“The Tongue's Prayer”
Proverbs 18:21 and others
November 4, 2018
Calling on God for just a few communication skills can give you a healing tongue.
I. Say little: “Should I say anything?”
II. Speak truthfully: “What should I say?”
III. Speak helpfully: “How should I say it?”
If your tongue could talk, what would it say? “Wait a second, Bob, my tongue can talk. That’s what it does.” But that’s not what I’m asking. If your tongue had an independent ability to speak it’s own mind and tell us what it thought of the words you’ve said, what would it say? Would you be embarrassed by the report it gave? Would it say, “I can hardly move in here, because every time he uses me he puts his foot in his mouth.” Or would it be proud of how you speak? Our tongues can do great good, bring healing. At other times they get us in trouble, creating conflict and confusion, hurt and anger.
The tongue is a very powerful instrument, for good or for evil. James gives Scripture’s classic exposition of this. James 3:4-10 “Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
James wasn’t the first one to realize the power of the tongue. Solomon recognized it a thousand years earlier: Proverbs 18:20 “From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips. 21Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” It’s not really the tongue, of course, it’s the words it speaks that bring death or life. When your tongue gets you in trouble, the little three inch slab of flesh has done nothing except what your mind, will and emotions have commanded it to do. Like all virtues, the art of positive communication starts in the heart and mind. Like all sins, the sin of harmful communication comes from within.
But let’s imagine for one more moment that your tongue could pray. What would it ask in the moment when your words could make a difference for good or for evil? Wouldn’t it ask for wisdom and insight to bring healing communication? Wouldn’t it ask things like ‘What should I say?’ How should I say it?’ The tongue’s prayer would be to speak carefully chosen helpful words.
When you get in a situation where your words are going to make a difference, I hope you cry out to God for the right words? What I want to do this morning is to shape that prayer, to show from Proverbs three things you can pray that can make a huge difference, that invite God to give you healing words. Calling on God for just a few communication skills can give you a healing tongue.
The first of the tongue’s prayers is to know whether to speak at all. “Lord, should I say anything?” Proverbs teaches us to say little. First, be a good listener. Proverbs 18:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” One of the things I say in pre-marital counseling is that men tend to be problem solvers. We listen to a tiny fraction of a problem, and think “Oh, that’s easy, do this.” But (a) you probably don’t understand the true issue yet, and (b) the person you’re taking to, your wife or anyone, may not want answers, but just to be heard and cared for. Almost always, the first answer to the prayer “Lord, should I say anything?” is “not yet.” Either the good listening itself is all the communication needed or, having listened, you will understand the problem enough to answer heart rather than surface issues.
In fact, Proverbs is pretty well convinced that speaking too soon is foolish. Proverbs 29:20 “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” This word for fool refers to stubbornness, one who sticks to a destructive path because he’s too bull-headed to change. But speaking in haste gets you into even more trouble than that. Proverbs agrees with the old cartoon that reads “Warning: engage brain before moving mouth” In crucial communication, between husband and wife, or in advising a friend, or in dealing with your kids, if you don’t think and pray, your words will cause harm. Proverbs 10:19 “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” If you talk long enough, you’ll hurt someone.. Sometimes this happens when you decide what you’ve said so far isn’t making a difference: you want someone’s attention, so you get it by hurting. We need to pray ‘should I say more or stop?’ I’ve known people who have corrected someone or counseled someone, and their first words are great, but then they go on and on until they’ve hurt or exasperated the person listening. A few words carefully chosen are almost always better than many.
Often God’s response when we pray “Lord, should I say something?” is ‘say little.’ Listening and saying just a few things, is key to effective communication. Proverbs makes this point for several specific situations you may encounter. Proverbs 17:9 “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” If someone has done or said something to hurt you, telling others about it so that it is shared around as gossip is the worst thing you can do. Far better to overlook an offense, far better to forgive.
In the same way, Proverbs warns against giving un-asked-for criticism. Proverbs 11:12, NIV “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue.” In daily life in your neighborhood or at work or a at church you will see something about a person, an acquaintance, that rubs you the wrong way. But it’s usually a bad idea to confront them. It only stirs up trouble, and doesn’t change anything. The path of wisdom is silence.
I’ve been rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book “Life Together,” and he makes just this point. He calls it “The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue.” “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words. Thoughts of judgment can be curbed by never allowing them the right to be uttered. He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body. Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him. This prohibition does not include the personal word of advice and guidance. But to speak about a brother openly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in.” That’s strong, but so good.
