Confessions of a Church Kid: Boldness is Hard
The stand-off in the classroom full of teenagers is tense. Awkward silence stretches long. The teacher is waiting patiently for someone to respond to his question.
None of us wants to supply an answer.
I won’t volunteer to go first. I might be wrong. I might sound dumb. The other kids, or even the teacher, might judge me or mock me.
This vague teenage memory is now decades old and I don’t remember if there were energetic discussions about possible answers to the teacher’s question. If there were, I probably didn’t engage much because I was afraid to reveal what I didn’t understand. I had no boldness to take a risk in answering a question, or to ask a question if I didn’t understand. When I did engage I calculated for maximum reward, and failure was a devastating blow to be avoided at all costs.
I held strongly in practice to a popular adage, ‘It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt of it’. When I heard that quote somewhere during highschool, I accepted it as wisdom. It felt like solid advice, especially for a shy introvert.
As a young student I felt constant tension, immersed in the usual Canadian educational structures where it was taken for granted that I would be learning. Of course, my main job as a student was to learn. The tension came as my peers and I grew in our knowledge and consequently moved into larger and larger pools of information.
Depending on who was teaching us, we may have come to understand that the process of learning was most effective when we asked many questions. We might have been encouraged to analyze our way toward an accepted ‘highest perspective’ on certain issues.
Or, more commonly, at least in the Ontario Public School system, we may have learned by rote, being taught that the best way to learn was to memorize information exactly as it was presented to us and to repeat it back through standardized testing, or other methods for demonstrating knowledge.1
We may also have learned outside of structured education, by survival, or by absorbing of the behaviours and knowledge of others in our lives. Obviously, no two experiences of education are the same.
But something happens as we grow in knowledge, and I do think this is the same for everyone. It’s the source of the tension I’m talking about. We grow in pride, and not always the good kind. The good kind of pride is a fleeting thing. We feel the glow of accomplishment and a job well done, but where pride turns bad is when that feeling of accomplishment grows into an unavoidable impulse to look down on people who seem to know less or achieve less than us. Our pride shifts, and we hold on to our achievements and knowledge as idols to be worshiped not only by ourselves, but by others as well.
We inevitably crush people under the weight of our expectation that they’ll keep up with us, with the information, the research, and the highest understanding. Sometimes we even crush our true selves under that weight. There is no room for doubt or dialogue under there. This overestimation of our point of view often costs us the opportunity to learn something new. I lived under that crushing weight for years.
Remember the adage? Turns out, far from being wisdom, it added to the crushing weight of my pride.
‘It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt of it’.
In believing that it was better to be quiet than to reveal that I wasn’t smart, I was trapped. There was nowhere to go. And there was overwhelming silence in the corner I backed myself into.
Why did those words have so much power? They almost sounded Biblical.
The quote in question seems to have entered the atmosphere in 1907, by way of an author named Maurice Switzer, in his book of witticisms meant to entertain the masses. But the seed of his “wisdom” is probably found in Proverbs 17:28, which reads, ‘Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.’
Switzer’s warped version of this Biblical proverb seriously muddled God’s truth for my sincere adolescent faith. It was a shame that I fell prey to that twist.
To believe that it’s ‘better’ to keep silent for fear of being thought a fool urges a person’s motivation both for keeping silent and for speaking to be driven by fear and pride. It tells us that we should only speak when we’re sure of being thought of as smart.
But what does the original Biblical proverb really say? ‘Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.’
The crucial difference here is that the writer of Proverbs did not say that it was better to be silent, only that a person’s silence enables others to fill in the details of who they might be.
In fact, let’s compare that verse with the one immediately preceding it, verse 27, which says, “A truly wise person uses few words; a person with understanding is even-tempered.” We see that there is truth to both of these verses, though they seem to contradict each other.
So, when is my silence a marker of my wisdom and when is it not?
I don’t think that’s the right question, though it is the most tempting one to ask. Perhaps that’s how Mr. Switzer ended up writing his witty little lie.
A more holy question is this: Is it truly better to gain the good opinion of others by deceitful efforts?
Something Jesus said seems to answer this. He said, ‘A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.’ (Luke 6:45)
There it is. The truth, untwisted.
How much or little I talk is not something that is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. What I say, and–it follows– what I do not say flows from what is in my heart.
Silence is not more valuable than speaking.
But good is more valuable than evil, because Almighty God is good. This is the root of the issue. This is the way to find your bold voice.
Whether or not we are perceived as wise or as fools by other people stops truly mattering because Jesus has made the way for us to be declared good and to do good. When we accept his saving grace and his work of reconciliation and redemption which he accomplished through his death and resurrection, we become good in Christ. Each of us can be confident that walking closely with Jesus will bring good things out of our hearts and into the world.
So, back to the original problem. Group discussions, learning together, revealing our knowledge gaps, boldness…or lack thereof.
With the lies debunked, we see that we must reveal to others what we don’t know in order to be open to learning. Some may think we are foolish, but we have to take risks and ask questions boldly and humbly in order to pursue wisdom.
If we don’t reveal the real and practical gaps in our knowledge–gaps that need bridges from poverty to provision, from pain to healing, from separation to community–then each of us will remain alone, which is exactly where The Liar, Satan, wants us. He wants us shut up, isolated, with no options, and no voice.
But by grace, which is Jesus’ open hand asking us to abide with him, we can have the strong foundation of humbly accepting his love, and boldly expressing both what we know and what we don’t know.
What are your questions? Be the bold leader in your group of friends and start a new conversation! Be the bold leader in your faith and ask your questions in prayer. Our Father is listening.