The book of Proverbs contains any number of great themes, and one of the first is the teaching of the book on tongue – the words we speak. There are many aspects to this because we sin more with our mouths than any other way. “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles“ (Prov. 21:23).
I have begun with this title because strife, quarrels, broken friendships, wounded friends, all come from sins of the tongue. Whenever Christians begin to act in a way that does not honor the Lord, almost always we may assume that someone is dispensing bad whiskey.
Too often we forget the standard. In all conversation, we must remember the antithesis between true and false, right and wrong. Nothing is true because “someone said it,“ and nothing is false because “a man said it.“ Proverbs distinguishes, and sharply, between the words of the wise and the words of the fool. “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness“ (Prov. 15:2). And while the wise and the foolish do separate from one another, they do not do so under those labels. Remember that a fool does not identify himself as such. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes . . .“ (Prov. 12:15). We must always hold all words up against the light of Scripture. As we do so, we will find ourselves dealing with the situation as it is, and not as it might be at some point in the future, in someone’s imagination. However much our postmodern era might want to blur the distinction, wise men speak wise words, foolish men speak foolish words, and foolish men resent the fact that a distinction is made between them.
Another problem is that of verbal scribbling. All words fall into one of two categories — words that conform to God’s words, and words which do not. One good way to generate disobedient words is to talk a lot. “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise“ (Prov. 10:19; cf. 17:27). Talking in order to hear the soothing sounds of one’s own voice is not wise. For every person who sins through silence when he should have spoken there are hundreds who have sinned through speaking when they should have been silent.
Then there is the “ready, fire, aim!” problem. One man reports on how he understands the situation. But because he is a fool, the information he passes on is untrustworthy. “A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart“ (Prov. 18:2). Another man has an axe to grind. He is spiteful and puts the worst construction possible on the situation. A third, a liar, listens eagerly. “And evildoer gives heed to false lips; a liar listens eagerly to a spiteful tongue“ (Prov. 17:4). Notice that liars can sin through how they listen. And of course, when people rebel against God through talebearing, it is not difficult for them to find a market for their wares. “The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, and they go down into the inmost body“ (Prov. 18:8; 26:22). Whenever you hear anything — wait, weigh, consider, verify, and act according to Scripture. In the congregation of the saints, biblical standards of speech must become commonplace among us, and we must hold one another accountable. Do not follow common, but worldly, standards in dealing with problems.
1. “I shouldn’t ‘tell’ on them.“ — this results in people talking disobediently, and not talking disobediently. Refusing to talk to the person who might be in a position to correct a situation is not “covering it in love.” What happens is that people won’t talk to those who can help, and then, having disobeyed thus far, find it easy to talk to those who could not be part of the solution.
2. “I was just looking for help, counsel, and comfort.“ — from half the church? Where did God tell you to find comfort? In our therapeutic times, personal “hurt” is the all-purpose gossip and slander card. You can tell seventeen of your closest friends (“but that’s all!”) that the choir director did not choose you for the soprano lead because he is “eaten up with envy” over the fact that your daughter is prettier than his. And when he made the announcements, of course, you were deeply hurt, and you needed to talk to somebody. And of course, I needed to tell the whole story. It can’t be healthy to hold that kind of grief in.
3. “I wasn’t complaining, I was just commenting.“ — if it walks like a gripe, quacks like a gripe . . . This would be a good place to include the proverbial treatment of the contentious woman, who was just “commenting.” A man married to a mouthy woman has real problems (Prov. 25:24). But in dealing with this woman, so does everyone else. “A continual dripping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; who restrains her restrains the wind, and grasps oil with his right hand (Prov. 27:15-16).
Perhaps you don’t have a problem with gossip yourself. But perhaps you have that peculiar kind of welcoming face that attracts gossips to you. So, are you tired of hearing about all their griefs heaped upon sorrows piled upon woes? This is how we may hold one another accountable; these are some sure-fire methods to make sure that the gossip river dries up anywhere near you. “I am so sorry your husband said that to you. My husband will call him tonight . . . Oh, it wasn’t that bad?“ “I don’t know why the elders decided that. Let’s go ask. You have an appointment? Okay, I’ll go ask for you.“ “She insulted you? Let’s go talk to her right now.“
Another problem with speech is haste, being quick at the draw. “Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him“ (Prov. 29:20). The Bible tells us to be quick to listen, slow to speak . . . Those who disobey are worse off than a fool. Because they are quick, they may believe themselves to be wise. But biblically the two are not the same. Just because your little motor has a high rpm capacity does not mean you are on the right road.