It is a frightening thought, but true: Every time we open our mouth we run the risk of sinning. Likewise, the longer we talk. The secret is having a heart controlled by Christ so that our speech does the same as His—build up His body.
A company named Bell Data ran an ad in the Financial Times of Canada that said: “This is a full-blown, state-of-the-art, fully integrated, user friendly, multifunctional, omni-lingual, multi-tasking word and data processing system with advanced graphic generation capabilities.” Instead of describing the latest high-tech computer system to come on line, you’ll never guess what they were talking about—a pencil!
We live in a world of words. They can be used to make things clear or make things confusing, to make things helpful or to make them hurtful. The one who uses words wisely can accomplish great things, and the one who uses them foolishly can destroy great things. The book of Proverbs makes reference to the power of speech some 90 times. The tongue and related subjects are definitely one of the most frequently mentioned topics in the entire book. Perhaps the most telling verse in all the book is Proverbs 18:21:
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. – Proverbs 18:21
When something has the power of death and life, depending on how it is used, it behooves us to use it wisely. Proverbs 6:16–19 contains a list of seven things God hates, and three of them have to do with the tongue:
16There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. – Proverbs 6:16-19 ESV
A lying tongue, bearing false witness, sowing discord among the brethren. The book of James says it is easier to control a horse than it is to control the tongue. Everyone has learned the hard way how the tongue seems to have a mind of its own, acting unpredictably in the most inopportune places. Just when we think we have it under control, it proves us wrong.
How has the your tongue gotten you in trouble? How has the tongue of others created bad situations in your life?
In this lesson we will examine two things the tongue can do: break down and build up. These are opposites, like death and life, which the tongue has complete power to accomplish.
A TONGUE THAT BREAKS DOWN
There are several ways the tongue can break down people or relationships: perversity, lies, slander, gossip, and flattery.
A Perverse Tongue
This is the broadest of the five words we’re going to study, sort of a catchall for everything bad that the tongue is capable of producing. Perversity covers everything from evil speech to profanity to carnal and derogatory speech. I recall more that one time where I had been in a line at the concession stand or store and having to move to another line because of the perverse speech coming from the people in line around me. What discouraged me the most was that the speech was coming from three otherwise attractive, intelligent-looking people. But the words coming out of their mouths were so perverse and profane that I didn’t want to be exposed to it—so I left and went elsewhere. Perverse speech has become the norm in our culture.
A number of proverbs focus on people and words which are perverse. It is God’s desire that, through the acquisition of wisdom, the saints be delivered from perversity in all its forms:
[Wisdom will] deliver you from the way of evil, from the man who speaks perverse things. – Proverbs 2:12
Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. – Proverbs 4:24 ESV
A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech, – Proverbs 6:12 ESV
The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. – Proverbs 10:31 ESV
The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse. – Proverbs 10:32 ESV
The opposite of the perverse person and his speech is the wise person whose speech promotes healing:
There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health – Proverbs 12:18
To our shame, all of us can remember times when we said things that pierced another person like a sword. Hopefully we can remember times when our words were agents of healing as well.
A Lying Tongue
Proverbs says a number of things about the person who lies: Liars are swept off the scene (12:19); they are an abomination to God (12:22); they are loathsome and come to shame (13:5); they are predictable (14:5); and their demise is tied to their lying (21:6). We could devote an entire lesson to lying because of the attention it is given in Scripture—and in our culture. Unfortunately, there is now an official form of lying used by politicians in the news media which makes lying acceptable—called “spin.” Spin is the recasting, reinterpretation, reconstructing, or retelling of the truth in order to make it more palatable to those concerned. The point is no longer to tell the truth, it is to tell whatever facts are necessary in order to take the edge off the truth and make it more politically correct and less offensive. But God says it is lying, not spin, and it is not acceptable in His sight. Because words have meaning and are eternal, lying starts a destructive process that is very difficult to stop. Even if the effects of lies can be stopped or reversed, the reputation of the liar is forever damaged.
Have you ever had a season of lying? Have you felt the effects of being labeled as a liar? If so, how did you overcome it? Or have you?