Proverbs gives practical reasons for this. Proverbs 25:9-10 “Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret, 10lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.” One area in which the Lord will always answer ‘say nothing’ is when you are tempted to use another person’s private disclosure or shortcoming to make a point with a third person. “Did you know so and so is going through the same thing!” Bad idea: people get in tremendous trouble by sharing disclosures outside the circle of permission. The Proverb says you will get a reputation you’ll never live down as a busybody, a gossip, unreliable. You’ve got to mentally mark some conversations as confidential the moment you have them, and if you think you will need to share these things, always ask permission.
The first rule of effective communication as found in Proverbs is to know when to say nothing and when to say little. How do you know these things? The tongue’s prayer is “Lord, should I say anything?” Consciously ask God for guidance and trust he will give you a green light to speak or a red light to stop.
Once you determine that God wants you to say something your tongue’s next prayer is “Lord, what should I say?” The detailed answer depends on the situation, but Proverbs gives one important guideline: speak truthfully. Proverbs 12:19 “Truthful lips endure forever but a lying tongue is for a moment.” Truth has eternal value. Lies have no value. When you ask God “what should I say” he responds “find the truth and say that.” Don’t give opinions or half-truths.
One example that I struggle with is the the temptation to smooth over a situation with lies, to tell a person the situation is not as bad as they think it is, when it is, to tell a person that they have no fault in the situation when they do. Only truth, said carefully, will serve God if he wants you to say something.
Proverbs 14:25 “A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.” In this verse you are the witness. You have some information and you are called to communicate truthfully. You may also, at times, be tempted to bring hearsay or gossip or rumors to a situation. Don’t do it. Stick to what you know to be true. To make yourself look good, or to shift blame to others is deceit. It breeds conflict like stagnant water breeds mosquitos. Communication quickly becomes anger is when the parties are not truthful.
Let me add one thing to expand this. The word ‘truthful’ is the Hebrew word ‘emeth’ which is frequently applied to God. It is one of his character qualities, in Exodus 34 and many other verses: “the Lord is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.’ The last word is ‘emeth’. It means both faithfulness and truthfulness. So our testimony is to be true because we are faithful witnesses to what we’ve seen or heard. Our words are to be true so that we can be faithful to the person we’re talking to. Our tongues are to seek God’s help to speak honest truth with intent to do good.
Several verses in Proverbs amplify the need for honesty in communication. Proverbs 24:26 “Whoever gives an honest answer kisses the lips.” An honest answer is one that tells the truth, does not lie or flatter. The author says this is like a kiss. Of course, in Hebrew and other Middle Eastern cultures a kiss was a sign of friendship, not romantic love. The idea is when we ask God ‘what should I say’ we need to strive to give an honest and faithful account. This is how we show love to those we are close to, our spouses, our children, fellow believers, even non-believing friends. We neither exaggerate nor minimize the situations we’re discussing. Rather, as Paul says in Ephesians, we speak the truth in love.
Proverbs forbids lying. Proverbs 26:28 “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” If we communicate untruth, telling somebody something is OK when it’s not, or telling them they have a problem where they don’t, we hurt and possibly ruin them. We see this in a dad or mom who can’t see good in what their son or daughter does. No matter how hard the child works or what they accomplish, all they get is indifference or criticism. If you’ve read Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys, you’ve seen fascinating insight into how this shapes a young man. Not to make light of it, but as I looked for another example I found one where the son confronts his mother, saying “What if I don’t do great things with my life? What if I just become a lawyer?”
Truthful faithfulness blesses. Proverbs 20:15 “There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.” I tell engaged couples that they are to be the world’s foremost expert in their spouse. Study your spouse so well that you could have a Ph.D. in them. If you have knowledge of a person, who they are, what they’re like, how they tick, your communication will be a blessing more valuable than gold or rubies. Such knowledge is rare, but as God answers prayer we can be that blessing, encouraging with truth.
But you’ll say ‘Truth is hard; it’s blunt; sometimes truth hurts.’ Granted. So the third thing we ought to pray is ‘how should I say this?’ Proverbs offers several insights, summarized by the overly simple phrase “Speak helpfully” Speak healingly. Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” How do you avoid painful rash words? Pray before you speak. God wants to give you a healing tongue. Notice the presuppositions. If our tongues are supposed to bring healing, that presumes someone is hurting. In fact nearly everyone you spend time with, whether spouse, child, parent, neighbor or co-worker, is hurting in some way.
