If we are to live wisely, if we are to be skillful in the way in which we make our way through this world, if we are to embody in flesh and blood the image of a godly and happy life as that life is described to us in the Word of God, making something genuinely worthy and fruitful of our lives to the blessing of ourselves, our families and others and giving glory to God, there can be no doubt that one area of behavior that must be made subject to wisdom is our speech, both the uttering of words and the hearing of the words of others.
Speech is the great power of human life. It is a power so remarkable that if we weren’t so used to it and take it so much for granted, we would stand utterly amazed, dumbfounded at the power we wield through speech every hour and every day of our lives. Noam Chomsky, certainly no conservative creationist, but known from his work at MIT as the father of modern linguistics, got himself into hot water with the evolutionary community a few years back by admitting that there is nothing like the power of speech in the rest of the natural world; that human beings are, as he put it, “hard-wired for language,” and that no one has ever suggested a remotely plausible pathway by which such powers could have been produced by undirected biological processes. Whether the baby is born in China to speak Mandarin, in Kenya to speak Swahili, in Denmark to speak Danish, or in the United States to speak English, the child by instinctive imitation learns to form words and sentences and to reduce his or her thoughts to words and to communicate those thoughts to other minds by speaking the words in the order and grammar appropriate to that language. Utterly remarkable! Utterly mysterious! But it is the power that is possessed by every human being.
And this power is the stuff of human life. It is by the spoken word (and eventually the written word) that we communicate with one another. It is this power that makes a distinctly human relationship possible, the expression of love as humans experience love; it is this power that makes education possible, and culture and civilization possible. Everything we take for granted about our lives as human beings depends upon the power of speech. It is the chief instrument of human life, this power to communicate thoughts in words.
So if we are going to live a good life, a useful life, and, in particular, if we are going to live a godly life, our speech must be submitted to and so controlled by our Christian faith. It must be governed by the law of God and motivated by the love of God and man. If speech is the chief instrument of our lives, then it of all things must be distinctly, obviously, and intentionally the speech of a Christian!
But, what is also obvious is that our sinfulness, human fallenness affects nothing so obviously as it affects our speech. The Bible is full of this melancholy fact. In a famous passage in James 3 we read that “no human being can tame the tongue;” it is “a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
And no one has to read very far in the literature of Christian spirituality, that is, the practice and experience of the Christian life, before he comes to some statement either acknowledging the difficulty of taming the tongue, or of taking the sin out of our speech, or the impossibility of being godly if one is not godly in one’s words. What a mess we make with our words and what good we so often fail to do when the right words were there to be spoken and would have made such a great and good difference.
Here is Alexander Whyte on a subject virtually every great Christian writer tackles sooner or later. [Walk, Character, and Conversation of our Lord, 244-246]
“A holy man used to say when he returned home from a night of table-talk that he would never accept such an invitation again, so remorseful did such nights always leave him; so impossible did he find it for him to hold his peace, and to speak only at the right moment, and only in the right way. And, without his holiness, I have often had his remorse, and so, I am quite sure, have many of you. There is no table we sit at very long that we do not more or less ruin either to ourselves or to some one else. We either talk too much, and thus weary and disgust people; or they weary and disgust us. We start ill-considered, unwise…topics. We blurt out our rude minds in rude words. We push aside our neighbor’s opinion, as if both he and his opinion were worthless, and we thrust forward our own as if wisdom would die with us. We do not put ourselves into our neighbor’s place. We have no imagination in conversation, and no humility, and no love. We lay down the law, and we instruct people who could buy us in one end of the market and sell us in the other if they thought us worth the trouble. It is easy to say grace; it is easy to eat and drink in moderation and with decorum and refinement; but it is our tongue that so ensnares us. For some men to command their tongue; to bridle, and guide, and moderate, and make just the right use of their tongue, is a conquest in religion, and in morals, and in good manners, that not one in a thousand of us has yet made over ourselves.”
And, fact is, the damage we have far too often done with our words is too often never repaired. We can’t repair it, either because we don’t even know that damage was done or because the wound we caused was too great and hurts too much, or because the opportunity to repent and restore either never appeared or was missed when it did. Someone’s reputation was harmed by the words we spoke and sometimes harmed in the minds of people who neither know the person nor will ever meet him. Gossip we spread is then spread by others still farther and wider and no one can collect all the ill-reports even if he wished to do so. Our words have spread dissension and then the division between others takes on a life of its own and can’t be undone.
