Q: “How do you refrain from speaking up when you see another person headed in a wrong, ultimately painful direction?”
A: While I’m grateful for the opportunity to ponder this question with you, speaking candidly, I don’t know the answer. It’s not that I don’t see the value in restraint. I realize that the way we respond to someone headed in a wrong direction might cause more harm than good. But I’m terrible at refraining from speaking up. As I grow in wisdom and Holy Spirit empowered restraint, I’m getting better at it, but I still have a way to go.
I’m guessing that you might be a little like me. When you see a wrong, you’re compelled to right it. When someone is making poor choices, you want to intervene to offer better ones. When you know that the consequences of someone’s actions will most likely bring pain and that the choices they’re making do not honor God, you want to warn that person.
What is a Christlike response in those situations? Rant, refrain, or restrain?
I think we can easily take ranting off the table. Your question displays you understand that a diatribe aimed at a person for their wrong choices and actions is not going to be effective. A rant most often spews my own thoughts and feelings and has more to do with making sure he or she knows them all. There most likely isn’t a focus on the individual or correction and restoration. There is also usually more time and effort spent on detailing what is wrong, not why it’s wrong. Instead, there’s a focus on “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
Refrain or Restrain? Maybe.
Refraining or restraining are the responses that are most likely to be helpful, but the most essential first step is to pray. Bring this person to the feet of Jesus. Ask the Lord to judge your understanding of the situation, your feelings, and your intentions. Ask Him for wisdom to help you respond rightly (James 1:5; Ps. 25:4).
Refraining from saying anything may be God’s answer. You might realize your understanding of the situation or your attitude aren’t what they need to be in order for you to speak effectively or helpfully. You may also not have the opportunity to speak words of warning, correction, or exhortation.
But refraining from speaking does not leave you without something powerful to do. You can always pray. It’s not a cliché response. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead—living in you (Rom. 8:11). If you are praying and seeking God’s will, you are absolutely doing something powerful.
Restraint might also be God’s answer for how to handle the situation. You may need to speak with restraint: “a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control or within limits.” For a Christian, that condition is the Spirit and the Word. While saying nothing may be what God is leading you to do, sometimes saying nothing might actually be disobedience. We often have both the opportunity and the obligation to speak Spirit-controlled words to someone, and it’s often the best and most loving response. In those cases, speak according to God’s Word and under the control of the Holy Spirit. By the mercy of God, it may be effective in bringing about change in the other person.
Friend, I’m praying for you right now. I’m asking the Lord to give you the wisdom and clarity you’ll need in determining if God wants you to refrain or restrain your words. I’m asking Him to do the same for me from Colossians 2:2–3:
[I desire that our] hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.