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“The Tongue's Prayer”

Proverbs 18:21 and others
Bob DeGray
July 27, 2003

Key Sentence

Calling on God for just a few communication skills can give you a healing tongue.


I. Say Little - O Lord, should I say anything?
II. Speak Truthfully - O Lord, what should I say?
III. Speak Helpfully - O Lord, how should I say it?


        If your tongue could talk, what would it say? ‘Wait a second, Bob, my tongue can talk. I use it to talk all the time.’ That’s not what I mean. I mean 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 it be happy? Would you be embarrassed by the report it gave? Most of our tongues are reasonably well behaved, and sometimes they do great good, as we say the right thing in a helpful way. But sometimes our tongues get us in trouble. We say the wrong thing in the wrong way. We create conflict and confusion. Our tongues hurt people, or cause us to be hurt by people.

        The tongue is a very powerful instrument, for good or for evil. James gives Scripture’s classic exposition of this. James 3:3-10 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

        James wasn’t the first one to realize the power of the tongue. Solomon recognized it a thousand years earlier, though he chose to emphasize the positive: Proverbs 18:20 -21 From the fruit of his mouth a man's stomach is filled; with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied. 21The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. The tongue has the power of life and death. This is a metaphor. What Solomon really means is that our words have the power of life and death. What James really means is that words of praise or cursing come out of our mouths. The tongue doesn’t have a mind of it’s own. When your tongue gets you in trouble, the little three inch slab of flesh has done nothing except what your mind and your will and your emotions have commanded it to do. Like all virtues, the art of positive communication starts in the heart and mind. And like all sins, the sin of harmful communication comes from within. The key to helping rather than hurting others with our words comes from attitudes and behaviors and choices we make.

        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. That’s your prayer too, isn’t it? When you get in a situation where you know your words are going to make a difference, don’t you cry out to God for the right words, at the right time? What I want to do this morning is to show from Proverbs three things you can pray that can make a huge difference, three prayers that will invite God to give you healing words. Calling on God for just a few communication skills can give you a healing tongue.

I. Say Little - O Lord, should I say anything?

        The first of the tongue’s prayers is for discernment about speaking at all: “Lord, should I say anything?” The advice Proverbs gives is to presume that we should say little. Certainly it is the height of folly to offer our opinion, our position, our answers, before really listening to discern the heart of the problem. Proverbs 18:13 He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame. One of the things I almost always say in pre-marital counseling is that men tend to be problem solvers. We listen to a tenth or a hundredth of a problem description, and we think “Oh, that’s easy, here’s the answer.” But if you’re married you may have already learned - and if not you should - that your wife doesn’t necessarily want answers. She wants you to listen to the problem and care about her. Therefore, almost without exception, 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 well enough 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 speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him. This word for fool refers neither to mental incapacity nor to moral deficiency, but to simple stubbornness - one who continues on the path of destruction because he is too bull-headed to change. But this Proverb says speaking in haste gets you into even more trouble than that. We need to be cautious about saying too much too soon. We need to think through our words rather than blurting out the first thing that occurs to us. Proverbs agrees with the cartoon that reads “Warning: engage brain before moving mouth” Too often we move our mouths first and then think.

        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, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. If you say enough things for long enough, you’ll eventually say something hurtful. Sometimes this happens when you decide that nothing you’ve said so far is making a difference: you want someone’s attention, so you get it by hurting. We need to know when to stop. 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.’ Often listening or saying just a few things, is the secret to effective communication. Proverbs makes this point for several specific situations you may encounter.
Proverbs 17:9 He who covers over an offense promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends. Here is the situation in which someone has done something to hurt you. In this case the advice to say little is almost a command, because to tell others this story, except at appropriate points in the process of church discipline, is to gossip, and gossip is sin. It causes harm. It separates even close friends. So don’t take hurts to the court of gossip, but settle them with forgiveness and caring.

        In the same way, Proverbs warns against giving un-asked-for criticism. Proverbs 11:12 A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. Your neighbor is anyone close to you, in your circle of acquaintances at home or at work or at church. There are times when someone in this circle comes and asks for advice. That’s good. But if you, as someone’s casual acquaintance, have a burning desire to share criticism, I would suggest you wrap that criticism up in a brown paper bag, and take it out in the back yard and bury it. It will do just as much good there as if you bring it up. Actually I recommend you take it to the Lord and pray about this speck you see in your brother’s eye and consider whether there might be a log in your own eye. As you work through this before the Lord, maybe he will want you to go to your brother in obedience to Matthew 18. But don’t presume you’re supposed to criticize without prayerful consideration. ‘Lord, do you want me to say anything?’

        One more situation you need to be sensitive about: Proverbs 25:9-10 If you argue your case with a neighbor, do not betray another man's confidence, 10or he who hears it may shame you and you will never lose your bad reputation. One area in which the Lord will always answer ‘say nothing’ is when you are tempted to use another person’s private disclosure to make a point with a third person. ‘Did you know that so and so is going through the same thing and he’s handling it like this!’ 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, ask permission right when the conversation is happening.

