Proverbs
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The Mouth – Part II

A few months ago, a buddy of mine texted in a group thread, “Darkest Hour.” “What a movie.” I used to watch as many movies as humanly possible, but over the last few years because of busyness and the Lord’s conviction, I’ve significantly cut back. So I hadn’t seen this movie. I knew what it was, so I checked it out on Pluggedin.org (a Christian movie review site) and decided I could watch this movie. Now at our house, we don’t have Wi-Fi or cable. So watching a movie means: A) Jen buys it from Amazon on her phone and we wait a day or two for it to be delivered B) We go to a friend’s house to watch it, or C) We head to a nearby Redbox and hope they have it. Those options have greatly contributed to lowering the number of new movies we watch. Redbox had the movie and before I returned it, I watched it multiple times.

This movie blew my mind! It’s the story of Winston Churchill taking up the role of prime minister in 1940, just as Hitler is invading Europe. Churchill, unlike his predecessor and some in his war cabinet, sees the Nazi threat for what it is. Some of Churchill’s cabinet, on the other hand, want to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany. The scenes showing the meetings are riveting. But what stands out in the movie are the speeches. True to actual historical events, in the first few weeks of Churchill’s time as PM, he delivered three of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. On May the 12th, in the House of Commons, he said:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind…You ask, what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.

The response to this rousing speech was muted. The prospect of war against the German forces made little sense, especially with the British army currently trapped at Dunkirk. Lord Halifax, who had seriously been considered to be Prime Minister instead of Churchill, pushed for peace talks with Germany. In a tense scene recounting a war council meeting, Halifax challenges Churchill with the real possibility of invasion. He confronts the PM, asking, “What is to stop Heir Hitler then, Winston…WORDS, WORDS, WORDS ALONE?” The line in the movie is almost prophetic, because it would be words that would essentially change the course of history as we know it. A few weeks later, on June 4th, in a speech that provides the climactic end to the movie, Churchill delivered a discourse which may have single handedly mustered the British people and their leaders to war. His speech included the famous, rhythmic lines:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing ground, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

In the film, Lord Halifax sits stunned by the speech and the raucous response. Somebody leans forward and asks, “What just happened?” Halifax responds, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” It’s a brilliant line and absolutely true. Words had been weaponized, for the good. Listening to the speech in the movie still brings me to tears. It is inspiring.

During those early weeks as Prime Minister, Churchill lived on the edge of despair. One biographer wrote, “It is impossible to believe that Churchill did not in those next few weeks’ experience moments of almost crushing dismay, that there were not indeed mornings when he did not awake feeling that he must have been mistaken, nearly insane, to have sought such a burden of supreme responsibility at a time when everything seemed more likely than not to go down into the abyss.” From that state of mind and heart, words seemed to rally him and his people to hope.

On June 18th, two weeks after the climactic speech that gave the ending to the film, Churchill gave yet another speech that one author likened to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In this defiant address, the famous line “This was their finest hour” was delivered in the face of the impending German attack. Outmatched and outgunned, Churchill superseded even the oratory skills of Adolph Hitler. The British people were inspired and five years later would be victorious. Churchill became a legend. The power of words as real actions and their ability to create real change is demonstrated in some of our own leaders, such as John F. Kennedy in his famous inaugural speech or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech or President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall” speech in front of the doomed Berlin Wall. Those words, even decades later, have power. These speeches, among others, demonstrate the power of words to motivate, encourage, comfort, create, destroy, and rally people to a cause.

Speech is one of the characteristics that separates humanity from the rest of creation. Not just the ability to communicate or comprehend, to a certain extent, some animals can do that. We can speak, listen, create, instruct, tell stories, and share jokes. We have hundreds of languages and countless dialects. Humanity is unique among creation. People, unlike the rest of creation, are made in the image of God. “God created man in his own image,” Genesis says, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We bear or carry the Imago Dei. We are image-bearers of our Creator.

One of the early attributes of God that we see in the Bible is speech. Creation begins with the phrase, “And God said…” (Genesis 1:3). Through the Genesis account of creation, that phrase is repeated. Each day of creation begins with “God said” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 14, 20, and 24). Through the power of speech, God created the entire universe. He created all the elements of our planet and everything in it with WORDS. The Scripture begins with the declaration of God and woven into the creation account is the power of words.

