A handful of candy bars imploded my 7th-grade summer vacation.
On the first day of freedom, my best friend and I stood in the aisle of our 7-11 store, holding the money for our first Slurpee of the season. As we waited in the back of a long line, she studied the rows of candy lining both sides of the aisle. When the clerk began making change for another customer, my bestie slipped several candy bars into her open beach bag.
I quickly looked away, trying to breathe deeply and ignore my racing heart.
Eventually, we ordered our two slushies. But as I took my first sip, I noticed an unfamiliar bitterness. I felt it ooze to the bottom of my stomach, where it turned into sludge.
As we started for the door, the clerk put a hand on her hip. “Girls, you need to stop right there.”
My friend and I exchanged concerned glances and halted. We watched in horrified silence as the lady picked up a phone. “I’m calling the cops. One of you is a shoplifter.”
After what felt like an eternity, the local sheriff pulled up, lights flashing. As the automatic doors opened, my friend held the candy bars in front of her, offering them to anyone willing to take them off her hands. The sheriff escorted her to the parking lot as his deputy signaled for me to follow him.
“Why didn’t you speak up?” he asked me, using his most intimidating gaze. “Did you intend to be an accomplice?”
I drew in a breath. “Actually, I didn’t want to make my best friend mad.”
The deputy just shook his head and smiled sadly.
Walking home alone, I wondered the same question. Why didn’t I say something?
This is something I struggle with—even now. I fear making someone mad when they are wrong, and then I feel guilty for remaining silent. And I’m not alone in this. I have friends who hold things in because they don’t know how to speak up and remain gentle.
But when good people start making bad choices, it’s a slippery slope that usually ends in fallout. There can be very real—and very serious—consequences, far worse than your best friend getting grounded on the first day of summer vacation.
Do you feel this tension, too? I’ll be honest—sometimes in my frantic desire to avoid confrontation, I turn to God and ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
When we don’t speak up, we feel like we erode our sense of self-worth. We become engaged in a cycle of rationalizing behavior that takes us further from our values and ultimately, the person we don’t want to lose. We feel like we need to choose between our need for acceptance and our beliefs. We want to say something. And yet, our past experiences may have ended with harmful results. When we sense emotional danger, we react using these results. So, instead of risking damage to our relationships, we simply internalize the emotional fallout
Should You Speak Up? Five Questions to Help You Decide to Act
It’s so tempting to keep waiting and hoping for things to get better on their own. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. I’ve found the longer I ignore something that needs pushback, the firmer I must be. The following questions serve as a good guide for me when I am analyzing my role in this type of situation.
- Is something real at stake?
- Is someone hurting?
- Are my values threatened?
- Will I regret my inaction?
- Can I prevent further damage?
As you read through these, you may be able to answer each one of these questions without hesitation. And yet, you’re still unsure about your decision to go from bystander to advocate. I understand—your heart needs to be in the right place, too. You need to know what God desires.
Helpers are Meant to Be Advocates, Not Enforcers…Right?
The term “keeper” and “helper” are parallel in that they are both concerned with another person’s well-being. Both roles entail the tasks of safekeeping, guidance, and caregiving. As helpers, we cultivate our God-given assignments for growth and sustainability. This involves honesty tempered with compassion—even in difficult situations.
When we understand that we are caring for someone the way God desires, it becomes easier to use our voice. Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11. (NIV)
This verse turns me away from my fears and closer to Jesus. In fact, it nudges me to ask Him to be present in this process. I am reminded that speaking up shouldn’t be just about me—I’m helping someone in need, too. This takes away my desire to be right and replaces it with wanting to be heard.
Practice Makes Perfect…Or Does It?
If you sense some barrier still making you feel uncomfortable, I understand—speaking up involves risks. So, time for complete honesty—do you practice what you are going to say?
This may be the most important thing to avoid. When we start conversations in our heads, it is natural to make up how the other person will respond. This encourages us to project the outcome, and rarely do our minds create a blissful ending. The possibility of negativity creates a minefield filled with what-ifs that turn into renumerating thoughts. After circling around and around again, eventually speaking up just isn’t worth it. We end the conversation before it starts by remaining silent. We deny them the chance to hear us and respond—even if they are desperately praying for redirection.
On my long walk home that 7th-grade summer, I felt alone because I hadn’t found the courage to tell my friend, no. I kicked the stones in the street. I cried. I hung my head.
Seemingly, out of nowhere, my brother appeared, “Do you want me to walk you home?” (Word travels fast in a small town, especially when you’re 12.)
Overcome with relief that he believed I still mattered regardless of my mistake, I nodded.
He slipped his hand protectively over mine, as he gave me a reassuring half-smile. “You didn’t want to make her mad, did you?”
Now, when I hesitate to speak up, I remember my brother suddenly showing up during my walk of shame. He didn’t know what to say, but he said something. God gave him the right words, and He will give them to you, too.
With God’s reassurance, you can let go of your fear of the outcome and find the right words to express the truth in love.