II. Speak Truthfully - O Lord, what should I say?

        So 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 something?” You need to consciously ask God for guidance and trust that he will give you a green light to speak or a red light to stop. But once you determine that God does want you to say something your tongue’s next prayer is “Lord, what should I say?” The detailed answer to that will depend on the situation, but Proverbs does give one very important guideline: speak truthfully.

        Proverbs sees great virtue in telling the truth. Proverbs 12:19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Truth has eternal value. Lies have no value, now or into eternity. When you ask God “what should I say” I believe he responds ‘find the truth and say that’. Don’t communicate unless you know the facts of the matter or are willing to learn them by listening. This means thinking through a situation or report and carefully separating facts from interpretations, truth from fiction. Listening is critical, because you can consider before God what you’ve heard and communicate based on what a person has said and how they’ve said it.

        Now all that might sound highly theoretical, but if you are a parent you’ve probably practiced this. No parent wants to punish unjustly, and all parents learn that surface appearances, when children fight or in some other apparent disobedience, can be deceiving. Parents learn not to immediately presume guilt or innocence, but to find out the facts in the matter, and listen carefully for truth or cover up in a child’s explanation, and then clarify the truth for the child ‘so what you’re really saying is that you were being careless with the glass’ and take action based on that truth.

        That’s what God calls us to do in all communication - to have a discerning ear for the truth and then to communicate that rather than rumor or falsehood, and certainly rather than lies. Proverbs applies this specifically to judicial types of situations Proverbs 14:25 A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful. In this verse you’re not the judge, but the reporter, the one who has some information. If you communicate that information truthfully, you’re to be commended. If you choose to lie to puff yourself up or save your skin or hurt someone, you’re a sinner. One way communication becomes conflict is when the parties are not truthful, but lie to gain some advantage. Lies breed conflict like stagnant water breed mosquitos.

        Let me point out one more thing that really adds a dimension to these last two verses. Do you see the word ‘truthful’? It’s the Hebrew word ‘emeth’ which is frequently applied to God. It is one of his character qualities, used in Exodus 34 and many other places in Scripture which say that ‘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 have seen or heard. Our words are to be truthful so that they can be faithful to the person we’re talking to. Our tongues are to seek God’s help that we might communicate honest truth with intent to do good.

        Several verses in Proverbs amplify the need for honesty in communication. Proverbs 24:26 An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips. A good short verse. An honest answer is one that tells the truth, does not lie or flatter. The author says this is like a kiss. It’s as much a sign of friendship, a sign of love to communicate honestly as to kiss. Of course, in Hebrew and other Middle Eastern cultures and some Western cultures a kiss was and is much more a sign of friendship than of romantic love.

        The point is that when we’re asking God ‘what should I say’ we need to strive to hear and give an honest and faithful account. This is how we show love to those we are close to, our spouses, our children, our brothers and sisters in Christ, even non-believers who are our friends. We neither exaggerate nor minimize the situations we’re discussing. Rather, as Paul says in Ephesians, we speak the truth in love.

        The only alternative to truth is a lie, and Proverbs 26:28 teaches that a lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin. If we communicate untruth, telling somebody something is OK where it’s really not, or telling somebody they have a problem where they really don’t, we hurt and possibly ruin them. We see this in a dad or mom who can never acknowledge good in what their son or daughter does. No matter how hard the child works, no matter what they accomplish, all they get is indifference or a pointing out of their faults. This kind of bad communication, literally lying to the child about themselves, has done tremendous damage.

        But if we seek to know and understand those we communicate with, and then communicate truth, that’s commendable. Proverbs 20:15 Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel. I often counsel married couples and engaged couples that they are to be the world’s foremost expert in their spouse. You are to have so much knowledge and have studied your spouse so well that you could have a Ph.D. in . . .whatever your spouse’s name is. If you have this knowledge of a person, who they are, what they’re like, how they’re motivated, your communication with them will be a blessing more valuable than gold or rubies. Lips that speak knowledge are rare, but we are to seek to speak knowledgeably in all our communication. We ought to encourage or challenge by sharing the honest truth.

III. Speak Helpfully - O Lord, how should I say it?

        But someone will say: ‘Truth is hard; it’s blunt; sometimes truth hurts.’ Granted. So the third thing we ought to pray even in the middle of a conversation is ‘how should I say this?’ What’s the right way to share what God has convinced you ought to be shared? Proverbs offers several insights, but they can be summarized with the overly simple phrase “Speak helpfully” I would have said ‘speak healingly’ but ‘healingly’ isn’t a word. Proverbs 12:18-19 Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Reckless words, that haven’t been thought through will pierce like a sword. But how do you avoid them? Calling on God before you speak is the best way I know to have a healing tongue. The whole outline this morning is really a way to think your words through, with God’s help.

        Notice the presuppositions. If our tongues are supposed to bring healing, that presumes someone is sick and needs help. The simple truth is that 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 caused some hurt, possibly deep hurt. If so, there is no one better than you to bring healing. Maybe your words of confession and your seeking of forgiveness can renew a relationship.

