Passage: Proverbs 10:6–14
We are getting very practical this week in Proverbs 10 and looking at what wisdom says about how we use our speech. Proverbs talks more about how we use our words than anything else. There is something about our words that is so important that Solomon chose to include more instruction about how we use them than how we use our money, how we use our time, or how we use any other part of our body. And with four kids in my house, I’m starting to understand why. I spend more time in my house correcting how people are using their words than probably anything else I do there besides sleeping.
“You’re speaking too harshly, you’re speaking too quickly, you aren’t saying what you really want to say, now you’re gossiping, that’s a flat out lie.” If you’re going to speak like that could you at least close the door so the neighbors don’t hear? It’s so funny, we spent the first two years of these kids’ lives just waiting for the moment they first start to speak and the rest of it trying to reign in what comes out of their mouths. And Angela and I might need a little instruction ourselves at times. So, if you want to grow in how you use your words or are hoping to help others with the way they use their words, Proverbs offers a lot of help.
Words have power. We have all heard the old saying ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, that’s a stupid saying. It should be “Sticks and stones can break my bones (which will fully heal soon), but wounds from words might never heal.” I know it doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still better than the original. Words might not change reality, but they do affect the way we see reality. One word or even the tone behind the word can completely change the way we view another person, or worse, the way we view ourselves.
In the words of John Piper, “Words carry immeasurable significance: The universe was created with a word; Jesus healed and cast out demons with a word; rulers have risen and fallen by their words; Christians have worshiped through words of song, confession, and preaching. Even in our technological age, politics, education, business, and relationships center on words.”
In James’ letter he compares our tongues to a bit that steers a horse, a rudder that steers a ship, and a small fire that sparks a forest fire. It’s such a small thing, but it wields great power. So, what can we learn from Proverbs 10? Two things 1) the harm of unwise words, 2) the healing of wise words
The harm of unwise words
Unwise words can harm other people and they can harm you. This is basically how our passage breaks down. The second half of this passage tells us that if we are uwise with our words, it can cause great harm to other people.10 Whoever twinks the eye causes trouble,... the mouth of the wicked nconceals violence. … 12 Hatred stirs up strife, ... athe mouth of a fool brings ruin near.
This probably comes as no surprise. When we speak harshly to someone or about someone and it gets back to them, this creates wounds that can last a lifetime. I have heard people describe these kinds of words like a sword that goes in and comes out, but the wound festers long after the sword is gone. This is why Proverbs 12:18 says,18 cThere is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, - Pr. 12:18
If you beat someone down with your words, often, at some level, they will believe those words more because of you. If you use your words to highlight something that someone is already insecure about, the wound just goes deeper. If you make fun of someone’s figure or size or abilities or even their family background this can have devastating effects in their life. These kinds of words fall under the umbrella of breaking someone down and you can break someone down to their face or you can break someone down behind their back.
Some people are emotionally healthy enough or mature enough to be able to handle some of these kinds of harsh words, but other people are young enough, tender enough, or insecure enough that your words can drive them over the edge. I bet all of us in this room can remember something someone said to us when we were young that affected us for years. Maybe still to this day. I have had many counselling appointments where someone can go back to their childhood and isolate one thing their dad said to them as a child that wounded them up for years. Those of us who have children in our care, it is so important that we use the power of words to build them up and not break them down.
Proverbs 18 says Death and life are in the power of the tongue, - Pr. 18:21 Do you hear that? Words not only have the power to wound, but to kill. Unwise words can kill in two ways. First, they kill us by taking away the very thing that was meant to give us life: Relationships. Remember when I started I said that words have the power to distort reality. When we use words harshly or recklessly, we take away a little more of someone’s ability to see what is true. When we alter reality for someone by lying or gossiping, it puts barriers up between people. This is true whether you are speaking to the person or about the person. This is one of the reasons gossip is so dangerous and why the Bible says so much about it. You kill the relationship between the person you are speaking to and the person you are speaking about and the result is isolation. Proverbs 16 says, “ aA dishonest man spreads strife, and ba whisperer cseparates close friends. - Pr. 16:28
But, not only can they kill our relationships, they can actually kill physically. Certainly, you look across history and see bad rulers who would have people killed with one word. In ancient Rome, in the Colosseum after a battle, the crowd would wait for the Emperor to say one of two words: live or die. With one word, he could bring death. And our words have a similar kind of power. Our words can drive someone to take their life.
People do take their lives because of the things others say. Bullying has always been an issue, but now with social media, cyber bullying can happen at any time. It’s not limited to the playground or the lunch room. It now has a mass audience that multiplies the anxiety, stress, and depression experienced by the victim. Now the bully doesn’t even have to own what he or she does. Now, the words they use can be online from fake accounts where you can tag that person and notify everyone they are friends with. Kids, please realize how powerful your words are and be wise with the words you use in person, behind peoples’ backs, and online.
