Have you ever said something you’ve later regretted? And have you ever been on the receiving end of hurtful, unkind comments? I’m sure you have. But has there been a time when you’ve said something that’s brought encouragement to someone? And have you ever been a recipient of a remark that’s lifted your spirits and left you feeling on top of the world? No doubt you have. You see, words are powerful. Whether they’re encouraging or discouraging; helpful or harmful; true or false – they are powerful. Indeed, they’re so powerful that, according to the Old Testament book of Proverbs, words can bring death or life. They can break the spirit or they can have a therapeutic or soothing effect. Either way, we can choose our own words. And if we want to use our words wisely, we’ll need to make some important choices.
This is the sixth message in the series, “Wisdom for the Way” which focuses on the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Now, if you’ve been following this series over the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that wisdom is a predominant theme of this book. We saw that the foundation of wisdom is a healthy fear or reverence for God. We were reminded how important it is to choose wisdom over folly. We learned that wisdom is ‘seeing with the heart’ and that wisdom is at the root of contentment. And last week Vijay pointed out that acting rightly, and with integrity, is the wise strategy for living well. Well, today, I want to look at how wisdom can impact what we say, as we consider “Using our Words Wisely.” What I thought I’d do is build an acrostic from the word “WORDS” where each of my points begins with each of these letters in turn. So, I have five points and supporting verses are mostly drawn from the New Living Translation.
#1: WAIT BEFORE YOU SPEAK
Imagine the scenario… You’re in a company of people and one person is dominating the conversation. She has everyone’s attention as she expresses her opinion on a topic that’s obviously dear to her heart. But you know that much of what she says is inaccurate. Do you dive in as soon as you get a chance and put forward your more informed view? Or… do you wait before you speak and ask yourself, is this conversation sufficiently important to merit a response? If it is, what do I say and how do I say it? Should my words be general or specific? Casual or detailed? You see, Proverbs 15:28 begins, “The heart of the godly thinks carefully before speaking…”
Many years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Alan Redpath speak. He was a well-known pastor and author in his day. And he was the first to put forward the idea that, before we speak, we need to apply a “think” filter – T.H.I.N.K. Another person who likes acrostics! T – is it true? H – is it helpful? I – is it inspiring? N – is it necessary? K – is it kind? Alan Redpath certainly didn’t let himself off the hook. If what he had to say failed these tests, he decided, “I will keep my mouth shut!”
Sometimes we can be too absorbed in our own ideas or have little regard for what someone else is saying. And, as a result, we speak prematurely. We don’t wait to hear the facts. Whenever we do this, here’s how Proverbs 18:13 rebukes us: “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish”.
I recently came across this helpful illustration. I don’t know who said it, but this is what they said… “If I offered you a $100,000 to jump out of a plane with no parachute, would you do it? I bet you said no. But what if I told you the plane was on the ground? Moral of the story… Know all the facts before you open your mouth.”
And this reminds me of a verse in the New Testament book of James. He’s addressing Christ-followers and he says this: “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry”. Someone has said we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. Good advice, yes? We need to wait before we speak by thinking carefully, taking time to listen, and not being too quick to hear the sound of our own voice. Wait before you speak. Right, the next letter in our acrostic is O…
#2: OPT FOR HELPFUL WORDS – You know, there are many things in life over which we have no control. But this doesn’t apply to our words. We can choose what we say and how we say it. It’s no use trying to excuse ourselves after an outburst by saying, “Well, if you were in my situation, you’d have said the same thing!” or “I couldn’t have answered in any other way because he just made me so mad!” But, we really can choose what we say and how we say it… Now, in case you think I don’t have any difficulty with this, I need to tell you I find the second part of Ephesians 4:29 quite a challenge. This is what it says… “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them”. But in what specific ways can our words be good, helpful and encouraging? Well, the book of Proverbs comes to our aid. Let’s take five examples of helpful words…
- First up, helpful words are healing words. Here’s a great proverb: “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing”. Many people in our world, some of them known to us, desperately need healing from wounds inflicted by someone making cutting or stinging remarks. I find it amazing to think that, if we use our words wisely, we could bring much-needed healing to a psychologically wounded person.