        It may be, however, that you are not the burden for the person you’re talking, but it is stresses at work, stresses from relationships, financial stress, sickness, or habitual sin. Maybe your words or even your silences can come alongside to bring comfort and healing. Or it could be this person is doing fine, and they just need to hear it. Some of the most healing words in the world are given as preventative medicine, given as encouragement for those doing well. Finally, it’s possible the person you’re dealing with is unjustly using words to accuse you. Maybe you are the target of another person’s anger. Remember that anger indicates hurt, and try to use words that will address the heart problem and bring healing. Do you see how this works? There is no person toward whom therapeutic words are unsuitable Almost all significant communication can be healing communication if you seek God’s help.

        Proverbs approves this endeavor. Proverbs 15:4 The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. We’ve seen that phrase ‘tree of life’ in Proverbs before. It is ‘a tree that brings life’ as the tree of life does in Genesis and Revelation. In Proverbs it usually means health and blessing. Healing words are what you need to really live. Do you believe that? Proverbs 16:24 Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Remember, honey was about the only source of sweetness in the ancient diet, and it was rare, maybe once a year. So pleasant words are like a rare sweet treasure that satisfies the soul and brings healing. Our prayer is that these may be the kind of words God gives us.

        One key characteristic of such words, according to Proverbs, is gentleness. No matter what it is I need to say, God is calling me to say it gently. Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. I have long been fascinated by the Biblical term gentle. There are at least three words translated ‘gentle’ in the Old Testament and two major ones in the New, where Jesus says that he is gentle and humble of heart and gives rest to our souls. I’m convinced that if our words are to bring healing, they must be expressed gently and originate in humility. It is no good to simply to fake gentleness - we need true compassion for those we communicate with, even when they’re caught in repeated, consistent error. Only then can we give the quiet reproof that calms anger and brings healing.

        This is true even when someone is opposed to what God has given you to say. Proverbs 25:15 15Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone. There’s a persistent myth that gentleness is weakness or more accurately, 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. The picture in this proverb says patience and gentleness will ‘break a bone’. At times we deal with people who are hard hearted, whether about a sin they’re committing, or in their attitude toward someone else. We will not soften their hearts by our 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 A man finds joy in giving an apt reply– and how good is a timely word! 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. We’ve talked about the fact that we should not say too much, that there are times to be quiet. True. But some people, often men, have a damaging tendency to clam up when things should be said. We don’t encourage when encouragement is appropriate, we don’t interact when interaction would be helpful and we don’t confront when confrontation is needed. But if we’ve seriously sought God’s words and God’s timing, we ought to say what he’s given us to say.

        So our words should be gentle, they should be at the right time, they should be healing. This is summed up by the picture of Proverbs 25:11-12 11A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. 12Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man's rebuke to a listening ear. The picture isn’t of fruit, but of sculpted or cast apples made of gold, set in a bowl or background of silver. It’s a picture of richness. In the same way an earring or ornament of gold, is desirable and valuable. But these verses tell us that a word aptly spoken - the right, truthful word at the right time - is more valuable and desirable than these desirable things. In fact, this Proverbs says, a well spoken correction is more desirable than gold. 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. We should, because rebuke is what helps us walk in righteousness and that’s very valuable.

        Let me close with two summary thoughts that grow out of this last verse. We’ve talked about the tongue’s prayers: “should I speak?” and we learn that is right to say less rather than more. “What should I say?” and we learn that we should speak the truth in love. “how should I say it?” With healing words, gentle words, timely words.
        My first final thought, is that these are not one time prayers, first, second, third, but in real life communication they are recurring prayers throughout a conversation, as you consider each interaction. Praying like this will slow you down a little, but may dramatically improve your tongue’s effectiveness. When Gail and I were first married I had the habit of not being responsive when we were discussing important things, and that rightly bothered Gail. But as time went on, internally I improved, learning to seek these best ways to communicate. The problem was I looked the same as if I was being unresponsive, because I took so long to think about it. 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 her know I was really thinking, and eventually I would say what I had thought about. Take the time to think before you speak. But don’t not speak.

        My last final thought is the question “Where do I get the words God wants me to say?” Certainly you get them from your situation, and from your seeking after the facts and the truth. But I believe you also get them from Scripture. Psalm 19 tells us that 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 that the words you speak will have this value if they are the words of Scripture. We need to be so filled up with the words of Scripture and so studied up with those words that our speech incorporates the truths of God’s word at every turn. Then, whether it is casual communication with friends or neighbors or very important communication with a spouse, a child, or a brother in Christ we will have the content of what God wants us to share right at hand. We listen to what others have to say, we learn from Scripture whether God wants us to respond. We seek the truth in the situation, and we learn from Scripture how God feels about the circumstances. Finally, we look for the most gentle and healing way to present what we’ve discerned, and we find in Scripture God’s own words to communicate his heart to our hearers. That’s communication - that’s the proper use of the tongue. My prayer is that all of us would grow in it.