Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Words to the Wise: A "Proverbial" Study of 10 Best Practices

There's an expression I've come to love...

Words create worlds.

This life is absolutely saturated in them. And as we go through our days, doing the business of living and working and playing, they are ever at work, affirming ideas and shaping realities. It mostly happens to on a subconscious level each day, as we turn up the song on the radio and sing along, listen to the daily news, have a casual conversation or enjoy a leisurely read.

I happen to love reading. I live for Saturday mornings when I can sit in my new study, surrounded  by the smell of the hundreds of ancient volumes from our inherited pastoral library, my hands cupped around my warm coffee mug, my legs draped over my antique armchair... I love the inspired and labored-over art of crafting a sentence, developing a thesis, sharing an idea or a viewpoint. It totally inspires me. And so often I find myself completely lost in the world of the story I'm reading. I build visual ideas around the words on the page that I can see, hear and smell. What I read can make me laugh out loud, it can make me weep with compassion or causes me to bend to fit that mood or ideology. It's powerful stuff.

Words Have Power

I've heard all my life the expression that "talk is cheap." But I find that worldly expression to be in direct conflict with what God says about words. He chose to use speech as the vehicle through which He created all that is in existence. With a word it was all set into motion. He spoke - and it was.

As creatures made in His image, there is, then, power in our words too. Just think of the many examples in the Bible of this- Abraham's uttered prayer saved Lot from the destruction in Sodom. Elijah's words held back rain. And Jesus tells us that, with faith, if we but speak to a mountain, it will move.
I recently spoke at a conference for teens about the power of words, and I thought it was very important to have a practical example. I conducted, in the safe and very scientific confines of my kitchen, The Rice Experiment. For three weeks, much to the enjoyment of my husband, I talked to rice in glass jars - to one, words of love and affirmation, and to the other, unkind words. And, despite how far fetched it seems, my words did have a visual effect on that rice. The thing I found most interesting was that from the outside, my jars looked pretty much the same. It was only in opening the lid up to see what was inside that I found the most damage was being done. My conclusion, then, became a question: if words caused the decay and destruction of an inanimate object like rice, how much more do they affect living, beating hearts, minds, lives?

A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city,
And Contentions are like the bars of a citadel.
With the fruit of a man's mouth his stomach will be satisfied;
He will be satisfied with the product of his lips.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue
And those who love it will eat its fruit.
Proverbs 18:19-21
This passage in the great book of Proverbs tells us that words are powerful because they have consequences, they inspire action, reaction, and determine the course and outcome of our lives. In verse 19, we see that they cause people to put up defenses. I have felt, all too often, the bars and walls rising up around my heart in an effort to protect myself from further damage after an unkind word was spoken over me. Recovering from verbal scars has been one of the great battles of my adulthood. It has taken years for the Lord - and my husband too - to slowly break down that citadel around my own heart so that I could be effective, transparent and genuinely loving in marriage and ministry.
I believe that every person reading this will be able to easily recall an occasion where a word broke their heart or their spirit. We bear the scars of abuse, bullying, carelessness, being the butt of jokes, teasing, comparing - of words misused. These words resonate in our minds, sometimes for decades or even lifetimes, conveniently raising their volume as we encounter new challenges and unfamiliar territory. We have seen dreams, callings, and reputations rendered lifeless in their clutches.
And most tragically, we have seen that words can push some so far over the edge that, broken and battered, they determine that life is no longer with living, the emotional death becoming a lost physical life. It's absolute tragedy, and I tearfully write this, having seen it happen in my own community. That is why the ancient sages refer to lachon hora, evil speech, as murder. Yes, they are powerful indeed. Which is why we've been given a scriptural standard, a kind of siphon through which all our words must be filtered:
Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God...
1 Peter 4:11

Words are Tools

In Ephesians, Paul challenges us, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to use in edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers." That word, edify? It is a building word. Think construction. So when we open our mouths, we're building up something, creating something. So...we must look inwardly and ask the question: What are my words building? What kind of tool could my words be likened to?


EVIL SPEECH is kind of like a hammer and nails…with it we build prisons and walls that shut light out and isolate people. The worst part is, often it's often spoken in carelessness and we don't mean it - but once that nail goes in, the damage can’t be undone. That heart will always bear the hole, even if the nail is removed.

GODLY SPEECH, on the other hand, is a lot like one of my very favorite things, Mod Podge. It enhances what it touches, making everything pretty. It fills holes, smooths rough surfaces, and best of all, it preserves and protects. That's the effect our words should have on the lives we touch - enhancing and healing.


So, where do we start if we want to understand how to be good stewards of the breath which God has given and the platforms on which we've been placed? How do we get to the point where we master our words, and not the other way around? Read on, dear friends. I've scoured the amazing book of Proverbs - the ultimate guide to success on earth - and boy, does it have some helpful, practical counsel!