A Slandering Tongue
Many people don’t know the difference between slander and lying. The main difference is that slander is a lie about a person. As in bearing false witness against a neighbor (Exodus 20:16)—that ruins his reputation or defames his character. Bearing false witness is a deceitful act (Proverbs 12:17) which will not go unpunished (19:5, 9). The typically graphic nature of Proverbs shines in describing the slanderer:
Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an ax, wounding them with a sword, or shooting them with a sharp arrow. – Proverbs 25:18
Then when the facts are learned….
18Just as damaging as a madman shooting a deadly weapon 19 is someone who lies to a friend and then says, “I was only joking.” – Proverbs 26:18-19 NLT
He thinks that another’s reputation can be restored and his anger subdued by claiming that it was all a joke, misunderstanding, or just good clean fun—”Where’s the harm?”
A Gossiping Tongue
One of the central words in Proverbs dealing with speech and the tongue is “talebearer” (11:13; 18:8; 20:19; 26:20, 22). The talebearer is the whisperer, the gossip, the one who goes from door to door bearing tales that should not be told. One of the most damaging aspects of the work of the whisperer is how he separates friends by spreading rumors, gossip, or even truth which does not need to be repeated. And one of the things that makes his work so easy is that gossip is like a tasty morsel which people cannot resist. Think of the most tempting piece of cheesecake, the most sumptuous piece of pie, or the freshest milkshake. That is what gossip is like to the one who has developed a taste for it.
Do you find yourself in the company of talebearers? What is your response? What should your response be? What have you learned in handling such situations? (good & bad)
A Flattering Tongue
Here is the difference between gossip (talebearing) and flattery:
Gossip is saying behind a person’s back what you would never say to his face, and flattery is saying to his face what you would never say behind his back.
And Proverbs warns strongly against the practice of both. The adulteress uses flattery to seduce her targets (6:24; 7:21). Behind flattery is deceit—the flatterer is filled with lies in his heart and he is not to be believed.
24People may cover their hatred with pleasant words, but they’re deceiving you. 25 They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils. – Proverbs 26:24-25 NLT
You must be on your guard against people who are constantly stroking you verbally—they have a hidden agenda, an ulterior motive, of some sort. It is the naïve fool who falls into the flatterer’s trap and believes the words he hears.
Have you ever been deceived by someone’s smooth talk? How did you handle it? Do you catch yourself saying nice things to people that you don’t really mean, or believe?
Does that warning mean we are never to say good things about people to them, for fear they will interpret our comments as flattery? Of course not—we will discuss below the powerful effect of edifying speech that builds up and strengthens another person.
Flattery is the syrupy sort of speech that catches the recipient off guard, that inflates the ego instead of edifying the spirit.
How do we prevent speech that breaks down instead of builds up? When someone approaches us and says they “need” to let us know something about a person, what do you do?
We must not be guilty of being channels or repositories or initiators of speech that breaks people and institutions down. You cannot “un-hear” or “un-say” things you receive or things you say. So intend to be a person who practices only in speech that builds up, never that breaks down.
A TONGUE THAT BUILDS UP
One of the first things you see when studying the tongue in Proverbs is the references to a righteous tongue, a tongue that speaks “right” things from God’s perspective.
A Righteous Tongue
First of all, righteous speech is completely devoid of the characteristics we just studied concerning speech that breaks down. Righteous speech is devoid of sin. It is not perverse, it speaks the truth instead of lies, it does not tear down the reputation or character of others, it does not gossip, and it does not flatter.
The mouth of the righteous is a well of life. – Proverbs 10:11
The words of the righteous are wisdom, they are like food for those hungry to know how to live (10:21, 31). And most of all, the lips of the righteous are discerning, knowing what is acceptable to say (10:32). I believe the sensitive, Spirit-led Christian can depend upon the Holy Spirit to give him freedom to speak, or freedom not to speak, depending on whether the words are acceptable (appropriate) in the given situation.
A Restoring Tongue
I can’t think of anything that is more needed, and therefore anything any of us should desire more, than the ability to speak restoring and healing words. There are many hurting people in our world today—even in the church and in our immediate and extended families. Hurt people hurt people. Those same people are within our circle of influence, people who could use an encouraging word.