It may be that prior reckless and sinful words of yours have been hurtful. If so, there is no one better than you to bring healing. But you may not be the problem. People struggle with broken relationships, financial stress, sickness, fear, doubt, loneliness, habitual sin. Maybe your words or even your listening can come alongside to bring comfort. Or maybe this person is doing fine, and they just need to hear it. Some of the most healing words in life are preventative medicine, encouragement for those doing well. Finally, it’s possible the person is unjustly using words to attack you. Maybe you are the target of another person’s anger. Remember that anger indicates hurt and brokenness. Try to respond in ways that get to the heart problem and bring healing.
Proverbs approves this endeavor. Proverbs 15:4, NIV, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” The ESV says “a gentle tongue is a tree of life.” We’ve seen that phrase ‘tree of life’ in before. In Proverbs it usually means health and blessing. Healing words are what you need to really live. Do you believe that? Proverbs 16:24 “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Honey was about the only source of sweetness in the ancient diet, and it was rare. So pleasant words are like a rare sweet treasure that satisfies the soul and brings healing. Our prayer is that these may be the words God gives us.
When I was young we were taught to say “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Your words can do great hurt, but by God’s grace your words can also heal.
The key characteristic of such words, according to Proverbs, is gentleness. No matter what I need to say, God says to say it gently. Proverbs 15:1 “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Anger feeds anger. Gentleness feeds gentleness. Jesus says that he is gentle and humble of heart and gives rest to our souls. Gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
I’m convinced that if our words are to bring healing, they must be expressed gently, even to those who are trapped in repeated, consistent error. Proverbs 25:15 “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a gentle tongue will break a bone.” A persistent myth says that gentleness is weakness or ineffectiveness. ‘If I’m not forceful I’ll never get my point across, I’ll never get through to this person.’ Proverbs says the wise course is patience and gentleness, not losing your temper and screaming. At times we deal with those who are hard hearted, whether about a sin they’re committing, or in their attitude toward others. We will not soften their hearts by anger, but if we gently and patiently present the words God wants us to say, he can break through to touch even the hard heart.
So we’ve seen the word healing, we’ve seen the word gentle. But Proverbs gives more answers to the question ‘how should I say it?’ Let’s look at two more before we close. Proverbs 15:23 “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” The word apt, in English, means “unusually well suited to a purpose.” Our words should be well suited and timely. Having prayed the way we have prayed, we should say what God has given us to say, no more, no less, at the time he gives us to say it. Some of us have a damaging tendency to clam up when things should be said. We don’t encourage when encouragement is needed, we don’t ask good questions, we don’t confront when confrontation is needed. But if we’ve sought God’s words, we ought then to say what he’s given us to say.
Proverbs 25:11-12 “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.” The picture isn’t of fruit, but of sculpted apples made of gold, set in a bowl of silver. It’s a picture of richness. In the same way a ring of gold is desirable and valuable. But these verses tell us that a word fitly spoken, the right, truthful word, even in rebuke, at the right time, is more valuable these desirable things. We can imagine praise or encouragement so meaningful that people might desire them more than gold, but we don’t think that way about rebuke. But often it is the gentle rebukes of life that are most valuable.
The tongues prayers: “Should I speak?” We’ve learned that is right to say less rather than more. “What should I say?” We speak the truth in love. “How should I say it?” With healing words, gentle words, timely words.
Let me close with two summary thoughts. First, these are not one time prayers, one, two, three, speak. No, in real life they are recurring prayers throughout a conversation. Praying like this will slow you down a little, but may greatly improve your tongue’s effectiveness. Early in my marriage I was guilty of being unresponsive when discussing important things. That, rightly, bothered Gail. Later I improved, learning to seek these better ways to communicate. The problem was I took so long to think that I looked the same as if I was being unresponsive, withdrawing. So we developed a code: when I was trying to consider what I’d heard, and think of the right thing to say and the right way to say it, I would tap the side of my head to let Gail know I was really thinking. At the same time I committed to actually getting the words out. Take the time to pray before you speak. But don’t not speak.
My last final thought concerns the question “Where do I get the words God wants me to say?” Certainly, you get them from your situation, from seeking after the truth, and from the Holy Spirit. But I believe you also get them from Scripture. Psalm 19 tells us the words of God are more desirable than gold, even much fine gold. So if God’s words already have this value, it makes sense to speak these words. You and I can be so filled up with the words of Scripture that it shapes our speech. Then, whether it is casual communication with friends or critical communication with a spouse, child, or a brother in Christ we will have the content of what God wants us to share right at hand. If God wants us to speak, Scripture teaches us what to say. It is the Spirit’s sword, piercing the souls of those who hear it. And yet as we look for the most gentle and healing way to present what we’ve discerned, we find in Scripture God’s own words to communicate healing to our hearers. That’s the proper use of the tongue. My prayer is that all of us would grow in it.