If something is of ultimate importance, you should say it as soon as possible, right? If something is true, and vital to know, then circumstances be damned, we just have to say it. The person we’re talking to will, in the end, be better off than if we hadn’t said it.
Christians often apply such logic to evangelism and discipleship. These tasks deal, necessarily, in ultimates – life and death, curses and blessings, first things and last things. If the Good News is so good, the judgement so terrible, and the task so unfinished, then we should surely be turning every possible moment into a conversation about Christ and the Gospel. The truth, by virtue of being true, demands restatement whenever possible. Even if people are not ready or willing to listen, they will have heard the word of God, which is living and active, and that is never a bad thing. And who knows – perhaps the Holy Spirit will zap them with new life out of nowhere.
And yet thinking about truth in this way is actually quite odd. If we consider how some of history’s greatest philosophers (i.e. those who love wisdom) and theologians (i.e. those who speak about God) have thought about speaking ultimate truth, we find they have this in common: there is a right time to speak of ultimate things, and a right time to remain silent.
This week, I’ve been reading Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades for a Davenant Hall class, taught by my colleague and podcast co-host Colin Redemer. The work is a conversation between the philosopher Socrates and the title character, young Alcibiades (a genuine historical figure who became a great Athenian leader, defecting at different points to both Sparta and Persia). Alcibiades has reached young manhood, and his ambitions to enter into politics are finally blossoming into reality. This is what kicks off the dialogue: Socrates has long seen Alcibiades’ drive and ability, but only now does he approach the younger man to take him under his philosophical wing before he begins his political career. Why? Because he knows Alcibiades is now ready to listen. Socrates says:
“It is impossible to put any of these ideas of yours into effect without me – that’s how much influence I think I have over you and your business. I think this is why the god hasn’t allowed me to talk to you all this time; and I’ve been waiting for the day he allows me.
I’m hoping for the same thing from you as you are from the Athenians: I hope to exert great influence over you by showing you that I’m worth the world to you and that nobody is capable of providing you with the influence you crave, neither your guardian nor your relatives, nor anybody else except me – with the god’s help, of course. When you were younger, before you were full of such ambitions, I think the god didn’t let me talk to you because the conversation would have been pointless. But now he’s told me to, because now you will listen to me.”Alcibiades 105.d
The blossoming of a serious desire for leadership signals to Socrates that Alcibiades is finally ready to listen to him regarding ultimate things. And it is ultimate things Socrates really wants to talk about. His main message to Alcibiades is that there is no point embarking upon a political career if he has not first cultivated his very soul. It is hard to imagine a more important topic of discussion, and yet Socrates did not badger Alcibiades with it every day. He waited. In fact, he says that God himself made him wait.
You find a similar thought in Augustine’s Confessions. At the end of Book III, he writes about how, during his days following the false religion of Manicheism, his Christian mother kept badgering a certain bishop to talk to Augustine and persuade him of the truth of Christianity. The bishop, a shrewd pastoral operator, gives a very wise response. Augustine writes:
“When that woman [Augustine’s mother] asked [the bishop] to make time to talk to me and refute my errors and correct my evil doctrines and teach me good ones – for he used to do this for those whom perhaps he found suitably disposed – he declined, wisely indeed as I later perceived. For he answered that I was still unready to learn, because i was conceited about the novel excitements of that heresy, and because, she had informed him, I had already disturbed many untrained minds with many trivial questions. ‘Let him be where he is,’ he said; ‘only pray the Lord for him. By his reading he will discover what an error and how vast an impiety it all is'”Book III.xii
Just as with Socrates and Alcibiades, we see here an older, wiser man who knows that it is simply not the time to speak the truth to his young would-be disciple. Even if the message is about the ultimate matter of cultivating or saving one’s soul, that does not mean it is always the right time to share it.
Now I wonder how many of us would have acted like the bishop in Confessions. My guess is not many – we’d have tried to meet up with Augustine for coffee, right? To “see where he’s at”? Perhaps we even think the bishop is showing a dereliction of duty here. His attitude seems to chafe against a passage like 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Theses verse (precious ones to conservative evangelicals) can seem to pressure those of us who know the Scriptures. With such a hammer in our possession, why would we not swing at any nail of error that we come across?
And yet these verses, and others in the pastoral epistles regarding the correction of error, place us under no compulsion to swing the hammer of the Scriptures at every available opportunity. That’s simply not how truth works, as if it consists of deracinated statements of fact which must be coldly deployed just because they’re relelvant to a given situation. I considered describing such an attitude as “lopsidedly Pauline”, but I don’t think that’s fair, since it’s our misinterpretation of Paul that gets us here, not the man himself! It’s an attitude which doubtless owes more to a Kantian view of truth and reason as abstract propositions than it does to the Apostle.
The wisdom literature perhaps provides us with more explicit examples of what I’m talking about though. Biblical wisdom is not simpy knowledge of the truth, but a knowledge of how to handle the truth. Ecclesiastes 3:7 observes that life gives us both “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Proverbs 27:14 says “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” A blessing of course, like the Gospel, is immensely good news, which compels us to speak. And yet delievered in the wrong way (with a loud voice) and at the wrong time (early in the morning), it will be received as a curse.
Evangelicals, having spent a century contending for Christian orthodoxy against liberalism, are so used to stating basic truths about the faith in settings where they should be said but aren’t that we can often overlook the fact that there are times where we could state them but perhaps shouldn’t.
These situations might occur in our evangelism, a la Augustine’s bishop. Now, doubtless there are many evangelistic opportunities we pass up which we could take, and we should repent of these. And yet many of us can often berate ourselves unfairly for struggling to find a way to talk with our loved ones about Christ, when the fact is they are simply not ready. They are, in Augustine’s words “conceited with the novel excitements” of sin, or occupied with “trivial questions” that simply throw up a smokescreen to evade serious conversations. It is not necessarily a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to acknowledge this and “let them be where they are”, especially in the twenty-first century West – one of the most difficult mission fields in history.
These situations also occur in our discipleship, a la Socrates and Alcibiades. We may have great visions of where we would like our young wards in the faith to be in the future, and we know that (with God’s help) they need us to get there. But until they begin to bloom and hunger for themselves, there are things that there is simply no point in telling them, for they do not yet have the ears to listen.
A mistake we as evangelicals make is thinking that it is always a time to speak. The damage of the vice of silence is obvious to us, and rightly feared. Yet every vice has its equal opposite, which can do just as much damage. What would we call the inverse of the vice of silence? Talkativeness? Loquaciousness? Noisiness? Perhaps that’s it – the vice of noise, since that it what pointless speech is received as: the clanging gong, the resounding symbol, the loud voice early in the morning.
Speech and silence can both be vices. Knowing the difference between the two requires wisdom. And through wisdom, we will find the virtue between the vices, and learn how to give life through both our words and the silences between them.