‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ Rubbish! Not even close to being true. Words wound us. Some of you carry scars from the harsh words of a teacher or parent. Those words stung. The Proverbs put it much more accurately when they claim: ‘There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts’ (12:18a).
This morning we are looking at one of the major themes in the book of Proverbs: our use of words. In particular, we are going to examine the difference between harsh words and gracious words. We will also see four keys to speaking better words.
Harsh words taste good, but gracious words are sweet
At the end of Proverbs there is a portrait of the ideal woman. This woman’s life is a living illustration of the wisdom of Proverbs. We see that ‘the teaching of kindness is on her tongue’ (31:26b). However, not all words are kind. Gossip and flattery are anything but kind.
‘The words of a gossip [literally ‘the whisperer’] are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts’ (18:8). We gossip because we enjoy it. It appeals to our sinful nature (lit. ‘flesh’), whose works include envy, jealousy, strife, enmity, fits of anger and the like (Galatians 5:20-21). The words of a gossip may be true, but they are told in such a way as to make the subject of gossip look bad. Gossip makes us feel superior to the person being gossiped about. We want people to think that we would never do what they are doing. As we see others put down, we feel ourselves being lifted up.
As well as gossip, the Proverbs warn of the danger of falling for flattery. ‘A person who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for their feet’ (29:5). I heard a clever explanation of the difference between gossip and flattery: gossip is when you say something behind someone’s back that you would never say to their face, and flattery is when you say something to their face that you would never say behind their back. Be on our guard against flattery! Don’t use charm to manipulate people!
Harsh words are not the only words that have a taste. ‘Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body’ (16:24). As one commentator points out, there is a spirit of friendliness in such gracious words. It actually tastes good to speak kindly to people. It tastes good to say, ‘thank you’ or ‘I am sorry’. It tastes good to speak positively about people.
This issue of taste provides us with the first key to changing how we speak. You see certain tastes don’t go well together. You might like tomato ketchup, but not with your muesli. So, if you fill your mouth with the muesli of kind words, you will not want to add the ketchup of gossip.
Key One: Fill your mouth with loving words that taste good, and you will have no appetite for words that do harm. Practice speaking graciously, and you won’t want to tear people apart by what you say about them. Practice encouragement and you will give up the put-downs.
Harsh words show a lack of love, gracious words bring healing
While harsh words are like sword thrusts, ‘the tongue of the wise brings healing’ (12:18b). Similarly, ‘anxiety in a person’s heart weighs them down, but good words make them glad’ (12:25). I think of a card received from a friend when I was struggling with depression, and the encouragement that was. I think of the caring WhatsApp messages from another friend at the same time. Have you ever been in a situation where you have been filled with worry, but a friend has listened and spoken gentle words of reassurance? Do you want to speak words that heal?
The Proverbs tell us that words have the power of death and life (18:21). I remember having an argument with a friend, where I spoke arrogantly, and probably ruined the friendship. Words can separate close friends (16:28), but they can also make friends out of former enemies (16:7). Was it not with words that someone spoke the life-giving message of the gospel to you? Someone sat down with you and explained that while your guilt before a holy God is far more serious than you ever realised, God sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.
This provides the second key to changing your words.
Key Two: Ask God to enable you to love people, so that you want to speak well of them. The fruit of the Spirit is love (Galatians 5:22). He can cause you to speak kind words that bring healing, rather than harsh words that wound.
Harsh words are worthless, gracious words are precious
‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver’ (25:11). The most precious of all words are the words recorded for us in the Bible. ‘Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him’ (30:5). Foolish people don’t see the value of words. What value can you place on an ‘I love you’ from someone that you adore? What price could be paid for an ‘well done’ from someone you admire?
Because words have both power and value, we should think before we speak. ‘Do you see a person who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than him’ (29:20). We pray with the Psalmist, ‘set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!’ (Psalm 141:3).
Key 3: Remember the value and power of words, and so think before you speak.
Harsh words anger God, gracious words please him
It is quite sobering to realise that while God will always love his people, he sometimes hates the words we speak. The Lord hates a lying tongue (6:17). ‘A dishonest man spreads strife; and a gossip separates close friends’ (16:28). ‘Better a poor person who walks in integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool’ (19:1). ‘A truthful witness saves lives, but he who utters lies is treacherous’ (14:25). ‘Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment’ (12:19).
While God hates deceitful words, gracious words please him. Isn’t it wonderful that God can take pleasure in words that come from your mouth? One type of word that he loves is the prayer of his forgiven and adopted children. ‘The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous’ (15:29). ‘The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him’ (15:8). He sees gracious words as pure (15:26b). In the Revelation we read that ‘the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hands’ (Revelation 8:4). God loves it when you pour out your heart to him.
Not only do kind words please God, they make us a pleasure to those around us. ‘He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, has the king for his friend’ (22:11). When your words are kind, charitable, truthful, sincere and pure you will attract people to you, and you will attract people to God. When your speech is negative and critical you will repel people from you, and they will not be interested in your God.
Key Four: Remember that God cares about the words that come out of your mouth. Surely this is the greatest motive to speak gracious words.
Four keys to speaking gracious words: Fill your mouth with loving words that taste good, and you will have no appetite for words that do harm. Ask God to enable you to love people, so that you want to speak well of them. Think before you speak. Remember that God cares about the words that come out of your mouth.
Finally, what do your words say about your heart? Jesus said, ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45). One blogger explains, ‘A critical heart produces a critical tongue. A self-righteous heart produces a judgemental tongue. A bitter tongue produces an acerbic tongue. An ungrateful heart produces a grumbling tongue. But a loving heart produces a gracious tongue. A faithful heart produces a truthful tongue. A peaceful heart produces a reconciling tongue. A trusting heart produces an encouraging tongue. So fill your heart with grace …’ (Jon Bloom). Experience the love that the Father pours out on you and let it change how you speak!
We finish by praying with the Psalmist: ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer’ (Psalm 19:14).