In the book of James, the half-brother of Jesus affirms the Imago Dei. He writes that “people…are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). The context of that phrase is talk and the power of the tongue. James writes:

“The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and saltwater? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” (James 3:5-13)

Outside of the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we are unable to tame our own tongue. James connects the activity of the tongue with words of wisdom. Our conduct, and more specifically our words, are essential to our Gospel witness. James lovingly confronts us by questioning the consistency of our words. Sweet and bitter words coming from the same mouth. Blessing God and while cursing His creation “ought not be so.”

As we looked at in the last chapter, words have immense power. They can be weaponized for wicked, destructive purposes or for good. The sage wisdom of Proverbs warns against the negative effects of words, but also offers the joys and benefits of a word fitly spoken. Ironically it does all of this using words! In the wisdom of Solomon, words have the power to instruct, persuade, and give life; also teaching us that the timing and tone of those words greatly matter and that sometimes silence is best.

INSTRUCTION

An instructor is a teacher. A teacher uses words to impart wisdom and truth. What a joy it is to have or be a teacher. In college, I had a professor who became a friend. Listening to him teach in both formal and informal settings is one of the great honors of my life. I remember asking him how he became so wise. He told me that shortly after he was saved while watching a broadcast of Billy Graham, he began to pray for wisdom. As just a teenager, he began praying daily for wisdom. His prayers had been answered and it showed. His instruction included great words of wisdom and counsel.

“On the lips of him who has understanding wisdom is found.” (Proverbs 10:13)

“The lips of the wise will preserve them.” (Proverbs 14:3)

 “The lips of the wise spread knowledge.” (Proverbs 15:7)

“The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the fountain of wisdom is a
bubbling brook.” (Proverbs 18:4)

“There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.” (Proverbs 20:15)

Part of instruction is correction. It’s honesty and genuinely constructive criticism, rather than destructive. I remember that same professor and friend confronting me on sin in my life. I will never forget his honesty, passion, and urgency as we stood in his kitchen. His words cut me deeply, but as a young man, they gave me hope that words could be both truthful and loving.

“Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverbs 27:6)

“Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.” (Proverbs 24:26)

“The word of a man who hears will endure.” (Proverbs 21:28)

PERSUASION

At first, the idea of being persuasive or winsome may seem wrong, even unbiblical or unchristian. Yet Proverbs encourages the wise to be persuasive, “judicious,” and have “sweetness of speech.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Tart words make no friends…a spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.” He borrowed that concept from Solomon.

“The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.” (Proverbs 16:21)

“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (Proverbs 16:23-24)

“With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” (Proverbs 25:15)

We may initially associate persuasive speech with lying or half-truths. Half-truths are still complete lies. That’s not what Solomon’s instructions are. Being persuasive and not manipulative has a lot to do with timing and tone. Yelling may motivate with fear and intimidation, but it sows the seeds of mistrust and can be abusive. The right word at the right time said in the right way can change the course of a conversation, negotiation, conflict, argument, lesson, or, in Churchill’s case, history.

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of fools pour out folly.” (Proverbs 15:1-2)

“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23)

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)

This is the opposite of “No-Filter” from the previous chapter. Rather than giving thought to the timing and tone of his words, No-Filter just lets it rip. By contrast, a persuasive speaker thinks less about just getting information out there and more about how his listener will best receive the information. A wise person is convincing, because they are reasonable, thoughtful, patient, and first willing to kindly listen to other points of view before speaking. This type of person is rare. They have a winning personality. They aren’t lying nor are they flattering. They are fiercely committed to the truth, but delivering it in the most clear, understandable, and palatable way. Acclaimed author, speaker, and leadership expert John Maxwell addressed this key distinction. He wrote:

I think of myself as a motivational teacher, not a motivational speaker. What’s the difference between the two? A motivational speaker makes you feel good, but the next day you’re not sure why. A motivational teacher makes you feel good, and the next day you know why and take action. In other words, the first kind of communicator wants you to feel good, and the second wants you to do good.

Truly persuasive people are people of substance. They give thought to the best setting and time to speak to someone. Paul wrote to the Colossian church, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). Gracious speech is having your listener in mind. “Seasoned with salt” is NOT salty talk. It’s a phrase that the original Greco-Roman audience would have understood. It’s the idea of being “joyful, even witty, for this is what salty speech meant in classical Greek.” This person will be engaging in conversation, witty, funny, charming, exciting, and legitimately have something to say. That’s the type of person Proverbs and Paul is instructing and challenging us to be, not boring, snobbish, uninteresting, one-dimensional, holier-than-thou conversationalists.