What holds you back from giving an encouraging word to someone?
You can initiate words of healing, be a tree of life, as Proverbs 15:4 suggests. Or, your words can deflect and turn away harsh words from another person (15:1).
Perhaps the most under-utilized word of healing that Proverbs discusses is the “soft answer [which] turns away wrath.” It takes two people to argue. If one of them decides to use a soft answer and not participate in the shouting match, the heated argument must by definition come to a halt. If you enter a situation where an angry argument is taking place, you can diffuse the tension and lower the decibel level by your soft words. Stopping the shouting is the first step toward peace and reconciliation.
A timely word, “spoken in due season,” is a good thing! (Proverbs 15:23) We ought always to be on the lookout for those opportunities God may give us to speak a restoring word to someone who needs it. The times I have been given that opportunity to encourage someone, has been as meaningful to me (if not more so) as to the person to whom I spoke. It is a blessing beyond description to see the spirits of a person rise, the life restored to their eyes, as a result of a healing word from your own lips. Such words are as sweet and healthful as honey (16:24), and as beautiful as apples of gold in a setting of silver (25:11). The next time you marvel at a beautiful and costly display of precious jewels and artwork, remember that is how God sees a powerful word spoken at just the right time.
A Restrained Tongue
So far we have surveyed the proverbs which govern the use of speech—what not to say and what to say. But is there wisdom in the notion of sometimes saying nothing at all? According to Proverbs, yes! The word fitly spoken is equaled in wisdom only by the word not spoken at all.
Proverbs 10:19 says that the more we talk the more likely we are to say something we regret (that is, sin).
He who guards his mouth preserves his life, But he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction. – Proverbs 13:3
He who has knowledge spares his words, And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. – Proverbs 17:27 NKJV
Perhaps you’ve noticed that in groups of people of mixed ages it is usually the younger people who do most of the talking. The older and wiser members of the group don’t contribute that much—but when they do, everybody listens. Everybody has suffered from the proverbial “foot in mouth disease” by speaking too quickly. The embarrassment from those situations is the reproof we need to learn to restrain ourselves.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. – Proverbs 17:28 ESV
Using few words, what is your take on these recommendations and suggestions?
The idea that more is always better does not hold true when it comes to speech. Usually, less is better. I’ve found out over time how much I don’t know, so I am far less inclined these days to prove it by opening my mouth too quickly.
One of the biggest complaints of married couples whose marriage is struggling is “he/she doesn’t listen to what I’m saying.” Proverbs tells us:
Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish. – Proverbs 18:13 NLT
We hear the first part of a person’s question or comment and start formulating our response while they’re finishing—and we don’t even hear the middle and last part of what they say. No wonder communication is a big problem in marriage and life! If we would stop answering in our head while the other person is still talking, we might do better in answering once they finish speaking. To do otherwise is “shameful and foolish”
Another excellent place to restrain our speech is when a fool says something “foolish.” To dive in and try to correct a fool is to go down the same path he is on. To answer a fool is to acknowledge that what he said had merit—which the words of a fool rarely do.
Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. – Proverbs 26:4
This includes Facebook messages, text messages, voice mails and even direct interactions. If you know something is foolish, only engage and interact face-to-face. Now the individual might get mad if they don’t get an immediate response, but that is their control issue, not yours.
What has been your experiences with foolish interactions? What worked well? What went bad?
Have you been the fool, frustrated with someone not responding? What created the situation, what was the outcome?
he words of a man’s mouth are deep waters; the wellspring of wisdom is a flowing brook. – Proverbs 18:4
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks – Matthew 12:34
The tongue is a mirror of the heart. If we focus on cleaning up our speech (getting the right filters in place), we will become legalistic. But if we focus on allowing the Holy Spirit to fill and control our hearts, our speech will be a reflection of His presence.
Speech that builds up begins with receiving Christ, who then fills us with His Spirit, who then overflows through us with words of grace and truth; transforming us over time. Purifying us of all unrighteousness.
Jeremiah, D. (2002). Powerful principles from proverbs: Study guide. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.