The story is told of Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595) that he once gave an unusual penance to a novice who was guilty of gossip, a sin hardly one in ten thousand is not guilty of. Neri told the young monk to take a feather pillow to the top of the church tower on a blustery day and there release all the feathers to the wind. Then he had to come down from the tower, collect all the feathers dispersed far and wide over the countryside, and put them back into the pillow. Of course there was no way for him to do it; he could collect only a few of the feathers, not enough to remake the pillow, and that was Neri’s point, driven home in an unforgettable way. The sins of the tongue, however easy to commit, are terribly difficult to undo.
No wonder then that Proverbs should have so much to say about our speech, what it ought to be and what it must not be. I told you last week that by one count there were 84 verses in Proverbs that dealt in some way with money. Well, in my Bible I have 111 verses underlined in yellow, the color I use to identify verses having to do with speaking and listening: more than ten percent of the whole.
Speech is as important as it is, in the first place, because it is an index of your character. It doesn’t take a person very long to realize that the words a person speaks – at least over time – reveal the inner man or woman.
“On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found…” [10:13]
“The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters…” [18:4]
The connection between the soul and the mouth is too immediate to be able to control at all times. If a person never thinks of some people or some things, his speech will usually be bereft of those people and those things; if a person is always thinking some things, sooner or later his speech will disclose the fact. If a person has a judgmental heart, his words will sooner or later give it way and if a person is kind, loving, and sympathetic, we will know that also from the words he or she speaks. If a person is humble or proud, materialistic or other-worldly, thoughtless of God or attuned to the glory of God, the fact will almost always be disclosed sooner rather than later by his or her speech. And the same will be disclosed by the way one listens to the words of spoken by others.
But speech is also so important in Proverbs because so much good or harm can be done with our words.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
The sense of that last line seems to be that one will “eat” the consequences of his words according to whether his words are good or bad. Those who love life will speak one way and his words will bring life, those who love death will speak accordingly and produce results accordingly. [Waltke, ii, 86] So, for example 13:3:
Consider the good done by the right kind of speech:
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!”
Or 21:23 and 28:
“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”
“A false witness will perish, but the word of a man who hears will endure.”
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” [12:18]
And, on the contrary, sinful speech spawns trouble of every kind.
“A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.” [18:6-7]
“If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.” [29:12]
So what are the characteristics of wise, of godly speaking? Well, the Bible has much to say in answer to that question, but if we confine ourselves to the teaching of Proverbs we can mention these:
- It is honest.
You remember Diogenes, of 4th century B.C. Athens, one of the founders of Cynic philosophy, who was famous for stunts, such as walking about Athens in the daytime with a lamp explaining that he was trying to find an honest man. Cynic philosophy is not the same thing as cynicism in the modern sense of the term, but all of us have become cynics in that latter sense because real honesty, genuine honesty, is so hard to find. We now fully expect our politicians to deceive, if not to lie outright; we don’t expect the truth from a television newscaster or a newspaper columnist. We live in a world awash with propaganda and a world changed by the discovery that in a media age such as ours brazen lies often, if not usually, work better than the truth. When was the last time a politician or a newscaster, or a commentator, whatever his politics, said something like, “Now, I want to be careful not to misrepresent the situation in any way. There is, of course, a sensible argument to be made on the other side. Here it is and here is why I disagree with it.” By the time he finished the third sentence the television audience would be asleep. The systematic misrepresentation of things for the sake of an advantage may be normal but it is not biblical; it is not wise to tell lies or to get a reputation as someone whose word cannot be trusted. Genuine honesty is a beautiful thing in large part precisely because it is so rare.
“Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.” [12:17]
“Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord…” [12:22]
“Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.” [24:26]
“A faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies.” [14:5]
“A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” [26:28]
Perhaps it is especially true that a wise man speaks the truth about others. He is especially scrupulous about the truth when it concerns someone else besides himself. He doesn’t lie about himself, of course, but he considers it a matter of the greatest importance not speak of others in a way that is untrue or that he does not know to be true.
- Wise speech is also sparing of words, reticent, self-controlled.
Speech being as hard to control as it is, as subject to our flesh as it is, again and again the godly learn that, in general, the fewer the words they speak the happier and holier they will be.
This is a major emphasis in Proverbs.
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” [29:11]
“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” [13:3]
“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” [21:23]
“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” [15:28]
“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” [29:20]
And, most famously, 10:19:
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Or, in other words, keep your mouth shut and let people indulge the illusion that you have something to say instead of opening your mouth and proving to them that you don’t! Proverbs is very emphatic on this point. Most of us talk too much and a great deal of the harm we do to ourselves and others would not be done if only we talked less. Woman Folly, for example, is loud! She talks all the time.
