If death and life are in the power of the tongue, how do I bring life with the things I say to others? Let me suggest a few things, all from the book of Proverbs.
Good words are few. The Lord’s Prayer is only 56 words long, but the Department of Agriculture needed 15,629 words to discuss the pricing of cabbage. It’s not using many words that makes a difference; it’s using the right words. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who retrains his lips is wise.” The more we talk, the more we sin. It could be misleading information, thoughtless advice, sarcasm, or expressions of pride. The wise person will use words sparingly. The Quakers used to put it this way, “Never break the silence, unless you can improve upon it.” Another proverb makes the same point with irony. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is counted prudent.” Strong, silent types are NOT always wise, but we usually think they’re wise, especially compared to those who are constantly spouting off. Words are like dollars. As we print more dollars, they become inflated and the value of those dollars goes down.
Good words are true. Proverbs 12:22 says, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, But those who deal faithfully are his delight.” The contrast here is between those who lie and those who deal faithfully. To lie is to deal unfaithfully with those around us. Think how our society depends on truth. What would it be like if we couldn’t believe what we read in our newspapers? At the heart of journalism is a commitment to tell the truth. How would you feel about that over—the—counter medicine if you couldn’t trust what’s on the label? What about sports? We know how important it is not to cheat. Play by the rules or the whole thing falls apart. In relationships there is no community or friendship apart from truth. Where there is no truth there is no trust and where there is no trust there is no real community.
Good words are fitting. It’s not just enough that words are true. It’s possible to say something that’s right and true but totally inappropriate. Good words are also fitting. Words that are fitting are timely and appropriate. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word.” An apt answer and a timely word are easily recognized by the response that they invoke. They bring joy and delight to the hearer. To speak words that are fitting requires that we think as much about where and when we say something as what we say. Think back to words that have harmed you in the past. They might have been true, but chances are they came at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Good words are fitting words.
Good words are calming. Proverbs also says that good words are calming words. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” A gentle, soft and tender word calms a situation that’s about to get out of control while a harsh word just makes things worse. Here is a secret about how to deal with potentially explosive situations. Your spouse is angry at you because you got home late from work. You’re irritated because you did everything you could to get home early, but all you want to do is sit down and read the paper. In a slightly accusatory way she tells you she needs some help in the kitchen and why won’t you ever talk to her. You don’t feel like doing either. But how you respond may be the difference between a tense moment that blows over and World War III. Good words are words which by their tone and content defuse a situation.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, and often negative impact of words. He often asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!” Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”
Most of us would have to admit, that’s me. So the real question is, how can we tame our tongue? Complete mastery of the tongue is impossible for any of us, but we can make progress. We don’t have to go through life tasting the bitter fruit of an out of control tongue. Proverbs says a number of things about this as well. I will write of that in my next post.