June 24, 2007

The Nature of a Wise Person’s Words
Proverbs 10:19; Matthew 5:33-37

My 14-yearold daughter left for Europe yesterday to tour with a small orchestra for a few weeks. Before she left, I handed her a Visa gift card—not a credit card!—that she could use for meals and other necessities. When I gave it to her, she smiled and looked up at me as though she had just passed from childhood to adulthood. She had money in her hand to either use or misuse, and I had entrusted her with a new sense of responsibility.

In a familiar quote that has become one of my favorites, Mother Teresa once quipped: “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he did not trust me so much.” But he does. God hands us time, money and skills. “Use them well,” he remarks. He gives us opportunities and significant roles to play. “Live wisely,” he continues. But nothing he entrusts to us is more important or has greater potential for impacting others, either to the good or the bad, than this: the gift of forming and uttering words.

Our words, as we saw last week, matter deeply to God. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” according to Proverbs 18:21. By what we say and how we say it, we can heal or destroy, build up or tear down. So, Proverbs continues, those of us who want to live in accordance with God’s rhythm in the world must learn to speak wisely. When we do, our words will be truthful, selective, calm and timely.

The words of the wise, first of all, are truthful: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (12:22). So much of life, if you stop to think about it, is affected by our ability or inability to trust what other people say and by their ability to trust what we say. Picture the confusion and anxiety, for example, that result in a family when a child begins to lie, a parent acts deceptively, or a spouse is unfaithful. The resulting tension rises like the tide. “I wonder what he is up to tonight?” “I better not leave anything lying around the house any more.” When trust breaks down, virtually everything else goes right along with it.

The same thing can be said, of course, in virtually every area of life. Teachers check sources to ensure that students hand in work that is really their own. Security officers at the airport root through luggage because a straightforward answer no longer carries any weight. Juries are left to wonder, if not guess, which witnesses can be taken seriously. Code numbers appear on credit cards to lessen the risk of identity theft. I felt the pain of this first-hand when I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, several years ago. My new credit card was accidentally sent to me in Kenya rather than hand delivered by someone who was coming over to visit. It never arrived. When I contacted the bank back here in the states, several fraudulent transactions had been posted to my account. My credit card had been stolen in the post office in Nairobi and sold on the black market, and I was actually able to track down one of the receipts at a local travel agent. I held it in my hand—a receipt for a tour of Amboseli Game Park for four people—and the thief signed my name on the slip. I’ve never felt more violated in all of my life. Imagine how life would be different if people simply spoke the truth. Godly people—wise people—do.

The words of the wise, secondly, are selective: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (10:19). This is not to say, of course, that we must all take a vow of silence, as have various Christians throughout the years, or remove all unnecessary words from our daily conversations. Sometimes the most life-giving words are random comments or quick one-liners that either alter our perspectives or put a smile on our face. No one appreciates the gift of wit more than I do! What it does mean, however, is that we may very well need to do surgery on selected aspects of our speaking habits.

Some years ago, the great Jewish novelist, Chaim Potok, spoke at Messiah and gave what I still consider to be one of the finest oral presentations that I have ever heard. As part of his talk, Potok briefly described the writing of one of his great books, The Promise. As I recall, and I may not have the details exact, the first draft of the novel was some 1300-1400 pages in length. Eventually, Potok sharpened the ideas and tightened the language until the final draft was a mere 400 or so pages! Needless to say, he got rid of a lot of worthless words in the editing process.

Proverbs calls us to edit our words, too. As we edit, we will delete:
boasting: “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth—a stranger, and not your own lips” (27:2). Don’t practice false modesty, but don’t use your words to toot your own horn.
nagging: “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife” (25:24). The same thing applies, by the way, to a contentious husband!
gossiping: “A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler” (20:19). Gossiping involves idle or casual chatter, whether truthful or slanderous, about other people for no constructive reason.
arguing: “The beginning of strife is like letting out water; so stop before the quarrel breaks out” (17:14). I’m amazed at times at what people argue about—who said what, when they said it, and who did what to whom. While we should not run away from meaningful conversations and healthy debates, even if they are painful, we must at times bite our lips when certain items of discussion simply do not matter.

