Managing the mouth (the power of words) - Proverbs 12:13-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
‘I have a dream today’, so begins one of the most famous and effective speeches of the 20th century, that delivered by Dr Martin Luther King at the Washington Memorial ion August 28th, 1963. It is a speech that has been parodied and imitated but rarely bettered. It not only captured the mood of the moment, but was instrumental in bringing about a deep seated change in a deeply divided society.
Some thirty years earlier another charismatic figure delivered powerful and rousing speeches concerning his dream. In fact that dream turned out to be more of a nightmare. His name was Adolf Hitler.
What is the moral we are to draw from these two examples of heart gripping rhetoric? It is this: words are powerful. Those seemingly inconsequential marks on a paper or sounds of the larynx appear to be invested with almost magical powers in the effects they can produce. Words have the remarkable capacity to create or destroy, uplift or depress, heal or hurt, excite or bore. Of all the creatures on this planet, human beings alone have the ability to use sophisticated language to shape and mould their world. We use words to think with, to inform, to express feelings-our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, as well as to bring into being new states of affairs. Just think of how an author can create a populated imaginary world, the world of Narnia or Middle Earth, just by telling a story. Think of what happens at a wedding service when the groom and bride utter those two simple words, ‘I will’ in relation to the promises they make to each other. They are not describing marriage they are making a marriage.
So tonight I want us to think about words. Of course in order to do so we shall be using words, words primarily from Scripture and more specifically the book of Proverbs so that we can discover how a wise man or woman uses this great and potentially explosive gift- the gift of words.
The Power of Words
The Book of Proverbs actually begins in earnest with a call for us not to speak, but to listen, and to listen carefully to the words of a wise Father, who is in effect God’s spokesman, the author of all wisdom: Proverbs 4:1 ‘Listen, my son, to a father’s instruction, pay attention and gain understanding, do not forget my words or swerve from them.’ You see, God is primarily the God of the Word. He creates by a word-‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, God said, “Let there be…. and there was”. That is the powerful royal decreeing Word whereby unlike a human author who says ‘Let there be’ and there is the imaginary world on a page, there is a universe teeming with real worlds. He also reveals by a word. The phrase ‘Thus sayeth the LORD’ appears over 4,000 times in the Old Testament. And when God achieves the greatest communication coup of all time, it is as the Word enfleshed that he appears, as John reminds us at the beginning of his Gospel, ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us’. And it is by a Word that he rescues, by the Word of the Gospel and so Paul asks: ‘How can they believe in the one they have never heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ (Romans 10:14) The God of the Word, whose Son is called ‘the Word’ has made human beings in his image and integral to that is that we are creatures of the Word, those who are to submit to and rejoice in God’s Word, his promises and commands and to relate to each other by means of words. And so we should not be so surprised that so practical a book as proverbs which is designed to help us live in God’s world, God’s way devotes a fair amount of space to the right and wrong use of words.
The Work of Words
Now it might be helpful in order to get behind much of what Proverbs says about how we are to speak, if we get a handle on how words actually work, how they have the power to shape our beliefs, values and so our behaviour, leading to a transformation for good or ill.
Some insights have been given by the world of brain science and brain engineering theory. One illustration which helps us understand the effect words have upon the state of our brain and so our thoughts, is as follows: In the old railway shunting yards there used to be boxes of levers. When the levers were left in a certain pattern, the yard was ready to deal with the flow of traffic in a corresponding way, sending trains and trucks this way or that. Even if there were no trains in the yard at a particular time, the setting of the levers was such that they were ready to deal with traffic the moment it turned up. If the switches were changed then the ability to cope with the traffic was also correspondingly changed. This provides a kind of picture of what goes on in our heads when we communicate with each other. Words are like specially designed tools which have the ability to alter the switch settings of our brain, not necessarily so that we do something straight away, but get us to be prepared to act when necessary. For example, if I were to say to Lee, ‘Lee, I want to invite you to lunch next Sunday’, and he believed me, then his brain state will have been changed by those words of invitation so that he can respond accordingly. So he might have to the change plans he has already made so he can make it, or apologise because he has something else already arranged, or he finds an excuse because he can’t bear the thought of eating my cooking. Of course those words of invitation could have an effect on the imagination, especially if Heather was doing the cooking, so Lee starts to drool at the thought of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (of course, he would probably drool more if it were haggis!). The point is this, no communication is ever neutral, it will always have an effect, not necessarily the one intended but an effect nonetheless. Thinking is not neutral, looking, listening or speaking is never neutral – at the level of the operation of our brains, those ‘switch settings are affected. This has interesting implications for the effect of opinion polls for example- simply by taking an opinion poll can affect your opinion so that such polls can’t in principle give a picture of what people think had such a poll not been taken.
