Proverbs (4) — Speak Carefully

We continue this morning in our sermon series on the book of Proverbs, with a focus on wisdom. We said that the essence of wisdom is the ability to make good decisions. And since we all face a lot of decisions every day, we have a lot of situations where we are in need of wisdom. And we especially need wisdom in knowing how to live in a way that will truly honor and glorify Jesus Christ.

Someone has said, “Every decision you make in this life will have a consequence… sometimes good, other times bad…but always a consequence, so please make wise decisions.”

And so, we spent an entire lesson talking about how to make good decisions. And then, last week, we took one of those steps — taking godly advice — and we spent an entire lesson talking about that. Because there is some wisdom to be gained from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, but it is even more important that we learn how to get wisdom by learning from the mistakes of others, or learning from the wisdom that others are willing to share with us.

But, when it comes to being wise, when it comes to making good choices, there is probably nothing we could talk about that would be more valuable than what we’re going to talk about this morning. There is great wisdom in being able to say the right words at the right time.

Think about it. Most of our life is built around words. We’re always talking. We text words. We tweet and Facebook status words. We email words. We write words. We sing words. Words seem to be at the middle of everything we do. All of our relationships are built around our words. And so, most of the decisions we make in life involve words.
• How are we going to respond to someone who has hurt us? What are we going to say?
• Someone we know is going through a tough time. What are we going to say to try to comfort and encourage them?
• There’s gossip going around the office. What are we going to say when it’s our turn?
• What do we say to God as we worship him? What do we say to each other? What do we say to people we come in contact with every day?

Almost all of the choices we make in life involve our words. What are we going to say? And so, it’s not surprising that in this book that is filled with wisdom, Solomon has a lot to say about the words that we choose to speak.

I heard recently about a woman who said that when she was growing up, her parents came up with a way to keep her from talking all time. They told her that people are only allowed to speak so many words in one lifetime, and when they use up all of those words, they die. So, this woman developed a habit of using her words very sparingly. She said that she would often go an entire day without speaking a word, and at the end of the day, she would think to herself, “I just added one whole extra day to my life!”

Now, that woman may have survived her parent’s dishonesty, but I don’t recommend that you parents use this strategy on your own children. But I do think that it’s a good idea for us to teach our children — and for us to practice ourselves — the art of speaking carefully.

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about how we manage our words. Your ability or inability to control your tongue will determine more than anything else the level of success you will enjoy in your relationship with other people.

Solomon said, “Kind words heal and help; cutting words wound and maim.” (Proverbs 15:4, MSG)

If you can’t seem to say the right thing, and if you constantly seem to say the wrong thing, someday you will find yourself all alone, alienated from everyone in your life.

Now, there are some people who find it very easy to express themselves. We usually refer to these people as brilliant conversationalists. But we all know that there’s more to speaking effectively than being able to string a bunch of words together.

And there’s nobody who needs to hear that more than those of us who are preachers. If you ever want to know what I do during the week, most of what I do is to cut words out of my sermon. Because I understand that the problem with a lot of preachers is that they want to talk longer than people want to listen. And sometimes, they can talk for a long time without actually saying a whole lot.

Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 6:11 (NLT), “The more words you speak, the less they mean. So what good are they?” And that applies not just to preachers. We all know folks who can talk for hours on end without ever really saying anything. But the Bible teaches a very different approach to conversation. It teaches us to use our words sparingly and to make sure that the words we choose to speak are accomplishing something positive.

It’s not using a lot of words that makes a difference; it’s using the right words. And so, we all need to learn to speak carefully. Which is another way of saying that we all need to develop the wisdom to know when to speak and what to say.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But we all know that that statement just isn’t true. Physical wounds often heal long before emotional ones. In fact, there may be some words from your past that still haunt you. When you hear those words, your stomach churns. Or there may be some words that you really regret saying and you wish that you could take them back.

Words are powerful. Words like “I hate you” or “I love you” or “You’ll never amount to anything” or “I’m so proud of you” can change lives. Words can change history. Words like, “I have a dream” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

What Solomon said in Proverbs 18:21 is true, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” And the problem is that while our tongue contains such great power, we often have trouble controlling it.

James said that the tongue is the hardest part of our body to keep under control. He said in James 3:2, “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”

James makes the point that we don’t always have trouble with our tongues. In fact, sometimes we’re downright inconsistent. He said, “With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9).

And a lack of self-control when it comes to our tongue can destroy marriages, families and friendships. Solomon understood the harmful power of our words, and so he warns us about them repeatedly.

And I’m not telling you something new. Which among us has not thought at one time or another, “I wish I hadn’t said that”? Or, “I wish I could take those words back.” We’ve all suffered the consequences that come from making unwise decisions in regard to our words, and we have sometimes made the choice to use harmful words that have hurt us, as well as our relationships with others, and our relationship with God.

