spirit. This means that progress is not directly proportional to reducing the number of your words, but a matter of increasing thoughtfulness, intentionality, and selectivity in your words. Of course, brevity in itself does offer some protection. The longer you talk, the more likely you are to water down the best things you’ve managed to say. There are also issues so difficult, complex, and painful, that any extended response will likely be heard as a poor attempt to explain the unexplainable or minimize a hurt which should be respected.
Jesus did a lot of teaching, but even the omniscient son of God made space to listen, to allow others to share, and to leave unsaid a lot of true things which he could have said. Jesus often exercised restraint in the presence of those who didn’t really want to hear what he had to say. He was silent during his final trials before Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish leaders (Mt 26-27). He didn’t do many works or teach much in a hometown that paid him little regard (Mt 13:58). He responded to trap questions with riddles of his own (Mt 22:15-22).
A wise Christian knows that before God’s judgment seat, his mouth will be closed, except to plead the name of Jesus. If our spirit cooly reflects on our own weaknesses – our ignorance, limitations, and how far we fall short of our own standards and need Jesus’ grace – we will exercise more wise restraint in our words.