Best Practices Tip #1: Silence is an Option

I read a news story from a few years ago that followed research at University of Arizona. Scientists recorded how many words a group of people spoke each day for almost a decade. Ultimately they concluded that people, on average, speak about 16,000 words per day. That's a lot of talking! And I'm guessing that doesn't include all the unspoken words through emails, texts and social media. So you can pile that on too. Is all that really necessary?
He who restrains his words has knowledge,
And he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise;
When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.
Proverbs 17:27-28
He who guards his mouth and his tongue
guards his soul from troubles.
Proverbs 21:23 

When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.
Proverbs 10:19

When we read proverbs, we should really settle in and mull them over in our minds. As you look at these verses, you see a common thread: there are consequences for the words we speak - or don't speak. Sometimes there is value - for ourselves and for others - in choosing silence. Especially when we are feeling particularly emotionally charged. I heard one of my favorite teachers say once "emotions are not bad, but they should always be the caboose, never the engine." So the words we speak should never be in response to an emotional reaction. I don't know about you, but that alone would cut out about 8,000 of my words per day.
How does silence guard our souls from trouble? Jesus answers that one for us, actually, in the Gospel of Matthew:

But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.

The other day my husband told me that he was looking through an old laptop, trying to clean out old files to loan it out to a friend. He was amazed that, having had this computer for many years, there were still records of activity and downloads from his college years - files and records he thought had been deleted. There was still a record of what had been long forgotten. And in the same way, we may move on, we may forget - but every word we speak on this earth is recorded in the heavens, and we will one day have to discuss all the words we ever spoke. I don't tell you this to make you feel shame - for those of us who are in covenant with the Lord, it will be a valuable conversation with Him about how far His grace reached to cover us, one that leaves us feeling gratitude for His beautiful gift. But I feel my cheeks blush in embarassment when I think of some of the utterances from my mouth...knowing that there is always, always someone listening, that our words are lasting, eternal, and that they will one day be revisited. That, for me, is a game changer.

Best Practices Tip #2: Practice Direct and Discrete Conflict 



He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets,

But he who is trustworthy conceals a matter.

Proverbs 11:13

At first, this verse may conjure up images of little girls on a playground telling secrets as they pick flowers and braid each other's hair. It seems like by adulthood, we should have mastered that if someone entrusts something to us in confidence, that the right thing to do - unless someone's life is in danger - is to honor that request. But I think this goes deeper than that. 

The adult version of this problem is when there is conflict among us, we fail to minimize the collateral damage. When we have a disagreement or witness some wrongdoing, we are tempted to vent to anyone who will listen and make our case and develop our thoughts aloud, maybe in an effort to garner support or feel justified in our opinion. So, rather than dealing directly - and only - with the person involved, we "leak" information to people. Rather than dealing discretely, we spread the gossip, the drama, and the shame of others. In other words, we create scandal.

A fantastic biblical example of someone who learned the hard way about the destructive nature of slander and gossip is Miriam, in Exodus 12. In a careless and (so she thought) private remark, she criticized Moses and questioned his God-given authority. Ultimately, God showed her what this type of talk looks like to him by afflicting her with a physical disease - leprosy. So, rest assured, being a gossip is is not a becoming look for a follower of Christ.

Beloved, the Word is very clear that there is absolutely no place for this kind of behavior among God's people. In Matthew 18:15, we are told that if we have an issue with someone, we are to make our case to that person alone. So a good, biblical rule of thumb is that if what we have to say is not worth taking right to the source, it's probably not worth saying at all. And better yet - if it's not your issue, redirect, redirect, redirect! Refuse to be part of scandal. And don't be caught involving yourself in a situation that brings someone else shame. That's not the method of a godly word user.

Best Practices Tip #3: Be a Fire Extinguisher 

For lack of a wood the fire goes out,
And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire
So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
Proverbs 26:20-21
A worthless man digs up evil,
While his words are like scorching fire.
The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels
And they go down into the innermost parts of the body.
Like an earthen vessel overlaid with silver dross
Are burning lips and a wicked heart.
Proverbs 16:21-23

Burning words, like the ones mentioned in verse 23, are driven by emotion...often pride. We might consider them a harmless aside, or a "much needed" diagnosis of a situation. We may even convince ourselves that we have a piece of "helpful" information that simply must be shared. After all "we would want someone to tell us," right? Wrong. When we pass along gossip, we allow ourselves to be manipulated, functioning as conductors for the negative piece of information. The effect is much like adding gasoline to a fire -anything but helpful, often causing emotions and malice to burn out of control. Rather than diminish the drama, we fan the flames of anger and hurt feelings into outright forest fires.  

