One of the great lines in the Psalms is spoken by Moses in Psalm 90:12: “So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
The idea of the verse is that God’s people need to consider carefully and often the brevity of life – to “number” their days – and to live in light of that calculation.
However, there is another type of numerical calculation that believers in Christ need to make: the number of our words.
Not, of course, to literally know how many words we speak per day (around 16,000 on average, according to one study). But instead to realize whether we are intentional in our speech so as to honor God by the amount of our speech, and in particular the ratio of speaking to listening.
Scripture has a lot to say about the importance of the tongue. It can bring all kinds of trouble (James 3:2-12). Death and life itself are in its power (Prov. 18:21). We will give an account for every one of our words – even what we view as unimportant (Matthew 12:36).
But God’s word doesn’t just talk about what you say. Instead, it actually has several important things to say about how much you talk.
This might come as a shock for certain kinds of persons: the one who is “bold” in his witness; the one who wants to “bring God’s word to bear” on every situation; the one who is ready to preach a sermon to every person he comes into contact with.
To put it another way: It is easy to confuse true talking for godly talking. But they are not always the same thing.
And while there is no exact number that quantifies how much people can speak and still be acting with wisdom – relationships, roles, and certain speaking styles can determine a lot – it must not be said that Scripture doesn’t speak on the matter.
Here are a few reasons why Scripture says that this is such a real problem, followed by some suggestions to help you overcome the tendency to talk too much.
First, why is it such a problem to talk and talk (and, consequently, not to listen)?
- It is characteristic of evil people to be especially talkative.
The fool and the ungodly man is characterized by being unable to control his words. He simply says what’s on his mind. And the more he talks, the more likely he is to say something that he shouldn’t say – to reveal secrets (Proverbs 11:13) or to lose a temper (Proverbs 29:11).
- There are wise and foolish ways to say the same thing
Speaking truth is a good thing – it is, in fact, commanded in Scripture (Ephesians 4:25). But there is a way to do it that actually makes it more effective.
Proverbs 15:2: “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly.”
Note the contrasts:
- The wise man speaks knowledge; the fool speaks folly.
- The fool “spouts” folly – he is known by what he keeps on saying, like a mouth gone out of control.
- The wise man, on the other hand, knows how to make his words viewed favorably; the fool just gets it out there.
This last point is especially pertinent in light of the contemporary idea of “speaking out.” People are convinced that they need to “speak out” and say what they believe to be true, lest they be unfaithful to their cause. But why? Just because it’s true? Or does it matter how it is said, and whether it is worth saying because someone is actually made willing to listen to it? Proverbs 15:2 tells us that the way it is said absolutely does matter.
- A wise man does not necessarily say all that’s on his mind
Far from speaking simply because he’s right, a wise man knows how to play his cards. What does Proverbs say about this man?
Proverbs 12:23: “A prudent man conceals knowledge, But the heart of fools proclaims folly.”
The fool assumes that if someone doesn’t say something, he doesn’t know it. The wise man knows it is the opposite. There is always more he could say on a subject than he actually says. He doesn’t feel compelled to tell everything he knows on a matter, except perhaps in rare cases where such knowledge is specifically sought.
A wise man doesn’t overwhelm his conversation partner with a barrage of words until all that’s left in his verbal arsenal is the smoldering of empty truth casings. Instead, he fires selectively, seeking to make his knowledge hit the target as well as he is able.
- It displays lack of desire for actual knowledge
Very often one of the reasons why people feel that they should talk as often as they do is a self-analysis as wise and therefore worthy of being listened to.
But Proverbs once again says that such a man is actually completely wrong – in fact, he is acting according to folly:
Proverbs 18:2: “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind.”
A wise man wants to learn. He wants to grow. He wants knowledge and understanding. He realizes the general rule: the more he speaks, the less he will be able to hear and, therefore, to learn from others. Therefore, instead of talking so much, he labors to understand.
- It fails to demonstrate compassion
Christians are to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14). This is relatively easy when someone’s emotions are worn on his sleeve. But what about when the person isn’t quite so comfortable broadcasting his feelings everywhere (Proverbs 14:13)? What about when he doesn’t tell you how he’s doing unless you actually ask?
The constant talker will regularly miss out on being able to care for other people because he won’t know what they are going through. He is only concerned with himself and, perhaps, with other people’s opinion of himself insofar as it can bring him some benefit.
- It can display a love of self that exceeds love of others
How are we to look out for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4) when we do not even really know what their interests are? We can have a general idea, but knowing specifically how to serve them demands listening, rather than simply talking.
So how do you know if you are talking too much?
Here are three simple suggestions to find out whether you are intentionally trying to love other people in your conversations with them:
- Consider your ratio of questions to statements in conversations.
I recall multiple conversations with a fellow seminary student who continually asked me questions about myself. If the more interesting or more insightful person had been the one to make statements, it would have been him in a landslide. But he was selflessly taking an interest in me and learning about me – and in the process making for enjoyable conversation. If all he did was talk about himself, which he could have easily done, it would have gone nowhere.
Seek to listen to what people are saying and ask questions based off good listening. Listen to them, learn from them, care about their needs, rather than simply using other people as a sounding board to get thoughts off your chest or to affirm your wisdom.
- Ask those who are honest with you if you are a good listener
Ask your spouse or your close friends – ones who will actually tell you the truth – whether they think you are a good listener, or whether your conversations are just one-way streets.
You may need to be extra careful here, as your first response may be to get defensive and not listen to their answer either! But hear them out – you need someone to level with you and actually help you get an honest assessment of yourself.
- Think actively during your conversations about whether you are dominating or whether others are getting approximately “equal time”
Has the other person had a chance to speak in the conversation? Does he show interest in you speaking as much as you are? Is he nodding silently at you for the 12th consecutive brilliant point you are making in the last 10 minutes of monologue? Be self-aware and consider others as more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3).
God can change the heart such that even a man’s speech is redeemed. It is possible to do even something as difficult as this! So wherever you stand in working on this issue in your heart, there is hope for you in Christ.
What have you done to help control your speech and improve your listening in love? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.