The book of Proverbs is full of powerful passages about our speech. A good place to begin is in 18:21 where the writer tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Framing it in such absolute terms gets our attention—but it’s more than that the writer is after. Words can bring death or life! Our confession of Jesus at baptism leads to life (Romans 10:9-10), while a denial of Him results in death (Matthew 1032-33). We can also think of juries and judges giving verdicts that result in life or death.
All of this might be what the writer has in view, but I tend to think he’s more after the idea of how a wise, loving use of words promotes life, while a destructive use of words can bring about death. We saw an extreme example of this a few years ago when a young woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her boyfriend. He had been contemplating suicide and she had urged him to do it—even to the point of telling him to get back in his truck when he had second thoughts about asphyxiating himself through the poisonous fumes that had built up inside. After her conviction, her lawyers argued the verdict was unjust because it violated her right to free speech!
Our speech is like a surgeon’s scalpel. When misused, it can mutilate, scar, and even kill. When it is use as God intended, it brings healing and wholeness.
The tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:23).
In light of this, we’re instructed to be discerning—to think before we speak. “The heart of the righteous man weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” (15:28). Sometimes this means we will choose silence over speech! “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongues is wise” (10:19). Other times we may need to simply turn down the volume. “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse,” (27:14). But most of the time it involves recognizing that “reckless words pierce like a sword” (12:18), while “A wise man’s heart guides his mouth, and his lips promote instruction” (16:23).
All of this runs quite counter to our culture’s value of authenticity, where people are encouraged to say whatever is on their mind because that is viewed as somehow being noble and virtuous. In actuality, it is being immature and selfish—people who practice this are thinking of themselves more than others.
Discerning speech is freed speech. It gets us involved in the kind of conversations that bless others and bring glory to our Father. Proverbs is full of admonitions that point in this direction:
- The lips of the righteous nourish many . . . (20:21),
- The lips of the righteous know what is fitting . . . (10:32),
- A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word! (15:23),
- Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (16:24),
- A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (25:21),
- A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (15:1)
We will end where we began—with the idea that our speech is important and powerful. “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone,” (25:15). There is so much good our words can do when we allow them to be guided by God through His word!
In a world where words are used hastily and harmfully, help us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become anger. In a world where words are weaponized, may our speech be an instrument of peace for the building of Your kingdom.
Forgive us for our reckless words and misguided speech. Cleanse our hearts, enlighten our minds, and guide us to good things in our communication. Through Jesus, Amen