- Helpful words can also be gentle words. Listen to this one: “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare”. When you’re faced with an angry person, they probably don’t expect you to respond with gentle words. But here’s what my friend, Mary Lowman, says… “If you speak with gentle words, you can dissipate someone else’s wrath. Just a gentle tone of voice, quiet and controlled, tends to calm someone down when they’re upset or angry.” Worth heeding, yes?
- Another example of helpful words are kind words. How about this proverb? “Kind words are like honey…”
I recently bought a jar of Manuka honey – and it certainly wasn’t cheap! But a friend had very enthusiastically bigged up the health benefits of this particular food. So, I thought I’d give it a try. Not sure if I feel any healthier, but it does taste good! Now, I’ve no idea what kind of honey the Proverbs writer was thinking of when he made that statement about kind words. But he goes on to say they are “sweet to the soul and healthy for the body”. Never underestimate the value of kind words.
- Next up in the line of helpful words are refreshing words. “…wisdom flows from the wise like a bubbling brook”. James and I quite like walking, but when we were students, we used to go for really long, long walks in the holidays. And, after trekking for several miles, we’d get hot and thirsty, particularly if it was summertime. We never thought to take bottles of water with us, so it was a great relief when our walk took us near a river or a brook where we could drink our fill of cold, pure, refreshing water. And when we use our words in a wise and helpful way, they can be like “a bubbling brook” that refreshes a person whose experiences of life have left them dry, parched and withered.
- And, last up, helpful words are truthful words = “Truthful words stand the test of time, but lies are soon exposed”. But sometimes truthful words can be hard to hear because they don’t always make for comfortable listening. This is why we need to be particularly careful to always speak the truth in love. Never harshly, never insensitively, never self-righteously. But always lovingly. Not in a slushy, soppy, sentimental way but with love that shows respect to the other person and looks out for their best interests.
So, in our quest for using our words wisely, we’ve had WAIT BEFORE YOU SPEAK and OPT FOR HELPFUL WORDS. Next up is the letter R…
#3: REJECT HARMFUL WORDS = “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me.” Some of you may remember that little saying and perhaps even chanted it in the school playground. But words can hurt us. The book of Proverbs says they can trap us (6:2). They can pierce us (12:18). They can crush us (15:4). And they can even destroy our friends (11:9).
But one of the most harmful use of our words is gossip. This is one of the most dangerous forms of speech and I don’t think we treat it half as seriously as we ought. To begin with, gossip isn’t always true. Perhaps there’s an element of truth in it somewhere, but it’s often exaggerated and embellished with various imaginary details, particularly if the story is repeated over and over again. We might think we have a news item on good authority, but do we ever bother to check out the facts? And here’s something else… Gossip can blacken a person’s good character. We hear a snippet about someone and perhaps we find ourselves saying negative things about that person that we wouldn’t dare say to their face. Proverbs 11:13 contrasts a gossiping person with a reliable person. This is what is says: “A gossip goes around telling secrets, but those who are trustworthy can keep a confidence”.
I had a great-uncle who was a painter and decorator. He was a very popular choice whenever anyone in the town needed their walls papered or their woodwork painted. Why? Because he was highly skilled in his work? He was, but the main reason for his popularity was that he was known as a tradesman who refused to gossip. And, as a result, his customers trusted him because they knew that if he wasn’t going to tell tales about other people, then he wasn’t going to tell tales about them either! Unlike a gossip, he showed himself to be trustworthy and could keep a confidence.
But, you know, gossip can also be divisive. Proverbs 16:28 says that “gossip separates the best of friends”. And gossip can be very appealing. The New International Version expresses it like this in Proverbs 18:8… “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels…” Gossip can be tasty, juicy, but damaging. Let’s commit to using our words wisely by rejecting harmful words and part of this will mean we don’t give gossip any house room.