Our call is to be firefighters instead of kindling. If someone approaches you with a hot little tidbit, choose to redirect the person, or to say nothing at all. Don’t be manipulated, or be fooled into thinking it's at all helpful. It makes us look sick, unhealthy, it's infectious and it holds up the progress of all those around us, just like Miriam's leprosy did. So as much as we like to have the inside scoop and feel an urge to share, next time, let it stop with you instead. Remember: our heavenly command to love our neighbor does not change despite the information we hear and pass along. So be the one to foster and protect that love in yourself and others. Put out the fires and become a real life (and heart and relationship) saver. That's what a real hero would do.

Best Practices Tip #4: Be Real

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
But the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
He who conceals hatred has lying lips
And he who spreads slander is a fool.
Proverbs 10:11,18
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord
But those who deal faithfully are His delight.
Proverbs 12:22

When it comes to being a godly communicator, genuineness and truthfulness count. We should be real with people, and that means no pretending. Most of us don't go around flat out lying...but it should be fairly obvious that we shouldn't do that. The grey areas where I often find myself are things like these:

• False Promises – We have no intention of doing what we say.

• Flattery – We use empty words to manipulate people in our favor.

• Half truths – Truth twisting, exaggeration, omission, it takes many forms.  

• Hypocrisy – We pretend to believe something we don't, or to be something we aren't.

Ouch. That's a little closer to home. You might be thinking, but these are harmless, aren't they? Why should we not participate in these things? Scripture gives us a pretty compelling reason, actually:
Truthful lips will be established forever,
but a lying tongue is only for a moment.

Proverbs 12:19

The mouth of the righteous flows with wisdom,
But the perverted tongue will be cut out.
Proverbs 10:31
There is no legacy for those who gain using deceptive words. Take, for instance, the queen of ulterior motives and ingenuine speech - Delilah. In Judges 16, we read about her modus operandi. She is paid to use the love of her man in order to give him over to his enemies. She uses her words to manipulate him, all for her own selfish gain.

You know, I assume Delilah got her money when the Philistines drug Samson away in bonds, betrayed and heart-broken. But interestingly, we never hear anything about her again. All we will ever know is in her name. Names have great significance in the Bible as the legacy of a person. What does Delilah mean? Weak, feeble. And so the lesson she leaves us is this: it takes no real strength to manipulate others and twist the truth to get what you want. And there's no long-term gain in it. So, let's be strong, and even when it's tough, be honest. That's the honorable and godly way to be, and it's leads to a great legacy in the Kingdom of God.

Best Practices Tip #5: Timing is Everything

Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances
Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold
Is a wise reprove to a listening ear
Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest
Is a faithful messenger to those who send him
For he refreshes the soul of his masters
Proverbs 25:11-13
A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word!
Proverbs 15:23

How do we know when it's the right time to speak? It's not always a simple answer, but one thing is for sure - we must consider the circumstances and the readiness of the listener to hear. When I read these verses, I think of Queen Esther, the girl who never dreamed she's be royalty, who found herself as the only Jew who had the ear of the king in a moment when her people were about to be slaughtered. She chose her moment very carefully, passing on more than one opportunity to present her case.
There are times that the Spirit indicates that someone needs an encouraging word, a truth that they are ready to hear that they may not have been before, and impresses that on us. He makes us very aware that the time ripe for it.

And the result of waiting until that most appropriate moment is the best part. In Proverbs 25:13 above, we see that the one sends the messenger is the one who is refreshed when we deliver the message faithfully. In the same way, the Lord is honored and glorified when we choose our timing well, when we obey His prompts. Well-timed words are valuable, helpful, and they bring praise to God. Is that the result you see your words having?

Best Practices Tip #6: Serve and Protect


Open your mouth for the mute,
For the rights of all the unfortunate
Open your mouth, judge righteously
And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.
Proverbs 31:8-9
Sometimes, there is a need for us to step out in boldness, to speak up, even when the circumstances are difficult, intimidating, or even dangerous. 
There has always been special provision for the poor, the powerless, and those with no one to care for them. The Lord takes the care of these groups very seriously, and there has always been biblical provision designed to protect them - namely, us. 
In a sense, this means that we are also called to open our mouths when someone is poor in the area of information, too -for example, if someone is being verbally bashed and they have no knowledge that it's happening. The image that comes to mind from the Bible is Jesus, standing with the woman called an adulteress in John 9. I often wonder where this woman's husband was at that moment, since legally he would have had to be the one to accuse her. She had no one by her side - until Jesus, in an act of love and care, stood with her and deflected those accusations. Sometimes, for the sake of the kingdom, we must do what's hard: we must intervene to serve God's purposes - and defend and protect His precious sheep.

