“Be the Cheerleader”
Proverbs 16:24 and others
June 23, 2013
Words of encouragement have incredible power to heal and bless.
One person, more than any other, helped me to recognize the truths we’re studying today. Three years ago this week our good friend Laura Pinard went to be with the Lord. Her life and death had a lasting impact on many of us, not least my family as we’ve welcomed her sons Bobby and Johnny to be part of our clan.
Over the years Laura had a lot of struggles. On top of the medical issues she had employment issues, relational issues and financial issues. And finding her way out of these things didn’t always go the way she hoped. A lot of people helped her - but the role I found myself taking most often, was to be the cheerleader, the encourager, applauding the positives and helping her past the negatives “I’m sorry that didn’t work. Let’s try this, or this other; let’s keep trying.”
Laura was very sensitive, and would emotionally collapse for a time when she found she’d made a mistake. But she was also very positive and optimistic, always ready to take hold of the next possible alternative. She responded well to encouragement, so I consciously became her cheerleader, right to the end.
This showed the power of cheerleading: words of encouragement have incredible power to heal and to bless. Scripture teaches that, especially in the book of Proverbs. So this morning I want to walk through a number of verses in that book and see its testimony to the healing and blessing our words can bring. And as we do that I want us to consider the following application: word and reword until your words are positive and encouraging. Those who have hung out with me will recognize this as one component of the tongue’s prayer: should I say anything? What should I say? And how should I say it? How can I say this in a way that is positive and encouraging?
But this isn’t just a verbal trick. Jesus is the one who has told us that the tongue and the heart are intimately related, so that being the cheerleader in your family and speaking in encouraging and positive ways is as much a heart issue as a words issue. Jesus says “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person.”” So as we study these verses we not only need to be wording and rewording until our words are positive and encouraging, but we need to praying and re-praying for Jesus to make our hearts right as we speak.
The verse that I’ve chosen as the key verse for this study is Proverbs 16:24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
This is a great verse. First, it’s great visually because honey and the honeycomb are beautiful works of God’s art. It’s even a great taste image, as I showed the children. We know the appeal of sweetness, especially in contrast to sourness or bitterness. But what does this verse compare to sweetness? Gracious words; gracious speech. The Hebrew words means pleasant, sweet, delightful, beautiful, lovely, agreeable. It is used of physical beauty in Song of Solomon and the beauty of a good land, Issachar's portion in the land of Canaan. It is used of the taste of bread and the music of the lyre. In Proverbs, in addition to describing our speech, it is used to describe wisdom and knowledge.
Occasionally it is used of God. Psalm 135:3 “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing to his name, for he is beautiful. Psalm 27:4 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” It’s Psalm 90:17 “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.”
So it is this sweet beauty that should characterize our words, our speech. This kind of speech is sweetness to our souls and health to our bodies: it has incredible positive impact. I know that’s true in my own life. One of the people I meet with, irregularly because of our schedules, is David Jackson. I love it when we can get together, but he also frequently ministers to me through the brief text conversations we have when we can’t meet. For example back in May we had a conversation in which he reminded me that “His love covers, conquers and caresses us with grace. To delight in His good love is to delight in what we most long for.” Those are words of grace; they were sweetness to my soul.
We need to speak this way in our families. Tina just came back from South Africa – pretty amazing trip, though she was too wiped out to make it this morning. But while she was there she had a couple of low moments, and in one of them she wrote “so weary, daddy, so many starving children; so much need. Please pray for strength. My back is hurting and so is my heart. I’m doing exactly what I love, but it’s hard, so hard.” So I thought and prayed about how I might respond, and I remembered a phrase from 2nd Timothy “You, then, my child, be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That was perfect, but I felt it wasn’t enough so I added a further prayer from Colossians: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” A little bit later Tina texted ‘Amen, thanks. I really need that.’ Heart.
So that’s me trying to share encouraging words. And it doesn’t have to be Scripture: I also texted her that I was ordering some brand new Sweet Maria’s coffee to be here when she got back. I left here a pot of that at home this morning.