So, WAIT BEFORE YOU SPEAK; OPT FOR HELPFUL WORDS; and REJECT HARMFUL WORDS. The next letter in our acrostic is D…
#4: DECREASE WHAT YOU SAY = Would you like to be a wise person? Well, one Proverb tells us that “a truly wise person uses few words…” while another says, “Too much talk leads to sin”. You know, the more we talk the more likely we are to say something wrong. It seems that, if we talk excessively, it will only be a matter of time before we slip up. I find this is particularly true when negative emotions are running high. For example, if I allow myself to feel irritated about something, and decide to comment on it, I need to state my case with as few words as possible. If I don’t do this, I’m likely to get more and more wound up with every extra word I say and perhaps end up having to apologise at a later date for having said something unkind in the heat of the moment. Ever been there? So, “too much talk leads to sin.” Well, what’s the remedy? The second part of this verse tells us… “Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.”
Some of you might remember a story I told you a while ago. I was five years old and in my first year of school. As usual, I was talking and when my teacher told me to be quiet, my surprised response was, “But I talk all the time at home!” “Well”, she answered, “you’re not to talk all the time at school.” She then put me out of the classroom where, as a punishment for talking, I had to stand by myself in the corridor. You see, I hadn’t yet learned an important biblical truth that there is a time to be quiet and a time to speak.
Using our words wisely requires us to be intentional, not only when it comes to how much we say, but also about our choice of words, tone of voice, and where or to whom we say things. I reckon King David, author of many of the psalms, must have been aware of the danger of speaking without adequate thought and consideration. He says in one of the Psalms, “Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips.” You know, this is a great verse to pray if you’re about to enter a particularly sensitive situation or when you might be tempted to speak on something at great length when fewer words would do.
How’s our acrostic going? Let’s see… WAIT BEFORE YOU SPEAK; OPT FOR HELPFUL WORDS; REJECT HARMFUL WORDS; and DECREASE HOW MUCH YOU SAY. Our final letter is S…
#5: SAY NOTHING
Sometimes saying nothing is the best thing we can do. I’m not talking about situations where it would be cowardly or dangerous to keep quiet, but there are occasions when silence might be the most appropriate response. Proverbs 21:23 is quite similar to a verse we mentioned earlier, but slightly different. It says, “… keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble”. But this can be so difficult because we can be uncomfortable with silence and feel we need to say something – anything – in order to feel at ease. But, it’s very easy to say something in the heat of the moment and then regret it at a later date. It’s like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube – once it’s out, it’s out, and can’t be put back into the tube again.
One scenario when it might be best to say nothing is when we’re wrongly accused. And a very natural reaction is to try to defend ourselves and point out that the accusation is completely false. Now, a lot depends on the circumstances and so we need wisdom to know how to respond in each situation. There’s a well-documented story about the famous 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon. He and his wife used to sell eggs that their chickens had laid. Some close friends and family thought they were entitled to free eggs, and because the Spurgeons insisted that everyone had to pay for the eggs, they were accused of being greedy and materialistic. But they said nothing in defence of themselves. They were prepared to silently bear false accusations until eventually it became known that all the profits from the egg sales were set aside to support two elderly widows. You see, the Spurgeons didn’t need to justify their actions or to broadcast the reason for selling eggs rather than giving them away. They said nothing because they knew what they were doing was good and right, even if their accusers didn’t.
But we have an even greater example of the wisdom of saying nothing in some situations when we consider our Lord Jesus Christ as he stood before Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion. I’m reading from the gospel of Matthew 27:12-14. But when the leading priests and the elders made their accusations against him, Jesus remained silent. “Don’t you hear all these charges they are bringing against you?” Pilate demanded. But Jesus made no response to any of the charges, much to the governor’s surprise. And similarly, when Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, Jesus said nothing to him either. So, perhaps we need to learn from our Lord that it really is okay to say nothing on some occasions.
We’ve been looking this morning at using our words wisely. I believe this is a huge challenge to many of us, myself included. It’s probably not something we can hope to achieve overnight. But it is something that, over time, has the potential to bring great benefit, not just to ourselves, but to the people we interact with. The bottom line, though, is we need help. Help from those wiser than ourselves, yes. Help from studying our bibles, yes. But, above all, if we want to use our words wisely, we need help from the one whom the bible calls the Word – with a capital W. Two books in the New Testament refer to our Lord Jesus Christ as the Word. One is the gospel of John where we read that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The other is the last book of the bible, Revelation, where we read “his title is the Word of God”. Who better to turn to for help in using our words wisely?