Best Practices Tip #7: Give Verbal Hugs

Pleasant words are as a honeycomb
Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
Proverbs 16:24
She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Proverbs 31:26
Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.
Proverbs 12:25
In Luke 2, we read about one of the most profound acts of female friendship, and it takes place between Elizabeth and Mary. I relate to Elizabeth a lot, because she was a ministry wife and she had to wait for a while to have the child she longed for. What a wonderful moment it must have been for her when God finally granted her request. And her child would have a great call, as well! It was definitely a pinnacle moment in her life.
Then, out of nowhere, news of Mary's pregnancy erupts. Teenage, unwed, unprepared Mary. And her son would be the son of God! Talk about a situation when you may feel indignant and one-upped. She could have compared herself to Mary and backed away in jealousy. She could have been irritated at all the attention she was getting. But that's not how she chose to respond.
In a moment when Mary was understandably terrified and unsure of her future, Elizabeth gave her one of the highest compliments shared between two women in all the Bible. She chose to celebrate her friend's victory. She chose to be an encourager. She pointed out the great things about what Mary was doing, she praised her, and soothed her anxieties about the future. That's what godly people do. They let the spotlight shine on someone else. They celebrate the victories of others. And they give affirmation when it's needed.


Best Practices Tip #8: Build Bridges 

He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than He who flatters with the tongue
Proverbs 28:23
When I think about it this proverb, I am reminded of Nathan the prophet, who, despite great fear and respect for King David, boldly relayed the message of truth from the Lord that his affair with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband was known to God and very, very wrong (2 Samuel 12). The result: David was restored and God was praised because the information came to light. When God places us in view of a friend or family member who is about to make a huge mistake, sometimes it is because He desires that we take action in addressing it, like Nathan.   
Sometimes it might take the shape of mediation, and wise counsel, like Abigail's interaction with David on behalf of Nabal in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail saw a bad situation, she saw two men reacting emotionally, and she stepped in to plead with David to think about the consequences of his actions. She saved the lives of many people because she was willing to selflessly step in to bring unity back to what was broken. And consequently, she became a queen.
A word of caution on this one: whenever we step in to correct or rebuke, the motive matters. As God's ambassadors, we are to help, to heal, to bring unity and to stand in the gap. We are never to assert our views in a posture of self-righteousness, annoyance, or to hurt anyone. If we are feeling the need to "bring someone down off their high horse" or "put them in their place," then our hearts are not right for the job, and we need to leave it alone. Only when we have a burden that comes from a deep care and love for the recipient and for God can we truly give helpful correction.

Best Practices Tip # 9: Send Candygrams

A gentle answer turns away wrath
But a harsh word stirs up anger
Proverbs 15:1
A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit. 
Proverbs 15:4
Sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
Proverbs 15:21b
Some of use really need to hear this one. No matter how right you are, or how perfect your timing, if what you say comes across as harsh and critical in your delivery, chances are you are not going to be heard. No one likes to be attacked. The best way to be effective is to deliver news with gentleness, kindness, and self control. In other words, you must say what you need to say completely filled up by the Holy Spirit - for these are His fruits.
If you are experiencing trouble with others hearing and heeding what you say, maybe you need to take note of your tone and volume of your voice. Some of you out there are just plain direct. Wonderful! Just know that there are softies out there (like me!) who desperately need you to soften it, in order to not feel totally violated and defeated. So, pour on the sugar, 'cause as Mary Poppins said best, it makes the medicine go down - in the most delightful way.  


Best Practices Tip #10: The HEART of the Matter

The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters.
Proverbs 18:4
Most likely, none of this information is new or shocking to any of you. We understand the right thing to do. So why do we have such a hard time with our words, despite our good intentions? The simple answer is revealed in this proverb - our words are the evidence of our heart's condition. If we struggle with words, the problem really goes much deeper. Jesus said, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart[a] brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." So what that tells us is that we can't simply decide one day to stop being a gossip,'s going to take more than sheer will power.

Jesus said that if any man thirst, to come to him, and out of his belly (inward parts) would flow rivers of living water. That, in part at least, means one's words. Are our words rivers of living water? Soothing, refreshing, good, life-giving? If not, dear friend, don’t pray for God to simply help you treat the symptoms, and don’t buy in to the idea that you can fix it on your own. Instead, ask Him to heal and inhabit your heart, and give Him the authority in your life to really do it - let Him fill you with those rivers of living water. The better language, pure intentions, and soothing manner will naturally follow a true filling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

So my challenge to you, and from the book of Proverbs, is this...

Let’s give our words over as a tool for God, and not for the enemy. Let’s be mod podge, not nails, and begin to build with intention, something that is good. Let's get to the work of encouraging, truth-telling, peace-making - and watch the walls of the Kingdom of God magnificently erected in our families, our churches, and our circles of influence. Let’s bring heaven to earth.

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