The human tongue only accounts for under 1% of our body mass, but certainly punches above its weight. Our words, whether they are spoken, typed or texted, can have a dramatic affect on other people. Our words can be a powerful force for good or for ill.
I expect we all know the popular saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the trouble is, that’s not true – is it? Wrong words can be incredibly harmful, incredibly hurtful. Sticks and stones may hurt us on the outside, but words can harm us within. Good words can lift our spirits, or encourage, edify us and inspire us. But bad words can break a heart, create division, or lead us to despair.
The truth is that whenever we open our mouths to speak (something we do on average 700 times a day) we are wielding a powerful force. A God-given ability to build-up or bring down those around us. As it says in Proverbs: “The tongue has the power of life and death. The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (18:21, 12:18).
We are now in week five of our sermon series in Proverbs – a Bible book designed to equip us for the challenges of everyday life. A book designed to help us live wise and godly lives, not sinful foolish ones. Given the power of our words for good or ill, it should come as no surprise that Proverbs is full of instruction on how we should speak well. It contains no less than 90 passages that teach us to talk wisely.
So in our time this morning I’d like us to look at the sinful speech Proverbs tells us to avoid, and then the godly language that Proverbs says we should use instead.
- Sinful speech: Falsehood and flattery, gossip and slander
If you have ever used Microsoft Word, you will know that sometimes red or green squiggles appear under words when you type. The red squiggles show that you’ve made a spelling mistake, and the green ones highlight a grammatical error. I’m generally pretty good at avoiding the red lines, but my sentence structure often produces a swathe of green across my screen. It can be rather irritating!
But it would be really helpful if Microsoft invented a third type of squiggle. A third category of error that it could highlight under our words. It would be really helpful if my word processor showed me when I write words that are morally wrong. A squiggle that showed me when I compose sentences that are sinful.
Sadly such a system is yet to be invented by Bill Gates! And even if he did it still wouldn’t help me with my spoken words. What we need instead are lessons from the book of Proverbs. We need Proverbs to show us the characteristics of a poisonous tongue – the type of talk we should avoid.
In particular, Proverbs exposes two types of talk we should avoid, two categories of speech that are sinful. They are falsehood and flattery, and gossip and slander.
Firstly, listen to these quotes from Proverbs on falsehood and flattery:
- “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Prov 12:22).
- Verse 18 of our passage today also said: “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbour”.
- And verse 28 said: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.”
Falsehood and flattery are wrong because they are dishonest. For a start, lies damage relationships. Without honesty and openness relationships cannot survive. No employer could trust a dishonest employee, no wife could trust a lying husband, none of us wants a deceitful friend. And no society could uphold justice if witnesses were allowed to lie in court. No wonder one of the Ten Commandments states: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour” (Ex 20:16).
Lies also distort our beliefs and behaviour. Lies make us believe false things about ourselves, other people and about God. They paint a misleading picture of the world and our place in it. And lies make us confused about what behaviour is right and wrong. Its no surprise Jesus that once described the devil as “the Father of lies” – because lies serve his evil purposes very well indeed (Jn 8:44).
Flattery is a form of lying, because it involves telling people what they want to hear, rather than the truth. Flattery may be temporarily appealing to the hearer, but it can do them long-term damage by building up unrealistic expectations, inflating their ego or massaging their pride. As Proverbs 29:5 puts it, someone who “flatters their neighbour” is “spreading a net for their feet”. We may flatter someone with the best of intentions, but we are storing up trouble for them in the future. They may choose the wrong career, waste their money, or become puffed up with pride. The Bible says its far better to speak the truth with love, than to flatter and deceive.
As well as falsehood and flattery, gossip and slander are also prohibited in Proverbs. Listen to these verses on the subject:
- Proverbs 16: 28 says “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends”.
- Proverbs 20:19 says “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid anyone who talks too much.”
- And listen again to verse 20 of our reading today: “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down”.
One reason gossip is wrong is that it breaks confidences, it passes on information that was meant to be kept private. We won’t be trusted by people if they know we will pass on personal information. People won’t be honest and open with us if we can’t be relied on to respect their privacy.
