“Gentle words bring life and health; deceitful words crush the spirit.” Proverbs 15:4
The Bible opens in Genesis with words being spoken by God and the cosmos forming as a result. God said and there was. In the New Testament, Jesus heals, delivers and sets miracles into motion with words. When Jesus speaks, the Kingdom of God is revealed and people get their lives back. We often call the contents of the Bible the “Word of God.” It is through the Bible that God speaks to us and God never speaks to us in ways that contradict the Bible’s clear and consistent teachings. In the Bible, the Holy Spirit inspired words of yesterday are the primary way God speaks to us today.
Proverbs and the Spoken Word
- Words are powerful
- Words can be used for great good
- Words can be used for destruction
- Only God can help us use words for good
Words in Proverbs seem to be morally neutral but power filled. We might think of them as fire. Fire can be used for good or evil but you can’t deny it is a powerful force. And because it is a powerful force, we must be very careful with how we use and utilize fire. In fact, we pay tax dollars to employ fire professionals who put out fires that gets out of hand, educate us about fire and enforce regulations to keep us safe from fire. Words are similar; Proverbs reminds us that since words can do great harm, we need education in how to wisely use our words.
Many Proverbs contrast evil words with wise words.
• “Evil words destroy one’s friends; wise discernment rescues the godly. -Proverbs 11:9
• “It is foolish to belittle a neighbor; a person with good sense remains silent. -Proverbs 11:12
Other Proverbs contrast wise words with evil words.
• “A gentle answer turns away wrath but hard words stir up anger.” Proverbs 15:1
• “Gentle words bring life and health; deceitful words crush the spirit.” Proverbs 15:4
• “Your own soul is nourished when you are kind, but you destroy yourself when you are cruel. Proverbs 11:17
As always, Proverbs not only makes a case for wisdom but attempts to make a sale. Often that sales pitch can be contained in the concept that “Wisdom is money.” “Wise speech is rarer and more valuable than gold or rubies.” Proverbs 20:15 Keep in mind here that words are not just spoken, they are also written. And in our culture, posted and tweeted. Words have always been important but because of the internet and social media, words now have the capacity to burn across the world in seconds. We have never needed to be more careful with words and we have never been so careless with them. Since words are like fire; here are ways words warm and ways words destroy according to Proverbs:
Words that Heal
“Kind words are like honey; sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” -Proverbs 16:24
- Words can be spoken or written
- Words can bring peace
- Words can offer forgiveness
- Words can lead to restoration
- Words can bring life
- Words can instruct the wise
- Words can rebuke the unwise
- Words can encourage
Words that Destroy
“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 25:28
“Avoid all perverse talk; stay far away from corrupt speech.”
-Proverbs 4: 24
- Words can reflect a heart not right with God
- Words can be used to lie
- Words can be used to gossip
- Words can be used to manipulate
- Words can lead to bitterness
- Words can be careless
Certainly it is not just Proverbs that offers commentary on words. The rest of the Bible has plenty to say as well:
Biblical Themes Concerning Our Words
If we think of words in a theological context, the proper use of words is hitting the bull’s eye God has set for our lives and improper use of words is missing that mark or sin. Keep in mind, there are no theological degrees of sin; you either hit the mark or you miss it. Let’s explore some big Biblical themes:
- What we say reflects the state of our hearts
For Jesus, our words directly reflect the state of our relationship with God. Words are either expressing a heart right with God or in rebellion against God and there is no in between. Words don’t just impact us on earth but will be a factor in final judgement. We might ask Jesus, “Is my heart right with you?” He would reply, “Just listen to yourself. “How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” -Matthew 12:33-37
- If you can control your words, God has control of you
For James, words are like fire and the fire is most difficult to control. If you can control your tongue (and your fingers), you have control in all things. “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. … Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. … no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. It isn’t right.” -James 3:2-10
1. Sin and talking too much are interconnected
“Where there are many words, sin is unavoidable.” -Proverbs 10:19 The Bible is clear that the more you think before you speak and the less you speak generally, the less likely you are to sin with your words. A spin of Proverbs 17: 28 that has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln is, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Paul reinforces, “But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer.” -2 Timothy 2:16-17 It is interesting here that the church is commanded to actively shun people who can’t control their words; they are the bad apple you throw out to save the barrel. If you don’t think that sounds very Christian, you have confused the modern concept of tolerance with the Biblical concept of discipline.
2. Encouraging others is a proper use of words
Corrupt in this Greek context means to destroy (corrupted file) or to bring into a worse state. Corrupt words leave people in a worse place than they were before those words were spoken. One definition of corrupt is what we might call a “small time hustler.” A guy who sells fake Rolex’s as you walk from your car into Bush Stadium. This is a huckster whose misuse of words is his trade; he is corrupt. Conversely, edify means to build or build up and specifically to build faith. “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God …” -Ephesians 4:29-30 Corrupt words grieve the Holy Spirit and if you have any understanding of the Bible at all, that is not somewhere you want to be.
3. Praising God is the proper use of words
I consider worship of God to be among the very best use of words. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” -Hebrews 13:15 Perhaps God first and foremost gave us language for the purpose of glorifying His holy name. Psalm 8: 9 reads, “O Lord our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!
4. Our words determine the quality of our lives
“He who would love life and see good days, Let him refrain his tongue from evil, And his lips from speaking deceit.” -1 Peter 3:10 Have you ever noticed that you can normally listen to someone talk for three minutes or glance at their Facebook page and have a pretty good idea of what kind of person they are? Are they always putting something down or lifting something up? Are they loving and filled with life or angry and filled with angst? Do they seem to enjoy their life and the people around them or has living for them become a chore? If you wanted one piece of advice in turning a negative world view into a positive world view it would be this, start speaking words of life. Words that we speak are prophetic in nature, we tend to follow them into their own realities. The wise know how to properly use words.
5. Jesus said we reap what we sow and this is especially true with words.
In the Jewish world a word was much more than something you say to express an idea; a word had independent existence. If you think about it, there is much truth and wisdom to be found here. You might get mad at someone and say very harsh and hurtful things in anger to them. Ten minutes later, you may well calm down and those words are not how you presently feel at all. The problem is that those words remain, even after the emotions that produced them have subsided, and now have a life of their own. People can’t unhear our words or unread our posts. The damage to someone inflicted by your angry, cruel or thoughtless words does not end when you no longer feel that way. Once spoken, the action of words are durative; beginning at the point of articulation and being launched into a potentially infinite continuum. Words spoken in the heat of the moment, may well continue to do harm for decades whether the speaker remember saying them or not.
If it works that way in the negative, how much more powerful is a word in the positive? I have had people tell me that something I said to them years ago changed their lives and I don’t remember a thing about it. My memory may fail but words of life have a life of their own and can continue to do great good long after we are gone from this earth. Once spoken, words have an independent existence. Corrupt words can destroy and God inspired words can change lives.
When it comes to words, the Bible offers a most simple prayer that should never be far from our hearts or from our lips. Would you pray it with me
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight O Lord my strength and my redeemer. -Psalm 19:14
Rev. Shane L. Bishop has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.