I think most of what I’ve said so far is largely understood, but what most people don’t realize is that unwise words don’t just hurt other people, they hurt you as well. This is the main point of the first half of the passage. but a babbling fool will come to ruin…. xa rod is for the back of him who ylacks sense... athe mouth of a fool brings ruin near. This word babbling is actually ‘lippy.’ Who knew ‘lippy’ was a biblical word. If you get lippy, ruin will come for you. There are two aspects to being lippy. The first is that unwise speech shows where your heart really is. Jesus said vfor out of the overflow of the heart his mouth speaks. - Luke 6:45 When you denigrate, gossip, slander, or abuse someone with your words, you are showing the true state of your heart.
But, when you vocalize these thoughts, it doesn’t only show the dark state of your heart, it actually makes it even darker. Vocalized words have this power to affect your very soul. Contrast it with confession. When we confess something that we have been hiding, it actually softens our hearts. That’s one reason that confession is so powerful. As the words come out of our mouths we feel the sting of whatever it is that we are confessing, but acknowledging the wrong we have done heals our guilty consciences.
In a similar way, when we allow unwise words to come out of our mouths it can actually harden our hearts. Here are some examples. As believers, we are called to believe the best in each other. But, if you choose to believe the worst and then communicate what you think to someone else in the form of gossip or slander, you will actually believe what you are saying more than before you said it. Or, if you dislike someone and communicate that to them with a heart to tear them down, you will actually believe what you are saying more than before you said it. If you say, “You’re an idiot, I hate you!” You said that because you believed it, but now you believe it more because you said it.
We have talked about how unwise words isolate other people from life giving relationships, but they also isolate you. As your heart hardens you are the one cut off. You are the one isolated and you are the one losing out. It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Proverbs 12 says An evil man is ensnared uby the transgression of his lips, - Pr 12:13
So, you might be thinking, well, if I hate someone, I just don’t need to say anything. Well, that’s part of it, but that doesn’t actually help heal what’s going on in your heart. It isn’t just that we need to not use unwise words, we need to use wise words. To state it in a different way, we don’t need to just stop using words in a negative way, we need to actively use words in a positive way. This is the second part.
The healing of wise words
Verse 11 says 11 uThe mouth of the righteous is va fountain of life, Remember Proverbs 18:21 says tDeath and life are in the power of the tongue, Both death and life. So, let’s see what wise words are from this passage and other proverbs and then how they heal. We are given some helpful clear aspects to wise speech in this passage. I’m going to identify five of them.
First, wise words are honest but nthe mouth of the wicked conceals violence. 6b Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, 9a Honest words are not deceptive. That is the key. We aren’t looking for words that are technically true. Did you brush your teeth? Yes. Today? Well, no. Did you call your brother stupid? No. What did you say then? I said he wasn’t smart. Ok, technically true, but still deceptive. We’ve said this already, but unwise words deny someone reality. They distort reality and prevent people from making good decisions.
And when you distort reality through slander, gossip, or lying you don’t get those words back. I’ve heard Allistair Begg tell a story about a woman back in the UK who went to her pastor and confessed that she had been guilty of malicious slander. Slander is telling lies about people. The pastor said, “I want you to go buy chicken feathers and place them at the door of all the people you’ve gossiped about.” So she did that and went back to the pastor and said, “I did it.” He said, “Ok, now I want you to go back the same path and gather up all the feathers, put them in a bag, and bring them back.” To which she said, “But, the wind has been blowing since I put them out and now they must be everywhere.” “Yes,” the pastor said, “they are. And so are your words. And you can be forgiven, but you can’t get them back.”
Wise words are honest. They give someone the right view of reality. They do not deceive. Second, wise words are humble. Verse 8 ,8 qThe wise of heart will receive commandments, I really think this is what is behind James’ admonition to be quick to listen and slow to speak. A wise heart looks for instruction before it looks to correct. A wise heart assumes the best in someone and if there is trouble, they ask good questions and try to figure out if they are the ones who are in fact wrong before leaning in to correct someone. A wise, humble husband hears his wife out before correcting her or defending himself.
Now, we can’t confuse humble with non-confrontational. This doesn’t mean we don’t ever correct. In our house, the main filter we used to use to know whether something needs to be said is this: am I being encouraging? I had to discipline one of my boys and he looked at me and said, “Well that isn’t very encouraging!” So, after that the filter changed to “am I building up or breaking down?” A humble person does confront when they know their heart is to build someone up. Humble words bring people together, but prideful words drive wedges between us.