What is more, when you constantly give vent to your thoughts and attitudes without careful reflection and thought and preparation, you put yourself in the power of someone who has the wit to expose your words for what they are. I am sure that has happened to all of us at one time or another: someone has made a riposte to the things we have said and we have been immediately ashamed and embarrassed. The famous story is told of George Whitefield who, once before he began to preach, was handed a note upon which was written but one word: “Fool!” Whitefield described the note to the great congregation and then said, “I have often received notes of abuse with no signature, but this is the first time I have received a signature but no note.”
At his clandestine seminary which was moved from place to place as they hid from the Nazi authorities in pre-war Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made it a rule that the brothers were not aloud to speak about one another in any way if the other man were not present. No matter what motive a brother might claim to have, no matter how high-minded he may appear to be, or intend to be, the fact is conversations so often take a turn and it is simply better not to have them at all behind a brother’s back. [Life Together, 91-92] If we did this we would have to cringe far less when reading Pascal’s remark that if only our friends knew what we have said about them behind their backs, we wouldn’t have four friends left in the world!
I’ve always remembered the remark made by Wellington, the English general, about Talleyrand, the French statesman. “He is not lively or pleasant in conversation, but now and then he comes out with a thing you remember all the rest of your life.” [Cited in Paul Johnson, Napoleon, 99] Or, if I may paraphrase, “If you want people to hang on your words, don’t utter so many of them.”
- Third, wise speech is kind.
Our great calling in life is to love God and our neighbor. But what we sometimes forget is that the primary instrument of love (as of hatred) is speech. Many more people feel the power and glory of love from words that are spoken to them in the same way that many more people are deeply harmed by words than are ever shot or knifed or beaten. We may say that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” but the truth is the reverse. Words do terrible harm and there a great many people – you know them – who suffer all manner of alienation and confusion and heartbreak in their adulthood because of words that were spoken to them when they were young or words that were never spoken to them when they were young. Words can do terrible harm and harm that endures for a lifetime. Words are the hands and feet of both love and of hatred. And, in some ways, words are worse because while a broken bone can be mended, the harm of words sometimes goes down so deep it can never be got out. A Jewish sage once compared the tongue to an arrow. “Why not use another weapon, a sword, for example?” the rabbi was asked. “Because if a man unsheathes his sword to kill his neighbor, and his friend pleads with him for mercy, he may be persuaded to return the sword to its scabbard; but an arrow, once it is shot, cannot be called back.” Remember, it was the Lord Jesus himself who compared cruel words to murder!
And think of this: someone brought this to my attention as I was reading the other day how much words spoken and written had to do with the awful experience of African American slavery in our country. If words used to identify African American slaves had been changed, if they had been words of respect, honor and equality the institution of slavery would have been ended much sooner than it was and without a cruel war. Spoken words, probably more than anything else, made the slaves seem even to people we would describe as “decent people” in their minds less worthy of respect, of protection and of the honor due to a human being made in the image of God. How powerful words are to bless and to hurt!
“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” [12:25]
“A gentle tongue is a tree of life,….” [15:4]
“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.” [10:11]
“The lips of the righteous feed many…” [10:21]
“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” [16:24]
“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” [17:9] Even Bertrand Russell, whose own ethics left much to be desired, was perceptive enough to observe that “nobody ever gossips about other people’s secret virtues.”
“Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” [27:5] In other words, if you wish to love and to be seen to love another you must open your mouth and love that person with your words.
“There are those whose teeth are swords, whose fangs are knives…” [30:14] The mouth can do a lot of harm to others, or it can do a lot of good. So the wise man or woman must intend for his or her words to do good; he must make a point of employing them for good, and must guard his words to make sure he takes the harm and hurt out of them. A wise man or woman knows that it matters not only whether the report that you are spreading is true; it matters as much with what gracious and loving or jealous or hurtful intention you spread it.
- And, of course we could go on at some length listing the characteristics of wise and skillful speech as Proverbs describes it.
- It is constructive. “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.” [31:8] In other words, use your speech on purpose in the service of others. But don’t throw it away. “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.” There is a great deal of argument that is utterly useless and should never be indulged in. It does no one any good at all.
- It is humble. “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” [27:2] Self-deprecation is the next best thing to silence, unless it is obviously contrived and masks a false humility. Wise men, in fact, have made a practice of self-deprecating speech. I love remarks like Chesterton’s who, after he got very heavy, once remarked to a friend that “Just the other day in the underground I enjoyed the pleasure of offering my seat to three ladies.”
- It is gentle. “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” You don’t have to shout to be heard or to influence others.