So, let’s take a look together at some of the things that Solomon had to say about making good decisions regarding our tongue. And the first thing Solomon says is this……

I. We should first consider not saying anything at all.

Someone has said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Whoever it was who first said that may have gotten that idea from Proverbs 17:28, where Solomon said, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

Proverbs 10:19 (NLT), “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.”

Proverbs 21:23 (NLT), “Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.”

Sometimes the best choice we can make is to just keep our mouths shut. The story is told of a state trooper who pulled over a man and his wife for speeding on a back road. Since there wasn’t any traffic and the weather was fine, the trooper told them he would let them off with a warning. He even complimented the man and his wife for wearing their seat belts. At that point, the woman leaned over and said, “Well, officer, when you drive the speeds we do, you have to wear your seat belt.” That’s when the trooper decided to write the ticket after all. Sometimes it’s best just to keep our mouths shut.

I want to share three things with you this morning that, if you will take them to heart, will absolutely change every relationship you have for the better.

First of all, understand that we don’t have to share everything we know.

Proverbs 17:27 (NET), “The truly wise person restrains his words.” Before we speak, we should consider saying nothing at all because we don’t have to share everything we know.

There’s a quote that goes back many centuries. Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: At the first gate, ask yourself “Is it true?” At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?” At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”

And that’s not a bad way to assess the value of our words. Is it true? Is it necessary? And is it kind? You may know something about someone, but just because you know it, and just because it’s true, doesn’t mean you have to share it with someone else. If what you say doesn’t build up others and bring glory to the name of Christ, then you’re better off keeping your mouth shut.

Second, we don’t have to say everything we think.

There are some people who believe they know a little bit more about every subject than anyone else, and they believe that it is their duty to share their opinion with you whenever the chance presents itself. And most of them seem to have a very active Facebook account!

And so, whatever subject comes up in conversation, whether it’s the stock market, computers, criminal justice, football, politics, or the price of tea in China, they believe that they have the first and final word on the matter. And, of course, they feel the need to share their opinion with you.

Some of you may remember a character on the sitcom Cheers named Cliff Claven. He was constantly saying out loud whatever he was thinking. No matter what subject came up in conversation, he had something to say about it. He was a self-proclaimed authority on anything and everything. And, because of that, he was also the object of a lot of jokes.

I heard someone say that in just about every group of friends there is someone like Cliff Claven. So, if you look at your group of friends and you don’t see someone like him, then you may be that person. We don’t have to say everything we think. We don’t have to share everything we know.

Third, we don’t have to repeat everything we hear.

Proverbs has a lot to say about gossip, starting with Proverbs 20:19 (NIV), “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.”

Proverbs 16:28 (MSG), “Troublemakers start fights; gossips break up friendships.”

One of the things that makes this so difficult for us is that it’s almost impossible for us to avoid hearing gossip. Because any time someone tells you something about someone else, something that happened to them, something that someone said or did, there’s a good chance that it’s gossip.

Someone may say, “It’s not gossip, it’s the truth!” But something can be true and still be gossip. The dictionary says that gossip is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

But I think a more biblical way to test whether something is gossip or not is to put it through the questions that I shared with you earlier. (1) Is it true? (2) Is it necessary?, and (3) Is it kind?

The problem with repeating gossip is that there is a good chance that what we heard isn’t completely true. And that’s not necessarily because anybody has evil intent. It’s just a matter of fact that any time someone shares something they heard from someone else, there is a high likelihood that something will get changed just a little bit.

Sueanne will sometimes share something with me she’s very concerned about and she’ll say, “This is what happened!” I’ll say, “Where did you hear that?” She’ll tell me, and I’ll say, “Keep in mind that this person heard it from that person who heard it from this person over there.” And so, the story you heard may or not be exactly accurate. The truth is, gossip tends to get embellished as it gets passed from person to person.

Proverbs 18:17 (NLT) is one of my favorite of all the proverbs. Solomon said, “The first to speak in court sounds right — until the cross-examination begins.”

We tend to throw down the gavel in our minds and declare, “Case closed!” after hearing only one side of the story — usually the side of a friend, or someone to whom we feel loyal. But wisdom demands that in gathering knowledge and examining facts, we always wait to form a conclusion until we hear both sides of the story.

Proverbs 18:13 (NLT), “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.”

It’s amazing how many times someone has come to me as a counselor and said, “This is what my husband or wife is doing, they’re treating me terrible.” But then, I get them both together and get both sides of the story and suddenly it’s a different picture.

Does anyone here recognize the name Richard Jewell? Jewell was the security officer who was the first one on the scene when a bomb exploded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. As is typical in situations like that, the FBI had some suspicions about Jewell because he was the first one on the scene, and initially they considered him a suspect in the bombing.