The ultimate goal being that through an engaging, persuasive conversation, our speech can be used to win people to Christ. Sadly, many Christians have abandoned the wisdom of Solomon for the lame, drab, uninspiring churchy talk that lost people find hollow and confusing. This isn’t a license to join in evil conversations. The last chapter addressed the foolishness of that kind of talk. Wisdom will lead us to be winsome and persuasive in our speech. I’ve learned and continue to learn what I call “The Three T’s of wise, persuasive speech:” Timing, Tone, and Tact.

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:7-8)

WORDS OF LIFE

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” That proverb has been translated in the Christianese phrase “speak life.” The basic premise, as I understand it, is to speak life-giving words of hope, healing, joy, peace, love, etc. It seems that the verse has been stretched well beyond the breaking point by some well-meaning believers. The tongue and the words that it speaks are powerful, but they are not all-powerful. Our ability to speak words reflects the image of God that we all carry, but it doesn’t make us gods or goddesses. Words have limits, both positively and negatively. Words do not create reality. They aren’t some divinely given Jedi mind trick. They do not have the power to call into existence what doesn’t exist. That power is reserved for God Almighty. The point of the proverb is to be careful with words. As we’ve noted, some people are reckless with words. On the extreme flip side, some people think their words have more power than they do. I have personally seen some Christians even afraid of speaking negative truths for fear that the devil and his demons will hear. The point of the proverb isn’t to create fear, but wisdom in the way we use words.

Words have the power to give life (keep that in its proper poetic context) and bring renewal. Words can bring comfort and encouragement to those who are in despair. Words can breathe life into someone who has lost hope and is ready to throw in the towel. The right words can renew their commitment. Great coaches inspire their players with a well-timed challenge. Teams that are nearly defeated rally to great victories often on the wings of words. The theme of the proverb is giving life to those who hear you. Do people leave a conversation with you feeling inspired, hopeful, encouraged? Do they leave feeling reminded of the Imago Dei? I’m always challenged by Acts chapter 17 where the Apostle Paul could have begun his sermon in Athens with a blistering, truthful rebuke of the pagan idol worship that was on full display. Instead, he began by complimenting their religious dedication and taking them to their connection to the one, true God by giving the creation story. He spoke life. Some, of course, repelled at Paul’s message and rejected the Gospel, while others were won to Christ through Paul’s kindness and charm.

“The tongue of the righteous is choice silver.” (Proverbs 10:20)

“From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good.” (Proverbs 12:14)

“The tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.” (Proverbs 12:25)

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 15:4)

“From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” (Proverbs 18:20-21)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

SILENCE

Finally, there is the saying we all heard in kindergarten, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Yet most of us refuse to accept that. We reject silence. We just don’t like the idea of “don’t say anything at all.” In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Sometimes it’s best to stay quiet. Don’t try to make something up or form a brilliant thought on the spot. It’s ok to stay quiet. Pastor and Author Kent Hughes writes, “The true test of a man’s spirituality is not his ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.” We often associate wisdom with words, but wisdom is also knowing when to stay quiet.

“Whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good…Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:2-3)

“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer.” (Proverbs 15:28)

“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.” (Proverbs 17:27-28)

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” (Proverbs 21:23)

“Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” (Proverbs 27:2)

CONCLUSION

Jesus gives us the perfect example of wise speech. He instructed His students (disciples) for three years. He traveled, ate, sailed, celebrated, and mourned with them. All the time teaching them about the Kingdom of God. He used stories that we call parables to simplify super complex, heavenly truths. The writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are filled with sermons, stories, and lessons that Jesus taught. He was their Rabbi, which means teacher. The teaching that the apostles and their students spread to the known world and beyond was just reiterating and explaining all that Jesus had taught them (Matthew 28:20).

The Gospel writers record Jesus’ winsome and persuasive words. The Lord called fishermen to leave their nets behind and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22). He called tax collectors to leave their lucrative, sinful lifestyles behind and embrace a nomadic life following Him (Matthew 9:9). He changed disciples’ names (John 1:42), political parties (Matthew 10:4), and ultimately commissioned these Jewish men to take this message beyond their known borders to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The crazy part is that they did! They changed the world. Not through political power or military might, but through the power of WORDS! The words, the message, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection changed the course of human history. Even if you don’t believe in the saving power of Christ’s death and triumphant resurrection, the power of the apostle’s words reshaped the globe and set the course of human history for the last 2000 years.