But the point of the verse and of the examples is that gracious and encouraging words are sweet to the soul and physically restoring. Now it’s true that the words you consider encouraging may not always be heard that way. But if you word and reword, before you speak, God will often bless your words. Jesus told us that one of the things the Holy Spirit would do is give us words to say. And if a person doesn’t receive those words, we should pray that our words would not give a reason for offense, we can try to positively clarify, and think together with them, and we must leave the outcome in God’s hands. Sometimes people can’t or won’t be encouraged. But negative reactions don’t change our responsibility to speak to family members in positive, encouraging ways.
So this key verse directly supports our key idea, that words of encouragement have incredible power to heal and bless. And the rest of these verses reinforce that in specific ways. The next one comes from what I call the ‘my son’ section of Proverbs. Chapter 4:20-22 My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. 21Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. 22For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh.
These are words from a father to his son, words spoken in the heart of the family. This father pleading with his son to heed his words: be attentive; incline your ear; let them not escape; keep them in your heart. But we don’t hear the words themselves, at this point; we assume they’re words of instruction. We also get the distinct impression, though we are not told, that this father is not yelling at his son, not berating him, but speaking heart to heart. Why? Because he knows his instruction has incredible power to heal and bless. These words are life: they are intended to build up and nourish his son. These words are physically beneficial: bringing healing to the flesh. The principles of blessing and healing affirmed in the first verse are also true in the heart of the family.
Here’s another one Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad. This is about your family; you have family members who are weighed down by anxiety; your children, your parents, your brother or sister. I really don’t think my family is unique in this, and I can tell you that we take turns, we go through cycles where each after the other gets burdened by things that weigh us down. It could be that we’re just too busy, that we’re sick, that someone else is sick or injured or hospitalized, that we’re facing work challenges, or caught up in relational conflict, or moral dilemma or fear. Anxiety is real, but a good word can make the anxious person glad.
So what do you say when a person is weighed down by anxiety? You have to be careful: some people are not tremendously helped by being told “don’t worry, be happy, everything will be okay.” And yet the other extreme is not an option either. Many of you know that I love David and Karen Main’s books The Tales of the Kingdom: in several stories a group of beings appear, servants of the enemy called ‘naysayers’ Their chant is ‘nothing has been done; nothing is being done; nothing will be done; nay; nay; nay.’ Sometimes we’re almost that negative. In our family we call these ‘Eeyore’ moments.
We have to have something other than blind optimism, and other than a pity party. I believe the good words that most often cheer are care and pray. The people in your family need to know you care; your words powerfully communicate this. But recognize that your words are more than just your words; you also communicate with body language and tone of voice. But when your attention and your heart and your tone of voice all line up behind the message ‘I care about what you’re feeling’ that can make a huge difference for a person.
Okay, I just have to stop and show one of the great Youtube videos of recent months. It gently mocks my lifelong teaching that all your wife really needs is for you to listen and to care. “It’s just, there’s all this pressure, you know. And sometimes it feels like it’s right up on me and I can just feel it, like literally feel it in my head and it’s relentless and I don’t know if it’s gonna stop, I mean, that’s the thing that scares me the most, it’s that I don’t know if it’s ever gonna stop.” “Ya. Wha-you do a have a nail in your head.” “It is not about the nail.” “Are you sure, cause, I mean, I bet if we got that out of there.” “Stop trying to fix it.” “No, I’m not trying to fix it, I’m just pointing out that maybe the nail is causing . . .” “You always do this – you always try to fix things when all I really need is for you to just listen.” “No, see, I don’t think that is what you need, I think what you need is to get the nail out . . .” “SEE YOU’RE NOT EVEN LISTENING NOW!” “Ok, fine. I will listen, fine.” “It’s just – sometimes it’s like – there’s this achy. I don’t know what it is. And I’m not really sleeping very well at all. And all my sweaters are snagged. I mean – all of them.” “That sounds really hard.” “It is. Thank you.” “Awww!” “Oh come on – If you would just . . .” “Don’t!”
