We live in a world where the prevailing attitude seems to be, “Give someone a piece of your mind – even if you can’t afford to lose it!” It’s hard to pinpoint when the trend toward incivility and mean-spiritedness really started gaining momentum. We could point to individuals we think have been the worst examples. TV talk shows and news commentators are famous for the use of poisoned tongues. And we can blame the influence of social media – the propensity for saying nasty things online that we wouldn’t dare express to someone face-to-face.
But the simple fact is, whoever thought up the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names [words] will never hurt me,” was either lying or out of touch with reality. Words do have a profound effect on us, for good or for ill. It’s ironic because, as the apostle James points out: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).
Obviously, this abuse of spoken and written words isn’t anything new. We just have more ways for doing it these days. It’s such an important matter – a universal human weakness – that the Scriptures devote much attention to it.
Years ago, I spent hours poring over the Old Testament book of Proverbs, categorizing its sayings by topic and compiling them into a notebook. Passages about speech and communication covered two typewritten pages, and I might have missed a few.
My personal favorite – since it underscores a problem I’ve wrestled with – is Proverbs 10:19, which says, “When there are many words, transgression is not avoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Another translation puts it this way: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” I haven’t mastered this, but hope I’ve gotten better with time and practice.
But that’s just the tip of the verbal iceberg. Potentials for evil speech are addressed early in the book: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (Proverbs 4:24). Can you think of anyone – or any group – you’d like to heed this instruction?
What we say and how we say it might serve as a good barometer for determining if we’re as good as we’d like to think we are. Proverbs 10:32 declares, “The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.” Similarly, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” Proverbs 11:12).
To paraphrase an old Sonny and Cher song, “And the list goes on.” One might suggest the solution is to have a pandemic of laryngitis, or illiteracy. That way people couldn’t say or write anything damaging to other people. But Proverbs and other passages from the Bible affirm the power of appropriate, judiciously chosen and used words.
Consider: “From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things, as surely as the work of his hands rewards him” (Proverbs 12:14). Here’s a warning given from a positive slant: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity” (Proverbs 21:23).
A person who excels at the use of careful words will likely reap benefits: “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend” (Proverbs 22:11). And I like the visual image from Proverbs 25:11-12, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.”
Other references to the power – and perils – of spoken and written words aren’t confined to Proverbs. In a passage my Bible labels “Taming the Tongue,” James 3:4-8 offers a striking comparison. “Although [ships] are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts…. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…no man can tame the tongue.”
If that’s the case, what are we to do? Just blurt out whatever comes to our minds and not worry about the consequences? That’s not what it’s saying. Instead, maybe we should replace the “sticks and stones” adage with one that reminds us, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all."
Ephesians 4:29 speaks eloquently to this: “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.” Just as we can use our hands to greet someone cordially or strike them in the jaw, we can exercise our self-control to edify people with our words, rather than inflicting verbal wounds.
But what if someone says something hurtful to us? Don’t we have a right to react accordingly? We might have that “right,” but Jesus offered us a better option: “But I tell you, do not resist and evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39).
Society might advise us to engage in a kind of verbal tit-for-tat, but to draw another piece of wisdom from Proverbs, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). If we must respond, a gentle answer is often more productive than a harsh word.