- It is apt. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” [25:11] “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” Of course, you have to be thoughtful about your words to speak aptly; both measuring what to say and when to say it. “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” [27:14] One wonders what words were exchanged last week in that Rotterdam apartment early in the morning that led to the knifing of Seattle Mariner’s outfielder Greg Halman. The timing of words can be everything; literally the difference between life and death.
And then, of course, there is the counter-responsibility of a right listening to the speaking of others. To drink into gossip is as bad as spreading it in the first place. To give ear to a critical word about another is as bad as having said it yourself and, in many if not most cases, if you listen to the remark you will repeat it to someone else and become the tale-bearer yourself. What is more, the most effective way to shut up hurtful speech is to refuse to listen to it. A man who speaks wisely will also speak wisely to the fool who is speaking badly. “I’m sorry, I have no business listening to this” or “We shouldn’t be talking about someone who isn’t here to defend himself” or “You really ought to take this up with him or with her.” [Jack Collins, Syllabus, 82]
You remember Shakespeare’s Othello. There is no more vile or evil villain in all of the bard’s plays than Iago, whose evil was perpetrated almost exclusively through words, words that others had to be willing to believe for them to do the damage Iago intended. Iago wanted to destroy the Moorish general for having bypassed him for a promotion. Knowing Othello’s jealous nature, he spread the report that Othello’s new wife, Desdemona was having an affair with another man. The charge seemed preposterous at first, but the rumor was repeated often enough by enough people that soon Othello believed the slander and murdered his beloved in a rage, only almost immediately to learn that Iago’s words were a lie. For Othello, “hell,” as an old adage has it, “was truth seen too late.” He was as guilty as Iago for drinking into the gossip he heard. It is a principle we ought all to live by: never to believe gossip; always to assume it is untrue!
Johann Albrecht Bengel, the godly German Lutheran Pietist, is famous as a biblical commentator for his Gnomon Novi Testamenti, in English, Notes on the New Testament, first published in Latin in 1742 and then in many editions thereafter. It is one of the most influential biblical commentaries ever published and in Latin it is a masterpiece of compression. No one said more with fewer words than Bengel.
His comment on the Lord’s remark in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged…” takes but four words: “sine scientia, necessitate, amore.” The judgment the Lord is talking about, the passing of judgment that he is forbidding, is any judgment that is offered without knowledge, without necessity, and without love. If you don’t know the facts, if there is no particular need for you to pass judgment, and if you can’t do it without love for the other person, then keep your mouth shut. Four words. I think we could well summarize the teaching of Proverbs both regarding speaking and listening with those same four words: without knowledge, necessity, love.
I don’t know about you, but so much of my regret in life – and I have a great deal of regret! – has to do with the words I spoke or the words for cowardice or cluelessness or unconcern or a hard heart I didn’t speak when I should have and could have. According to Lloyd Jones, “Look back and think of the times when you were unhappy and you will find that it was almost certainly due to something you said and which you regretted perhaps for days.” [BOT 275-6 (Aug/Sept 1986, 7-12]
Consider this remark of a Scottish man about Alexander Smellie, the 19th century Presbyterian pastor and author,
“…after almost fifty years of friendship I can testify that I never heard him say a word of anyone that was ungenerous or unworthy.”
You know, I have known people of whom I could say the same thing. This is not something beyond us, brothers and sisters. I say, I hear such a remark about a man and think immediately how much I wish I deserved to be remembered for such an astonishing self-control and mastery of my tongue. How pleased the Lord must have been with such a life. But it is to just that kind of mastery of our words – the intentional deploying of our words in order to accomplish holy things – that Proverbs is after in all its teaching. Wisdom is the submission of our speech to the honor of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is, after all, one aspect of the Christian life that, however difficult to achieve, is not at all difficult to grasp. In one respect this is an extraordinarily difficult part of the Christian life. It is difficult because the distance from mind and heart to mouth is so short. But, in another respect, this is a simple part of true godliness and wisdom. I mean, it is simple to understand. It is not difficult to explain what in fact our speech ought to be. It is to be our goal that the words of our mouths be pleasing in God’s sight and convey love and useful information to our neighbor. It will mean, it must mean that we speak less than now we do, but how satisfying to speak so well. Four words: without knowledge, necessity, love. Take out the bad speech and then work to sanctify the rest.
It is our principle instrument of life so it ought to be a principal intention of our lives to be wise and skillful here of all places. Winston Churchill once said, “Words are the only thing that last forever.” He wasn’t a Christian and got that wrong, of course. There are many things that last forever. But words are chief among the things that last forever, so let’s be committed, for our Savior’s sake, to make the words we speak worth remembering forever.