Following the resurrection, the Gospel of John records two events where Jesus speaks life to two struggling apostles. In John chapter 20, Jesus appears to Thomas who had been absent from Jesus’ first appearance on Easter Sunday. The Lord’s first words must have instantly calmed the stormy hearts of the disciples. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said. He then invited Thomas to examine His wounds and confirm for himself the truth of the resurrection. “Put your finger here, and see my hands,” Jesus said, “and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:26-27). Those words changed the course of Thomas’ life. Later in the very next chapter, Jesus recommissions Peter. Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” But the kicker comes later when Jesus re-invites the discouraged disciple to be a fisher of men. It’s an echo of Peter’s first calling. Jesus says, “Follow me” (John 21:15-19). Jesus, in those moments with Thomas and Peter, resurrected their faith and following of Him. He gave life to the deadness of their hope. He restored and renewed what sin, betrayal, and faithlessness had killed. Jesus spoke life.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who was a brilliant wordsmith himself, wrote of the coming Christ, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus the Messiah fulfilled this prophecy. In his mock trials, He refused to defend Himself. Matthew records, “He gave [Pilate] no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed” (Matthew 27:14). The Gospels are filled with sermons Jesus gave and conversations that Jesus had with people from all walks of life. Yet when He was accused, mocked, ridiculed, and threatened (1 Peter 2:23). He remained silent. God the Father was his advocate and judge and He was well pleased (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Jesus exemplified wisdom in words.

In Colossians chapter 4, Paul asks for prayer, specifically that “God may open to us a door for the word” (Colossians 4:3). He knew the words of the Gospel had power. He also asked that if and when that door was to open “that I may make [the Gospel] clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:4). Paul knew the words of the Gospel contained life-transforming, eternity-altering power. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote the Romans, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The words detailing the death of Jesus on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and His victorious resurrection from the dead offering eternal life is power. As that message was shared, person after person began turning from their sins, which is repentance, and following the risen Christ. As Christians, we must remember our words have power and that the word of the Gospel has divine authority to bring eternal life or seal a sinner’s fate in eternal death.


 
Claire, Belle, Maverick, Ruby, Mavis,

In our world of social media, non-stop news, and print…words are cheap. They are a dime a dozen. We need to make sure that the words we are speaking are meaningful, that we don’t over use them, and when we do use them, we use them wisely. We don’t just talk to talk. Proverbs 13:3 says, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” You have the opportunity to use your words to build people up or tear people down. This is a daily choice. You live in a house with four other siblings and Dad and me. We have a full house. It’s easy to be comfortable with people and just let your mouth run, not caring if those words are arrows piercing someone’s heart. I was a terrible sister. I never treated my sister kindly, especially with words. This is something I still repent of to this day, because I know now, that my words were used as arrows. Dad and I have worked hard at trying to teach you to be kind with your words. How many times have you guys argued with each other and we would make you stand and hug it out?  Countless! 

In the NLT, Proverbs 15:4 says, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Your words can bring life or death to someone. As we move about our day trying to reflect the light of Jesus, we should constantly be thinking about our words. Are they bringing life or death to the people we are talking to? When you speak to others are you building them up or tearing them down? When you’re in a hurry at the check-out lane is that person going to remember you because you were a tyrant with your words or because you took the time to speak to them, look them in the eye, and speak kind words to them?

When you guys were babies we would take your hands and rub them on our faces and say over and over, gentle, gentle. You were getting into the habit of ripping my glasses off, scratching my face with your nails, or just plain smacking me upside the head. So… gentle, gentle. We would continue to teach you and eventually you would understand. Our words are the same, when we start to use them and wield them we can be quite reckless and so, we must learn to be gentle, gentle. I for one don’t want to stand before the Lord and He tells me that I crushed the spirit of another person with my words. Is the Lord convicting you about your speech? Proverbs 16:24, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”  Start praying for the Lord to change your speech, to make it sweet as a honeycomb.

Love,
Mom


Questions for Reflection

Who was your favorite teacher growing up?

What lessons did they teach that stick out to you?

What’s the best piece of wisdom and instruction they gave you?

Be honest. When you hear persuasive speech, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

When was a time that you were persuaded by words? Motivated? Inspired?

What does “speak life” mean in Scripture? What should it mean to you?

When was a time that you should have been silent but weren’t?

How about a time where you bit your tongue and stayed quiet?
How’d you feel after? How’d your tongue feel after?

Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.” How is this statement fundamentally wrong? How is it kind of right?



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