Deb and I learned something about argumentative words the hard way when we tried to take the Apostle Paul’s instructions seriously: “…do not let the sun go down on your anger,…” (Eph. 4:26). Earlier in our marriage, we’d at times find ourselves in escalating debates just before bedtime, and we’d beat each other up in our efforts to dissolve our anger before the sun went down! Imagine the newspaper headline the next morning: “Couple no longer angry at each other. Funeral arrangements to be made by….” Then we figured it out. One of us—the more sane one at the moment—would simply say to the other: “We’re tired and this is important. Can we come back to the issue tomorrow morning when we are feeling rested?”

The words of the wise, thirdly, are calm and composed. Words spoken out of a groundswell of emotion and in the heat of the moment are rarely God’s words. Words spoken without careful listening and thoughtful reflection are far more often harmful than helpful. “If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame” (18:13). Take the time to listen, catch your breath before you speak, and pay attention to your signals. If you are the type to form conclusions before the other person even finishes a thought, or if you are easily moved to intense emotional levels and your mouth moves before your brain ever has the chance to get in gear, admit it. But don’t use it as an excuse to keep running over people with hurtful and uncontrollable words. Practice the discipline of keeping your mouth shut for 10 seconds or more before responding. Pay attention to yourself.

I’ve long been struck by the manner in which both Gideon and Jephthah responded to what was essentially the same situation. In Judges 8, the people of the tribe of Ephraim were offended because they felt left out when the Israelites fought against the Midianites. “How dare you exclude us,” they said, “for we are among the greatest tribes in Israel.” Gideon, in response, caught his breath—he probably choked first!—and a moment later gently reminded the Ephraimites of just how helpful they had been to him. When he said this, the writer informs us, “the anger of the Midianites against him subsided” (v. 3).

Sometime later, Jephtah was in the same position that Gideon had been in earlier. Once again, the Ephraimites felt excluded—it must have been a kind of tribal inferiority complex or something—and they complained to Jephthah. Jephthah, not known for either reason or self-control, never stopped to think. Instead, he suddenly blurted out, “We were engaged in the battle, and none of you came when I called you. So stop fussing and complaining!” Sadly, the writer admits that some 42,000 people died in the in-house skirmish that followed. “A soft answer turns away wrath,” Proverbs 15:1 suggests, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

And finally, the words of the wise are timely: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is” (15:23)! Proverbs 25:11 captures the same sentiment in this way: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Wise people pay attention, not only to the words they speak, but to the situations in which they speak them. We might, for one thing, offer words of advice or correction that are perfectly sound and understandable, but say them at the wrong time. True words can be very painful to hear in the best of moments, but downright devastating in the worst of times. Offering a word of correction to a person who already feels beaten up, for instance, may not be nearly as helpful as an encouraging word that enables the person to regain a sense of confidence or stability. Come back to the instructive or corrective word later when the person is in a healthier frame of mind and can hear and listen.

Or, we might, with the best of intentions, offer explanations or fuzzy words to hurting people, words that backfire and make things worse. As I drove to visit with Mike and Linda Kelly on Wednesday night—they had just lost their son in a bizarre tragedy—I felt anxious as to what I ought to say. Two competing memories went through my mind. I thought first of some of the crazy things that people say to each other at times like this in our desperate attempts to relieve the pain. “God is planting a heavenly garden,” someone once said to a friend of mine who had just lost his baby daughter, “and he wanted your little girl to grow there.” Please, give me a break! And I also thought of the age-old Jewish tradition in which the visitor allows the mourner speak first. “What do I say?” I asked myself. “Be slow to speak.” At one point, as Mike shared what had happened to Shawn, I looked at him—I had never met him before—with hopes of answering his questions and solving his theological dilemma: “God didn’t cause this to happen. Awful and inexplicable things happen in our fallen and broken world. God will get you through all of this.” But all I could say was, “Mike, I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through, but this stinks.” And he looked back at me and simply said, “Yea, it really stinks.” And we moved on together from there. Simple words that fit the moment.

Words, the book of Proverbs reminds us over and over again, matter. They are powerful, both to bring about good and evil, and their effects often last for years and years. What a mystery, no, an act of confidence on God’s part, that he would even allow us to speak. Take your words seriously. If you, like me, want to live in accordance with God’s rhythm, then speak truthfully. Speak selectively. Speak calmly. And speak in a timely fashion. If you do, your words will become part of the life-giving, creative process through which God is restoring this hurting world.