Now, the FBI was simply doing their job by looking at everyone. But, the media went wild with a story about how Richard Jewell was the bomber. Newspapers across the country wrote about how guilty Jewell obviously was. Even Tom Brokaw compromised his credibility by saying, “They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him. But you always want enough to convict him.”

But, as it turned out, Richard Jewell didn’t plant the bomb. In fact, he was actually a hero as he put his life in danger to save other people. A number of news organizations, including NBC, ended up paying him a large sum of money for the false statements they made about him.

But that taught us a couple of lessons. One of them is that just because Tom Brokaw or one of the other news anchors says something is true, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. We need to remember that even when we watch the news, there is a very real possibility that we’re only getting a fraction of the story.

Many of us, though, are quick to believe everything we hear or read, especially if it comes by e-mail. For many years, I sent out Thought For the Day to thousands of readers, and many of those readers wanted to put me on their personal e-mail lists, and they would occasionally send out e-mails about their outrage over this happening or that happening. Keep in mind that most of these people were Christians.

And every time I received one of those emails, I would take 30 seconds of my time to do a fact check on the Internet to see if what they sent was true or not. And, if it wasn’t true (which is most of the time), I’d send back an e-mail giving them a source for the truth with a note saying please don’t pass along things without checking first to see if it’s true. Sometimes, I would get an apology, but last October, when I sent someone a correction, I got back an ugly letter in response, which basically said you have no right to question me on this because I know it’s the truth.

We need to keep in mind that whenever we spread information about someone else that is not true, it’s not just gossip; it’s slander. And Solomon said very plainly in Proverbs 10:18, “Slandering others makes you a fool.”

But even if something is true, we still need to ask, is it necessary and is it kind? What am I hoping to accomplish by sharing this? Am I hoping to actually make things better, or am I just spreading what I know so that people will listen to what I say and think about how wonderful I am for being so knowledgeable? We need to apply the golden rule. How would I feel if someone was sharing this information about me?

In Proverbs 17:9 (NET), “The one who forgives an offense seeks love, but whoever repeats a matter separates close friends.”

Repeating everything we hear destroys friendships. That’s one of the reasons why we need to think before we speak and consider whether we should say anything at all. We don’t have to say everything we think. We don’t have to share everything we know. And we don’t have to repeat everything we hear. Sometimes it’s best just to be quiet.

As James said, we need to be “quick to hear” but “slow to speak” (James 1:9)

Proverbs 17:27 (NLT), “A truly wise person uses few words…”

Proverbs 13:3 (NLT), “Those who control their tongue will have a long life; opening your mouth can ruin everything.”

So, point #1 is that we should consider saying nothing at all. But, if we do decide to say something….

II. We Should Consider the Best Way to Say What Needs to Be Said

We don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes we do need to say something. And sometimes what we need to say isn’t very pleasant. But our words will always carry more weight if we will take the effort to say them in the right way. As Proverbs 15:23 (NLT) says, “Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time!” But it takes a lot of effort—and a lot of thought—to make sure we always say the right thing in the right way.

Solomon said in Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

If you need to confront your spouse, or your child, or an employee about a problem in your relationship, you need to take the time to find the right way to go about saying it. You need to ask yourself, “How can I say this in such a way that it will actually help them that it will build them up, and encourage them to do what is best for them to do?”

I heard about a woman who once said, “My husband has a way of telling me to do something that makes me want to do the exact opposite of whatever he says.” And I think I we’ve all had some experience with that kind of conversation.

But, in Ephesians 4:29 (NIV), Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Words have tremendous power, and we need to make sure that we use them carefully. Proverbs 13:3 tells us, “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.”

What that woman’s parents told her is not true. It’s not true that God only gives us a certain number of words to speak in our lifetime and when those words are used up, our life comes to end. But it is true that there is great danger in talking too much, especially when we talk before we think.

Again, Solomon said in Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

So, where do we go from here? I think we need to address the issue of wisdom in our words, with both past and future, both looking backward and forward.

In dealing with our past, we need to be mindful of the mistakes we have made with our tongue. And it may be that even this morning, God has made you aware that you’ve said something to someone else that caused some kind of pain, strife, division, disunity, broken confidence, or created distrust.

The solution is not to sit here and think about how awful you are, but rather to cling to God’s grace. And to realize that just as you may have used your tongue to tear others down in the past, you now have the opportunity to use your tongue to build up. That’s the good news of the gospel. Our past doesn’t define us. You don’t have to live the rest of your life in regret. By the power of God, you can bring about reconciliation.

As for the future, we need to constantly be mindful of our words and remember what Jesus said in Luke 7:45, “What you say flows from what is in your heart.” So, as we fill up our hearts with God’s Spirit, he will start to change not only our hearts but also what comes out of our mouths.

May we pray with David, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3, NIV)

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