The other day, something I saw on the Internet made me angry.
I know, I know. It’s the common disease of our century. If we all had a dime for how many times we got irritated by something online, we’d all be able to quit our jobs.
In any case, I decided in that moment to respond. I clicked on the comment box and prepared to leave a polite-but-scathingly-honest comment that would let the writer of the article know, in no uncertain terms, precisely what I found objectionable about his piece.
And then I didn’t.
I sat there, stared at the blinking cursor, then sighed and shrugged and clicked off the comment box. I visited another website. And within fifteen minutes I had forgotten about the article entirely to the degree that, now, I can only remember that it irritated me, and not who it was written by or what it was about.
That realization surprised me. At other times, irritated by something, I’ve commented or shared the irritation with friends or family – “Can you believe this dumb article?” – and the offense has subsequently lodged within my mind for hours, gnawing at me, sometimes even affecting my mood. But by refusing to engage, it washed over me like water, there and then gone, ephemeral.
The Bible speaks a lot to and about restraint. We are commanded to restrain our tongues, our sinful nature, our baser urges. We are urged to bite back nasty words and malice and speech that is not edifying, encouraging, or righteous. We are told repeatedly that only fools babble ceaselessly without thinking. Hold back, the Bible insists. Hold back. And we do, assuming often that our “holding back” benefits others: that it shields them from our scathing comments, our backbiting snark, our meanness, our deceptiveness.
And it does. But restraint benefits us, too.
We live in a modern world where we often feel like we have to engage with everything. New headlines and scandals every fourteen seconds demand that we express our immediate opinions. With the internet, we all have a bully pulpit where we can tell the world whatever we think about anything in particular. In our relationships, in our friendships, we’re encouraged to spill out whatever pops into our head no matter the moment. Speak, commands the world. Speak, speak.
I am starting to realize that there is a special blessing in holding back. When you refuse to engage with something and you restrain yourself, that something loses a bit of its power over you: it doesn’t affect your mood like it would otherwise, doesn’t control your thinking like it would otherwise. When you pull back from a confrontation, from a snippy word, from rambling thoughts on something not-so-important-really, you’re avoiding a whole mess of complicated entanglements, of drama, of wasted time and wasted breath.
Maybe more importantly, exhibiting restraint reshuffles our priorities. When I take the time to engage with something, I am acknowledging that in some way it is worthy of my attention or time – it is a thing on which I desire to spend energy. Jesus commanded me to spend my time and energy on Him, mostly. On people. On love. On service. Not on internet comments and badly-written articles and trivial debates and drama and arguments and anger.
Restraint in our speech and our manner does not just bless the people around us. It is a blessing for us, too. It prevents us from getting caught up in the noise of worldly trivialities. It keeps us from expending our energy on the things that don’t really matter so much. It helps us to keep our priorities in mind, and to dismiss without guilt or anger those things which do not line up with them.
The next time you see the cursor blinking in the comment box – or the next time you find yourself ready to jump into the chasm of debate or confrontation – contemplate what you’re doing. Do you really need to speak? Whom will your speaking benefit, really? What will the cost and the reward be, if you engage? And what will be the result if you don’t?
Remember, restraint is a blessing. And sometimes it is the best gift we can give ourselves.