So given the profound way words literally transform our lives by affecting our brains and minds, just how should we go about using them?
The Use of Words
First of all we must make sure that they are true: Proverbs 24:26, ‘An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips’; 11:9, ‘With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbour, but through knowledge the righteous escape’; 12:22, ‘The Lord detests lying lips but he delights in men who are truthful.’ Why is it so important to tell the truth, apart from the obvious answer it is morally wrong? In part it is because in truth telling we, in our own character, made in God’s image reflect accurately God’s character for he is a God who cannot lie. He is the God who is always ‘dead straight’ in his dealing with us. He is not a God who pulls the wool over our eyes, he tells it ‘as it is’, even if the truth may, in the short term, be rather painful to hear. That’s one reason; truth tellers are like God in this respect. But the other part of the answer is that truth telling is absolutely fundamental to enabling us to have proper dealings with each other, to be able to relate healthily to one another. You see, to tell a lie, or distort the truth even ever so slightly, shapes the way people see things and so respond to things. Going back to the illustration of the railway yard and the switch settings of our brains- a lie changes the pattern of those settings so that they are out of kilter with the way things actually are and so will result in actions which are not proper. It is like changing a setting in the yard with the intention of sending a train down one route instead of another which it should go done, with the result that it ends up over a cliff. Of course that is why people lie- misrepresent the way things really are, so as to change the outcome of something in their own interests. And so people lie on their CV’s to ensure that they get a certain job; spouses lie to cover up a mistake in order to save face; politicians lie to justify a policy they have already decided to pursue beforehand, pastors lie, about the content and demands of the Gospel to get more converts and on and on it goes. And even the lie is often denied, which means covering up with another lie. We now have the situation where politicians can claim not to have lied; they have simply ‘misspoken’. But the end result is that societies become fractured as relationships become strained through lack of trust. For example, because of plagiarism, which is stealing as well as lying, universities have to have costly vetting procedures in place to check essays and theses. In the City and world of finance, it was the case until relatively recently that a man’s word was his bond and multimillion pound deals would be sealed on the basis of a mere handshake, that is no longer the case. And once distorting the truth becomes more and more common in society, more people feel forced to collude because without lying you will be set at a distinct disadvantage in a world of deceivers.
Speaking the truth, on the other hand, liberates and engenders relationships. To be given the truth, which is what God does in his book the Bible, is like being given a life map which has all the features marked in exactly the right place. This means you are going to be able to negotiate obstacles and get to your desired destination. Jesus prays for us in John 17, ‘Sanctify them in truth- your Word is truth.’ Isn’t a real friend someone who is honest with you, whose judgements and words you can rely? The apostle Paul calls on Christians to speak the truth in love, literally, ‘truthing in love’ (Ephesians 4:15), so of all places where one should be able to hear honest and truthful words it is amongst Christians. The Christian will not lie or bend the truth to suit her own agenda or set out to deceive. She will be careful to make sure that the words used are carefully chosen so as to reflect as accurately as possible the truth, especially if you have been given responsibility to teach the Bible- that is certainly one book you do not play around with! Truth is so precious it is to be guarded at all costs.
Secondly, words should be few- Proverbs 10:19, ‘When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.’ This might mean that we are to be wary of the smooth talker, the clever communicator, the one with the gift of the gab because chances are he is trying to hoodwink you. Or it could be that we are being urged to be more thoughtful in what we say; not to allow words to come tumbling from our lips in torrents, because chances are we shall say something which we will come to regret later on. The wise person will not only look before he leaps, but think before he speaks. In some ways it is a caution against ‘chatter’, words, words and more words. This is especially relevant today in the age of texting, blogging and ‘Face book’. It is now remarkably easy to write something and within seconds it is being read by thousands of people. Some of those things which relate to family life or even church life, perhaps should not be out there for the whole world and his Uncle to read-that is how confidences are broken and trust undermined. The same goes for emails, which have now come back to bite many a government minister, it is not always a ‘good day to bury bad news’. Much that appears on many blogs is, to be frank, hardly worth reading, but somehow we think the world really wants to hear what we have got to say. It was Andy Warhol who said that in the future everyone will have his 15 minutes of fame. Now by virtue of the blog anyone can have 15 hours of sounding off. It is ironic that we now live in an age where more and more is being said and less and less of it is worth saying. The world of chatter soon degenerates into a world of drivel.
