I should know. I have shoved my foot in my mouth more times than I care to admit. I would have saved myself a lot of embarrassment—and the Kingdom of God a lot of trouble—if I had just learned some vital lessons from the Bible and from the experience of wise Christian leaders.
Practice Strategic Silence
When you write or speak for a living, you get used to sharing the information that you have found and the insights that you have developed. Many of us got into this kind of work precisely because we are skilled at teaching and/or leading others, and we want to share that gift as often as we can. Nevertheless, there are times when we need to restrain ourselves.
There are at least two reasons why silence ought to be part of our practice as public figures. First, we are finite creatures—regardless of what our publicists, groupies, or family members tell us. We do not know everything that there is to know, and we do not have the experience necessary to rightly apply our knowledge to every situation. When we fail to recognize these limits, we are more likely to say something that is factually incorrect, conceptually problematic, or morally indefensible. When, however, we exercise discipline in deciding when to speak and/or write, we earn credibility—both for ourselves and for God.
Second, strategic silence provides others with an opportunity to flourish. All of us can fall into the trap of thinking that God’s Kingdom revolves around us. Choosing to step back a little allows us to see how God is using other people to communicate truth and accomplish His will.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, silence is not something that I do very well. I love the energy and insight that I get from dialogue with others, and I need (more than I am willing to admit) the positive feelings that I get from knowing that my words have helped someone. Still, it is something that I am working on, and I hope to get better at it.
Speak with Knowledge and Wisdom
The Bible talks a lot about things like “truth” and “knowledge,” but it also talks about things like “understanding” and “wisdom.” We need all of these if we are going to be responsible public figures (to say nothing of being responsible representatives of Christ).
When we say that we should conduct ourselves with both knowledge and wisdom, what exactly are we saying? Practically speaking, I think that we have three tasks that we need to perform whenever we speak or write in a public forum. (Some of you may recognize these ideas from our Fall Colloquy speaker or from other sources.)
- We must compile as many facts as we can about our topic (as well as about any related topics).
- We must arrange the facts that we have collected in a way that allows an accurate picture to emerge of the event or concept we are trying to address. Any great interpreter (of texts, historical events, human behavior, etc.) is able to discern from the available facts a pattern that communicates meaning.
- We must apply the truth that we uncover in ways that demonstrate that we understand its significance for human existence. Yes, this means that we have to be able to answer the “so what?” question, but it also means that we have to be able to answer the “what now?” question.
Just because we have obtained a large quantity of facts does not mean that we have arranged those facts in such a way as to arrive at truth. And just because we have arrived at truth does not mean that we have utilized that truth in a way that reflects God’s will and that contributes to human flourishing. It is not enough to be smart; we have to be wise, too.
Balance Courage with Discretion
Recent trends in American politics should provide us with ample evidence that both knowledge and wisdom are necessary if we are going to teach and/or lead people well. But knowledge and wisdom are not the only qualities that we need. Sometimes, people do not want to hear the truth. A clear articulation of the facts, organized in a way that makes sense of God’s world and God’s ways, can challenge long-held assumptions about the way things are and can reveal treasured patterns of behavior to be dysfunctional and destructive.
For this reason, it takes courage to be a public figure. Sometimes, you are going to have to say things that people do not like. Being honest about your convictions may make you some unwanted enemies. But sometimes you have to do it anyway. The good of those you lead or of society as a whole depends on it.
But is the courage of our convictions the only thing we need once we uncover an important piece of truth? I would argue that it is not. Just because we know something does not mean that we ought to share it with the world (or even with the group that we teach and/or lead).
Why would this be the case? Isn’t courage the one thing that leaders in our society seem to lack the most? It is true that far too many public figures in our society lack the courage to speak, write, or act with integrity. But I am not talking here about sacrificing our integrity. I am talking about heeding the warning of Matthew 7:6. I am talking about using discretion when we are deciding what to say/write and who to share our words with.
Sometimes, people are hostile to the truth. As the prophets of ancient Israel found out, sometimes we have to share truth with them anyway, but that is not always the case. Jesus councils us to be careful about who we share truth with precisely because we need to live to fight another day.
At other times, people just cannot handle the truth. They do not possess the intellectual, emotional, or moral maturity to cope with what we have learned. It is not that they do not want to understand God, themselves, and the world. It is simply that that are not ready for what we have to give them. In this case, we can share truth gradually, helping them grow in knowledge and wisdom just like others helped us.
Balance Clarity with Compassion
Our society places a premium on frankness these days. We do not want artfully crafted explanations. We do not value nuanced language. We just want someone to tell us the unvarnished truth, and if they hit us (or better yet, our enemies) over the head with it, all the better!
There is certainly something to be said for clarity. We need to use language in ways that reveal, rather than obscure, our true meaning. Nevertheless, we do not need to contribute to the ever-increasing coarseness of our public discourse. We should not use our society’s yearning for clarity as a license for rudeness or as a cover for linguistic revenge.
Instead, we should remember that those we address are human beings just like us. They have their own stories, their own hang-ups, their own hurts. We need to remember these things because we do not speak or write simply to demonstrate our worth as thinking agents or our skill as masters of rhetoric. Every phrase we utter, every sentence we write, is an act of communication. As such it needs to connect with the people to which it is addressed. Otherwise, it has not fulfilled its purpose.
Speaking with compassion, particularly towards one’s political or theological enemies, does not seem to be very popular these days. We are so frustrated with one another that we just want to win whatever argument we happen to be engaged in at the moment. There are, however, ways of making our point clear without being snarky, peevish, or downright mean. We need to learn these arts, and we need to demand that those who lead us do the same.