Third, wise words are economical. That is, there aren’t more words than we need and the ones there are there are spent wisely.. In verses 8 and 10, the same phrase is repeated: but a babbling fool will come to ruin. Proverbs 10:19 says eWhen words are many, transgression is not lacking, fbut whoever restrains his lips is prudent. - Pr. 10:19
Now this is a weird thing for me to talk about when I preach twice each Sunday morning. I know someone who said, “Oh, Jim just talks for a living.” Well, I hope I do more than that, but talking is certainly a part of what I do which does put me at greater risk of using my words unwisely than, say, a librarian. The more words there are, the more chance something will go wrong. This isn’t saying that words are bad and we should just stay silent. It’s saying that we should not use more words than we need and we should be careful with the ones we use.
This is one of the main reasons I write out every word of my sermons. I used to go off script a good bit and that tended to not go well. It takes work to use less words to say the same thing. I love Mark Twain’s comment at the end of a letter to a friend. He said, “I’m sorry to have written such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” It takes work to be economical with your words, but when you do, each one counts more. We all know people in meetings who don’t speak that much, but when they do, you can hear a pin drop because people really listen.
I would also put under the umbrella of economy of words, reckless words or unguarded words. Words that aren’t thought out. They aren’t processed through the filters they need to be processed through. Words that you wouldn’t use if you had sat on them for a day. Emails you would not have sent had sat on them for one hour. Text messages that would be much more helpful if you had 30 minutes to breathe and think before sending.
but ea harsh word stirs up anger. - Pr 15:1 What does it mean to be kind? There are misconceptions around this word that make people oddly uncomfortable. Like being kind is some sort of weakness. I have an attorney friend who isn’t even a Christian and he’s an interesting guy because he’s one of the best trial lawyers in his field, but he has never once raised his voice in court and he has a reputation for always being kind. Kindness doesn’t mean you don’t say hard things, it means you do it in the most respectful way possible and often that is the most effective way.
When you speak to someone, there is a simple test for whether you are using kind words or not and it’s this: What is your motivation. If your motivation is to win, to be right, to break someone down, or to put them in their place, you're not using loving, kind words. Even if you try to hide your motivation, the words that come out still don’t qualify as loving and kind. You have to get your heart in a place where you are for them and that is when your words become kind and that is when they become more effective. If someone comes at me with harsh, hasty words, my walls go up and I struggle to give what they say weight. But, if someone comes to me to say something hard and I can tell that it pains them to have to say it, I’m going to respect them and what they have to say because I can see that their motivation is to be kind and loving to me.
Then, lastly, wise words are direct. Verse 10 10 Whoever twinks the eye causes trouble, and a babbling fool will come to ruin. When do you wink your eye? When you are signalling something sneaky. You aren’t coming straight out with what you mean. Proverbs 10 says The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool. - Pr 10:18 Again, there is no tension between kind speech and direct speech. They work together. I told the elders this in our last meeting, but direct speech is something that the Lord has really grown me in during my time here. My nature is to please people, to give them what they want. The worst form of Jim Davis is a politician, but God has given me....really over the past 18 months...not just an ability to speak more directly to people, but a delight in doing so.
For me, I think I really didn’t want to let people down. I didn’t want to disappoint them. But, there came a time when I realized that often the most loving thing I can do is to shoot them straight, even if I know they are not going to like what I have to say. All these things work together. Honest, humble, economic, kind, and direct words become powerful.
Going full circle now, remember how I said that not using words in an unwise way isn’t the key, but actively using them in a wise way is. As we use words to bless people and build them up, we are built up as well. We were designed to communicate in a way that blesses others and blesses us. Augustine writes about how we are made in the image of the Triune God, and from all eternity, the Triune God is communicating. Tim Keller said, “God knows within himself the absolute joy of perfect communication [that is, both blessing others and being blessed] and he made us in his image.”
But, we will alway be limited in how wisely we can use words because, remember, words come from what is in our heart. Proverbs 16 tThe heart of the wise makes his speech judicious - Pr 16:23
So, how do you change your heart? Well, first we need to see that our heart is sick. We are sinners. Why is it that we use words unwisely? Why do we deceive? Why do we flatter? Why are we indirect or prideful? Our unwise use of words shows our functional savior. It shows our real values. Why do I naturally shy away from direct speech? Because I want your approval. That’s my functional savior. One pastor says, “All of our heart problems become word problems.”
But Jesus never had this problem. Jesus was perfect in all his words because he was perfect in his heart. And Jesus went to the cross to receive the communication we deserve (God’s wrath) so we can receive the communication he deserves (God’s love). Jesus opens the channel of communication between us and God. If we believe in Jesus, God declares us to be every bit as righteous as Jesus himself. God then resides in us through His Spirit and changes our hearts AND the words that flow from them.
Our words show our need for Jesus and our words show our value of Jesus. God has given us a powerful tool in our words. But only in Jesus can we use them to their potential.