Ok guys, parents, let me tell you: it’s usually not about the nail. In this case it was, but usually people weighed down by anxiety are right that you can’t solve their problems: they needs you to care. And they need you to pray. I mean, you can encourage your family directly about the faithfulness of God and the peace he offers, but you might as well just pray with them.
And again, pray Scripture. A while back I was asking the high school class to pick one of Paul’s prayers that especially struck them and I would pray it for them. Bobby picked one that I came to recognize as very important to this whole subject. In Romans Paul prays “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” A great prayer for someone weighed down by anxiety.
So be the cheerleader and the cheer-prayer for other people; the gentle encourager. But choose your words carefully. Word and reword until your words are positive and encouraging. Proverbs15:4 A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. Proverbs 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.
Words are powerful. How do we use them use them to encourage? Let me make a few suggestions. First, and you’ve heard this before, avoid absolutes. Avoid blanket statements. ‘You always put me down in front of my friends; you never finish anything I tell you to do; you always assume the worst of me; you never take the time to understand what I’m trying to achieve.’ And so on and so on. If you do critique for the sake of understanding, don’t exaggerate. Instead: ‘Sometimes I feel put down in front of my friends. It seems at times you expect me to fail.’ ‘But at times, son, we feel like you’re not really taking into account our goals for you, even in the case of finishing your tasks.’
Combined with tone of voice and body language those two conversations could be really different. The main difference is that both of the people in this dispute were will to forgo absolutes and embrace good words. Words are life and death to relationships – especially in the family.
Which leads to my second, frequent, suggestion: embrace tentativeness. It is more powerful to get someone to think than to tell them what to do or what they’re doing wrong. Tentativeness means offering positive advice as suggestion. Don’t waste commands on people you can’t order around. And even when you do have that right, don’t use commands unless you absolutely need to. I’m wondering if you wouldn’t find it more powerful to approach the solution tentatively, in a way that helps people embrace what you’re communicating.
I remember years ago when I gave this advice in pre-marital counseling to a couple who were at that ‘gift-registry’ stage of wedding prep. So they would go to a store and she would say “which one do you like?” He would say “I like that one.” And she would think that was absolute, and she didn’t want to disagree. So stuff she really didn’t like was getting on the list. As soon as he learned to say “Well, I kind of like that one, but I’m open” it gave her permission to point out one or two others, and decide together. And that really reduced her tension.
My third suggestion is that you practice rewording negative statements positively. Eliminate words like not, neither, nor and never. Recognizing that tone of voice and body language can make almost any statement come out negative, it’s still helpful to avoid these kinds of words. Now you’ll say ‘what about the Ten Commandments?’ They’re negative: do not murder; do not steal, do not lie. And they’re valuable and important. But when Jesus was asked to summarize the commandments, he choose positives: love the Lord your God and Love your neighbor. These words would have been much less powerful if he’d said ‘Don’t hate God’ and ‘Don’t hate your neighbor.’
Yet in families we tend to communicate frequently in negatives. ‘Don’t do that; you may not; never.’ So practice making positive statements. Instead of ‘Don’t sit in that chair and watch YouTube all day’ how about ‘I really think you’d feel better with some exercise. What can you find to keep you moving this morning?’ Instead of absolute negatives like ‘Mom, you never let me do anything with my friends’ how about ‘Okay, Mom, I’m good with that today, but I’d really like to work out a time when I can see so-and-so.’
Let’s practice a few. What would be a positive wording for ‘If you can’t keep your room clean you’re never going to get a driver’s license!’ How about ‘Don’t eat the mashed potatoes with your fingers.’ Here’s an easy one that my mom never figured out. She used to say ‘you don’t look as fat as you used to.’ I’m sure you can reword that positively. But here’s a hard one: ‘You’re an idiot. You’ll never amount to anything.’ There is no good way to reword that positively. The only thing you can do is not say it. In fact I would strongly encourage you to avoid negative character assessments. If you tell someone – spouse, child, parent – they are a lazy worthless slob – they’ll be shaped by that assessment for a long time. Maybe shaped toward anger and rebellion, maybe toward agreement and self-despair, but shaped, definitely shaped.
