Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

The timing of telling

“I say, I say, I say, what’s the secret of great comedy?”

“Well, I don’t know. Tell me, what is the secret of great co-”

“Timing!”

Rimshot, smattering of applause. The old joke still warrants a chuckle, but it also reminds me of the secret of great communication. It’s all in the timing.

Whether it’s a personal confession or a public announcement, sometimes it’s better to bide our time than blast it out. Getting it off our chests or on the front page right now might make us feel better—because we have cleared our conscience, or scooped the opposition—but did it actually serve our intended audience best?

That’s not a determining factor in most of today’s media, which appropriately finds itself in the middle of immediacy. Who cares if we have got it right? At least we have got it first! When challenged about running a potentially inaccurate story, Michael Keaton’s daily newspaper editor character in the great movie, The Paper, famously declares, “We only have to be right for a day!”

That was almost twenty years ago; these days it’s a matter of minutes. The fact that we can correct and update things seems to give people more license to be wrong. That’s a bit of an unfair characterization of some reputable news establishments, but the practice of solid journalism is being sorely tested by the temptations of technology.

Nor is the tendency to instant disclosure limited to the mass media: Twitter and Facebook is all about what we’re doing and thinking—and, too often, what we’re doing because we’re not thinking—right now.

But just because we can spill the beans more quickly than ever, does that mean we should? Sometimes might it not be better to let them cook a little more? Less, later, might be more meaningful than lots, now.

Strangely, this seems to be the approach of the one behind the greatest story ever told. It intrigues me that, for the originator of the good news, Jesus sure spent a lot of time instructing people not to go and tell others what he had done. The gospels record how many of those he taught and touched were told to keep quiet about it.

It wasn’t an all-time embargo, of course. He may have cautioned the disciples at the time not to reveal his true identity (Mark 8:30), but he later instructed them to go and shout it from the mountaintops. And he may have charged some of those he healed to tell no one what had happened, but their encounters were recorded in Scripture for public consumption later.

It was all about the timing. Jesus knew that some things should be made clear only in “the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:10). As Proverbs 15:23 notes, “A word in season, how good it is!”

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