God longs for us to know him, so he uses ordinary words to reveal his extraordinary self. And the written Word of God, Old and New Testament Scripture, was fleshed out and made known through the Living Word of God, Jesus.
Many of us have heard all the arguments and defenses about words not really mattering. We can recall some of the more famous lines from our childhood:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”
“It is not what you say that counts but what you do.”
“Talk is cheap.”
In the right context, these bumper sticker sayings carry partial truth, but not all the truth. I recall a medieval proverb I once read—sorry I cannot footnote it for you—that went something like this: “If a person’s life be lightning, his words are thunder.” Maybe that is close to what Mark Twain meant when he wrote to George Bainton, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”
Throughout the years, I have found myself coming back to the Proverbs again and again. Recently I was reminded of the everyday wisdom about words found among those pithy and portable sayings.
I also recalled an acrostic I have used, to stop me from bruising someone I thought deserved a verbal beating. It is not my own, but I have made it my own. It originally came from the life of Alan Redpath, good preacher and fine Greek scholar in another time and place.
Here it is: THINK. Let me unpack it by using the book of Proverbs. Five questions surface from each of the five letters.
Are my words True? Proverbs 8:7-9 says, “My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge.”
Later on the writer says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only for a moment” (12:19).
What we say is what we are. If careless words about Jesus can condemn us (Matthew 12:22-37), what can careless words about his children do?
Are my words Helpful? “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word” (15:23)!
Centuries later, perhaps while contemplating the wisdom of Proverbs, Paul wrote, “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” (Ephesians 4:29).
Some of us have discovered that words are like a light switch. They have the ability to brighten a room like an Illinois prairie sunrise, or darken it like tumbling walls in a Chilean mine disaster.
Pause for just a moment and weigh the historical context of the Proverbs. The predominant writer is, of course, Solomon. His son, Rehoboam, ultimately came to the throne of Israel. A debate ensued about how this new king should rule. The elders advised the new king to “lighten the yoke” Solomon had placed on the people.
But Rehoboam listened to another, younger, set of advisers, and told the people, “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier” (1 Kings 12:11).
The resulting upheaval split the nation in two. I wonder what might have happened if Rehoboam had stopped long enough to ask this humble question, “Are my words helpful?”
Are my words Inspiring? “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). The wrong word can be demoralizing, like a slow leak in a tire. The poorly chosen word has the power to steal away life-giving breath. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of hurtful speech knows that it feels like having the air knocked out of you.
Soren Kierkegaard drew on a different analogy to describe the depleting nature of uninspiring words. “In sawing wood it is important not to press down too hard on the saw; the lighter the pressure, . . . the better the saw operates. If a man were to press down with all his strength, he would no longer be able to saw at all.”
“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (25:11). Words have the capacity to inflate or deflate.
Are my words Necessary? This particular question has saved me on more than one occasion when I was tempted to give someone a piece of my mind I could not afford to lose. I’m also thinking of those moments when I failed to ask this good question and thereby profoundly wounded someone with my verbal assault.
Consider this: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver . . . the lips of the righteous nourish many” (10:19-21). “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (13:3). “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (17:28).
Have you noticed how our words are often self-promoting? A very wise professor of mine frequently remarked, “Let your words be few, but let them be full.”
Are my words Kind? “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up” (12:25). “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (15:1). “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (25:15).
James, the writer of New Testament Christian Wisdom Literature, reminds us, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). Ouch!
If ministry has taught me one thing, and by the goodness and grace of God it has taught me many things, it is this: “Hurt people hurt people.” Have you noticed? When I have been hurt is often when I hurt others. Shame on me. I’m truly sorry.
The medium of the printed page has limitations. It does now allow you to hear my voice or read my body language. I will have to plead for a measure of trust. It is with a broken and contrite heart and a civil and gentle tongue that I offer this observation about the Christian churches and churches of Christ I love and cherish. We often have demonstrated we care more about doctrinal purity and exegetical accuracy than the feelings and thoughts of those with whom we might disagree.
Doctrinal purity and exegetic accuracy should not be diminished. At the same time, love should be amplified. Love, if I’m reading the Scriptures accurately, is one of our primary family traits (John 13:34, 35; Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Peter 3:8; and Hebrews 13:1).
Some outside the Restoration Movement have told me that a meanness of spirit resides among us. It surfaces in the way we teach one another, rebuke one another, and correct one another. This very publication has now and then been a bloody battlefield created by well-intentioned folks who disagree with something written in these pages.
I recall what my older and wiser friend Ben Merold once said. He was eloquently reflecting on why love is the greatest (1 Corinthians 13:13). He said, “Love is the greatest because it is a part of God’s nature, solves all problems, and leads people to Jesus.”
J.K. Jones is professor-at-large of spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.