The other problem with careless talk which is soon out into cyber-world is that so much damage can be done and it cannot easily be retracted. I have seen this with Christian blogs, Christians rounding on this or that Christian preacher cum writer which in turn generates more responses which if not downright untrue or certainly most uncharitable. And so the Bible warns- ‘The Lord is in heaven, and our words should be few for we shall be judged by our words.’
In the third place our words should be pure, Proverbs 12:18, ‘Reckless words pierce like a sword, the tongue of a wise man brings healing.’ Do you see the contrast? Reckless words are words spoken with abandon, thrown out in every direction designed to cut, demean, put down and so hurt. It is the snide remark, the unkind comment, the innuendo. It would also cover slander, that is when we cast doubt upon somebody else’s motives without checking things out, suggesting they have said and done things for which we have no basis whatsoever. But the kind of talk God is looking for builds up rather than tears down, brings people together rather than drives them apart. And some of the most impure words we can utter fall in the category of gossip- Proverbs 18:8, ‘The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down into a man’s inmost parts.’ That is, what is being said about someone seems so tasty, something to chew on and we so enjoy the taste of it. Eventually we digest it so that it becomes a part of us, the way we see things so it must be true. It has been suggested that if ever something is being said about someone and it comes your way, use the acronym THINK- T- is it true? How sure are you of the facts? H-is it helpful? Does knowing this and passing it on do any good to anyone? I-is it inspiring? Is this something that will serve as a model or as a warning? N-is it necessary? Does it really need to be said? K-is it kind? Or is there malice behind it all? If it fails these criteria-don’t listen to it and certainly don’t pass it on.
Finally, our words should be appropriate- the right words, spoken in the right way at the right time- Proverbs 15:23, ‘A man finds joy in giving an apt reply- and how good a timely word’; ‘A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger’ (Proverbs 15:1). One of the dangers we run in communicating in a sloppy way, not taking care in what we say is misunderstanding. Sometimes this can be quite amusing; here are some actual quotes from church publications: ‘Don’t let worry kill you- let the church help’ or my favourite: ‘The preacher for next week can be found hanging on the notice board.’
We are to find ‘joy in giving an apt reply’ which will mean wanting to ensure that we do it which in turn means taking time in formulating it. One of the weaknesses and strengths of modern communication is speed. Suppose someone has hurt you by what they said, or done something which you think is wrong. In the past, if such a person didn’t live near you, you could respond by writing a letter, if they did live near you went and spoke to them face to face. Admittedly some letters could be run off in haste, but sitting down to write a letter allows some time to ponder the situation, imagine how the person might respond to this phrase or that and so you would be careful in choosing the right words do get your point across. Now with emails we can respond more or less immediately, the email is written, and the send button is pressed and off it goes. Of course email etiquette is such that there are no polite introductions- it is simply name of recipient, content and name of sender- all very functional and so to be on the receiving end of such an email can be pretty harsh and bruising. The nature of the medium, unless used like an old fashioned letter, can actually cut across the wisdom of proverbs resulting in anger being stirred up. So what might we do?
First, it might be better using emails simply to communicate facts rather than feelings and if possible to follow up people by face- to- face contact.
Secondly, if we have to use email, then write out the email as one would a letter with as much of the human touch as possible, bearing in mind that it is a gentle, not a harsh answer which turns away anger.
Thirdly, don’t respond straight away, allow a few days to elapse and allow time to mull things over and perhaps let someone check out what you have written before you send it and get their response.
But some of these principles apply generally if we find ourselves in a potentially confrontational situation- the tone of the way we say things can be as significant as what we say. In short, engage the brain before moving the mouth into gear.
Words are such a wonderful and powerful gift from God and one of the things which make us most god-like. And so we do have a responsibility to use them properly. Could this be one of the reasons Jesus gave this most solemn warning: ‘I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matt. 12:36-37)?
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