Speak No Evil
Tim Keller once said if we talk as though a certain group of people isn’t listening, chances are they won’t be. That is, speak in stereotypes and stock phrases about people who don’t share your religion, political party, or experiences, and those within earshot will refuse you further hearing.
Keller’s right. Rarely do I follow cohorts or conversations into places where I qualify as the social or spiritual “other.” As an able-bodied, straight, white, Protestant male, people around me typically talk as though I belong—as though I’m the norm.
Not all the moments on my personal merry-go-round fit neatly into Keller’s if/then. But many in the last few years felt like display cases for the power of phrases uttered with little regard for those who might be listening.
My first distressing experience of overhearing—then flinching—came with hints of infertility, tests taken pass/fail, suspicions confirmed, conversations revived, and adoption painstakingly completed.
Suddenly, social obligations became minefields. At parties, well-meaning friends would exclaim, “Wow! Everyone in [insert name of church or social group] is getting pregnant.” No, not everyone.
We found out the truth about our station: We couldn’t have a biological child. Then we found language to let people know. My wife and I watched as genuine expressions of sympathy got delivered to our doorstep, usually more muted and meaningful than anything found on a TV melodrama.
Honesty’s reward also included entertaining stories of infertility from or about people you barely know or will never meet. Apparently, all of these people decided to adopt then promptly learned they were pregnant. Each anecdote comes with a hopeful glint in the storyteller’s eye. Then, the fog of confusion settles. These people speak as if God mixed up the Abrahamic plotlines—I won’t show you a sky full of stars until you lay your sacrifice on the altar.
It didn’t stop at stories. Saying you’re adopting means hearing people joke, “We’ve got one or two we wouldn’t mind giving up.” And apparently, the jokes never end.
Last week, our little family of three marked the anniversary of our son uniting with us. A modest celebration at an ice-cream parlor involved a longer-than-expected wait. Behind us in line stood a family with two young boys. The mother tried to laugh off one’s minor misbehavior, juxtaposing not one, but two classic lines in confusing fashion: “He’s not ours. We’re giving him up for adoption.”
She must never have heard Keller’s quote. Employing Keller’s principle equals never saying something like this. Saying it to a white father holding a black child reaches a wholly different dimension of insensitivity.
I bit my tongue hard enough to leave a mark, performing Good Will Hunting-level calculations to assess the risk to my son who, while oblivious to her remark, would ask hard questions if I piped up. My wife, one of the most even-keel people in North America—and this includes Canada—shot the woman a look that, even from my angle, made my knees buckle a little.
I share these stories for sympathy’s sake, but not my own. So many of us learned to scrutinize each moment in a conversation, seeking pivot points to the gospel. And yet, we struggle to consider how our words sound in the ears of neighbors with different skin colors, social pressure points, or emotional bruises.
Christians, using experiences other than our own as punchlines or punching bags amplifies an already ear-splitting lack of love. If we want the infertile, the adoptive parent and adopted child, the divorced and the single, to feel welcome in our churches, homes and their own skin, we will think before we speak.
Waiting a beat before we share our opinions, reading the room, speaking to someone the way they wish to be spoken to—whether we agree with them or not—shows no weakness. It simply affirms that Jesus’ call to love your neighbor as yourself involves the tongue.
Conversation more closely resembles art than sport or science. Any good jazz musician would say knowing which notes to play only constitutes half the battle. Knowing where to place those notes, and when to let the silence breathe, elevates a performance from fine to transcendent.
So it is with speaking truth in love. In its active voice, that biblical principle converts deep gospel affection into winsome albeit firm speech. Words that pierce darkness with light, self-deception with truths bigger than oneself.
I find room enough in the Bible’s wisdom for a passive voice. One which thoughtfully sifts helpful words from harmful ones, which knows even the right words spoken at the wrong time cut deep. One which recognizes finding the heart of truth and articulating love might even mean stopping our mouths, playing the rests, and hearing the silence as an inflection of God’s voice.
What a shame to know the very Word made flesh and yet speak in a way that drowns out the gospel; to spend our days banging gongs and clanging cymbals until we look around to find no one’s listening. We speak no evil when we speak in tongues attached to renewed minds and hearts beating out love for God and others.