Gossip can also be coward’s way of complaining about someone when they don’t have the courage to confront them face to face. Such gossip is unconstructive criticism – unconstructive because it gives the subject no chance to respond.
Worse still is slander – malicious gossip that gives someone no opportunity to defend themselves, no chance to rebut unjustified criticism. Godly people should have no time for gossip, and certainly no interest in slander.
So we’ve seen that Proverbs condemns falsehood and flattery, gossip and slander. But what words and speech does Proverbs actually commend?
- Wise words make use of our head, ears, heart and hands
You may have heard on the news last week that Google are introducing an automatic 30 second delay on their email accounts. From now on, if you have an email account with them you will have thirty seconds to cancel your message after you have pressed ‘Send’. How useful! I expect all of us have had occasions when we’ve sent an email and then immediately regretted it. And I’m certain we have all said things we wish we could retract.
Unsurprisingly, Proverbs tells us to think before we speak. We should use our heads before we open our mouth, type that sentence or send that email. We should choose our words carefully. As Proverbs 15:23 puts it “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word!” Or as my Dad used to say: “Always engage your brain before opening your mouth!”
And not just our brain, because Proverbs says we should also make use of our ears and hearts before we speak too:
- We should use our ears to listen before we speak. The more we listen the more we will understand the situations and circumstances into which we speak. The better we listen the better we will understand those we talk to. As Proverbs 18:13 says: “To answer before listening is folly and shame.”
- We should also use our hearts before our mouths as well, because Proverbs 15:28 says: “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” In other words, we should weigh up whether what we are about to say will be loving, right and true. Will it be wholesome, kind and constructive, rather than rude, damaging or divisive?
The New Testament goes beyond Proverbs to give Christians a little more guidance on the words we should share with one another. For example the author of Hebrews says we should “spur one another on towards love and good deeds”, while Colossians chapter 3 tells Christians to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” So I hope that when we gather together on Sundays we don’t grumble or gossip, but try to encourage each other in our life and our faith. I hope we try to spur each other on with our words.
- Finally, as well as our head, our ears and our hearts, we should use our hands we speak as well. I don’t mean we should be expressive when we speak – I mean our words should be matched with action. For example, Proverbs 14:23 says “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” We shouldn’t be people who talk a lot but do little. People who are very quick to offer an opinion but slow to act. On the contrary, our good words should be supplemented by good deeds. Our words become credible when they are accompanied by action.
So Proverbs says we should use our head, our ears, our heart and our hands before we speak. We need think and listen carefully before we open our mouths. We need to match our good words with good deeds.
Conclusion: Jesus’ words to us
Before I finish talking about words this morning, I must give the last word to our Lord Jesus. Because Jesus said a remarkable thing about our words. He said: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:34).
In other words, the way we speak says something about our hearts. We need surgery on our heart before we can ever change our speech. Our words will never become more godly until God Spirit gets to work on our hearts.
Its no use trying to tame our tongue by our own unaided efforts. We will fail. To improve our speech, as with any other area of our lives, we need God’s help – we need God’s grace.
A gradual improvement in our language is one thing that a Christian can expect to experience over time. If we have come to Christ for forgiveness and received his Holy Spirit, then he will progressively change the way we speak. And if you’re impatient with your rate of progress (and it’s a good sign if you are!) then pray that God will help you ‘tame your tongue’ more quickly. And use your God-given head, ears and heart to speak more wisely.
But may be you are here this morning and know that your heart is untouched by God’s grace. Maybe you know that you have not even begun the Christian life. Maybe you haven’t yet come to Christ for forgiveness and the gift of his Spirit.
If that’s you, then why not become a Christian today?
- Why not use your tongue to say thank you to God for the gift of his Son.
- Why not say sorry with your lips for the sins you have committed.
- And why not use your mouth to ask Jesus for the help of his Holy Spirit.
Because if you do say those things today, they’ll be the best words you’ll ever use!