So word and reword until your words are positive and encouraging. It’s not that hard to think before we speak; yet every one of us here has said things we regret and things that hurt. And what’s really sad is that the alternative is not hard and brings so much blessing. The sense that ‘my daddy believes I can do this;’ the thought that ‘with a little more effort I can do my best work yet;’ the simple confidence that ‘my husband, my wife, my mom, my dad, my son, my daughter, my brother, my sister loves me’ or maybe even better ‘like me’; this is powerful medicine against the ills of this world that want to destroy us.
Scripture attests to this power of this. Proverbs 12:18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Your words can hurt; your words can heal. And healing words are a beautiful thing.
Proverbs 25: A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. 12Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. 13Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest is a faithful messenger to those who send him; he refreshes the soul of his masters.
Don’t you love the imagery? The author compares gracious words, pleasant words, encouraging words to the beauty of gold and silver, to the refreshment of cold snow on a hot day. In the Middle East that would be the closest thing you could ever get to ice water – and it might happen once or twice in a lifetime. So it was at least as precious as gold; and it is being compared to the words of a faithful messenger, or a wise reprover; words fitly spoken do this.
So word and reword until your words are positive and encouraging. There are countless examples in literature of parents who encouraged their children just this way. I think of Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was born in poverty in Detroit and whose mom was his cheerleader. When Ben was in fifth grade, he was doing terribly in school, and was universally called a dummy.
That fall, when Ben received his midterm grades, he wasn’t surprised by F’s in most of his subjects. When Ben got home, he dropped his books on the table, hoping his mother wouldn't see the report. That didn't happen. "Bennie, is this your midterm report?" she asked, looking it over carefully. "Yes, ma'am," Ben replied, "but it doesn't mean much." "No, Bennie," she answered, "it means a lot! If you keep making grades like this, you'll spend the rest of your life sweeping floors in a factory. And that's not what God wants for you."
Sonya pulled Ben and Curtis close to her and looked right into their faces. "Boys, I don't know what to do. But God promises in the Bible to give wisdom to those who ask. So tonight I'm going to pray for wisdom. I'm going to ask God what I need to do to help you." Two days later, the boys found out God's answer to their mother's prayer, and they didn't like it. "God says we need to turn off the television," Sonya told her sons. “You may choose three TV shows to watch each week, but that’s all. You can use the extra time for reading."
The boys complained and tried to change her mind, but their mother wasn't finished. ''You're also to write two book reports every week about what you read. Then you can present your reports out loud to me." So the boys reluctantly selected a stack of books at the nearest branch of the Detroit Library. Public Library. Some people thought Ben's mother was being too hard on her sons. Several of her friends talked to her, telling her the boys needed more time to play outside. They warned her that Curtis and Ben would hate her for making them turn off the TV to read and write reports.
But those people were wrong. Ben never hated his mother. Yes, he told her she was making them work too hard. But inside he knew she loved him and Curtis, and only wanted the best for them. Ben believed her when she said that if he tried, he could do anything he wanted to do.
Sonya Carson had high expectations for Curtis and Ben, and she never let them forget it. She observed the lives and habits of the successful and wealthy people whose homes she cleaned every day. "They are no different from us," she told her sons. "Anything they can do, you can do. And if you really want to and you work hard, you can do it better." And like most cheerleaders, her encouragement was directed not just toward the boys, but against those who would naysay in their lives. When other parents questioned her choices, she would tell them, "Say what you want, but my boys are going to be something. They're going to be self-supporting and learn how to love other folks. And no matter what they decide to do, they're going to be the best in the world at it."
So what have we said? It’s very simple “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words of encouragement have incredible power to heal and bless. So word and reword until your words are positive and encouraging.