“The tongue has the power of life and death” Proverbs 18:21
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. This childhood taunt is as familiar as it is wrong. Sticks and stones may indeed cause physical harm, but words can certainly create even more damage. Proverbs is full of instruction on how to control and use the tongue, as well as admonishments against speaking carelessly or wickedly. In fact, Proverbs contains more than 50 verses addressing speech patterns. Two key attributes of speaking wisely are having a controlled tongue and a caring tongue.
Speaking Wisely: The Controlled Tongue
Controlling your tongue is all about knowing when to speak, when not to speak, and to whom you speak. How do you know when to speak into a situation?
First, consider if you have all the pertinent information. Do you understand the dynamics of the relationships involved? Do you have experience with the behaviors being discussed? Do you have knowledge of all the options and possibilities on the table? James urges us to be quick to hear and slow to speak. That is what this first point is all about. Speaking when you don’t know the details only makes you look foolish or worse.
Proverbs 17:28 informs us that even fools are considered wise when they keep their mouths tightly closed. In other words? Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Second, consider if you have something positive to add. Will your wisdom and perspective add something to the conversation? Can you possibly sway the direction of the outcome by mixing your calm, reasoned thoughts with those of others? If, instead, your contribution to the conversation will stir up strife, then reconsider giving your ‘two-cents’ worth, no matter how badly you want to speak.
Finally, consider your audience. Is it likely that what you have to say – even if Biblically sound and wise – will be like pouring gasoline on a flame (Proverbs 26:21)? Some conversations and conversationalists are too entrenched in their positions to hear a contrary point of view. This, unfortunately, is most aptly seen in conversations about politics, where civil discourse has become a lost art. But if you are reasonably sure that your comments will not create larger problems, feel free to add your viewpoint.
Speaking Wisely: The Caring Tongue
Knowing when and where to speak – or not – is half of the battle. Knowing what to say is the other half. Proverbs encourages us to speak with honesty, encouragement, and wisdom.
First, be honest. Proverbs tells us that God hates lying (Proverbs 6:16-19). That’s enough reason to avoid it. However, besides saddening the heart of God, lying will also cause problems and harm relationships.
Stick to honesty, but while being honest, remember to be gentle in sharing hard truths and tactful in addressing difficult situations. The oft-repeated phrase, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” is pertinent here. While being honest about the topic at hand, be sure that you are not speaking to build up your own reputation, but rather to give Biblically sound advice to those who may need it.
For example, if your adult child is making poor choices, you may want to have a talk with him. However, outright condemnation is not likely to result in a change of heart or action. Be honest and Biblical, but also be gentle and loving.
Second, speak encouraging words. Your words should not inflame opens sores – like salt in a wound – but be a balm to the injured person. Remember ‘sticks and stones’ hurt, but words can do more damage or bring healing. Encourage a Biblical response to the situation at hand, whatever it may be, while not neglecting to address the hurt feelings and wounded relationships that may exist.
“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24 (NIV)
Finally, speak with Biblical wisdom. Does that mean including a Scripture verse in every other sentence? No. James gives us the distinction between Biblical and worldly wisdom. The first is “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). In contrast, worldly wisdom is selfish, ambitious, unspiritual, demonic, and full of bitterness and envy (James 3:14-16).
If you want to know what to say in any given situation, pray for godly, Biblical wisdom. But before you get to the place where you need to speak with wisdom, be hiding God’s Word in your heart so that you have a treasure trove of wisdom to draw upon.
I’ve created a chart of key verses on speech from Proverbs. It’s available in the Resource Library. I encourage you to choose verses from that list – or other verses about speech from Proverbs or other places in Scripture – and start memorizing the ones that are most important to you right now.