Wise Speaking

One of the most difficult things to do in life is to control what you say. We do a good job for a while but then in one weak moment and we can do irreparable damage. Words hurt and heal, they go deep into our hearts and minds. The old saying is not true that “sticks and stones can break our bones but names can never hurt us”. Derogatory names, harsh words, accusations, half-truths, lies, all hurt us.

The Bible talks a great deal about speech. In the book of Proverbs alone it is suggested that there are about 90 proverbs that regard the issue of speech. That is not only because of its importance, it is also because most of us struggle to find consistency in this area of our lives.

Proverbs 21:23 pretty well sums up what Solomon wants to teach us about our speech

Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.

This morning we are going to look at what Proverbs says about what we shouldn’t do and what we should do when it comes to our speech.

The Bad

It is unfortunate that many of the things we shouldn’t say aren’t discovered until after we hear ourselves say them. Proverbs gives us some good and general guidelines. Though there are many variations, here are some of the things we shouldn’t do.

Lie Proverbs 12:22 “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth.” When we lie we not only pervert what is true, we distance ourselves from the Lord who is truth.

Solomon pointed out that when we tell the truth we are acting in accord with God’s character. God IS truth and He speaks truth. If we are going to follow Him, we should do the same. It is a good idea to tell the truth in everything. We all have a tendency to exaggerate a situation to make us look better. If we do that in little things, we will tend to do it in big things.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you strike up a conversation with someone about matters of faith. When you tell others about that conversation we all have a tendency to relate what we wish we had said rather than what we really said. It would be better to simply say, “I wish I had said . . . “rather than twist the truth (lie).

Proverbs 26:28 says “A lying tongue hates its victims, and flattering words cause ruin.” Those are strong words aren’t they? They are meant to be. When we lie to others we are showing disrespect. In fact we do them harm because we are leading them away from truth; away from the Lord of life.

Gossip Proverbs has a great deal to say about gossip. Gossip is when you tell the secrets of others (11:13); stir up trouble by planting seeds of discontent (16:28); or repeat rumors (18:8). A gossip separates friends and destroys reputations. We are told that the words of a gossip “sink deep into one’s heart”. In other words, even though the facts may be false, the damage goes deep. It is hard to ever see a person the same way again once that image (though false) of gossip has been placed in your head.

We need to face the fact that we love gossip! We love to hear the rumors. We want to know what is going on. We even like having a juicy tidbit that we can share that others don’t know. I guess it makes us feel like we are connected, important.

The Rabbis called gossiping or slander “a third tongue”, explaining: “it slays three persons: the speaker, the spoken to, and the spoken of”. And as a golden rule on avoiding being slain by this tongue as speaker or as spoken to, their advice cannot be bettered: “Let the honour of your neighbour be as dear to you as your own”[1]

Another author wrote,

Studies have shown that in passing along stories about others, we attach a contagious emotional aspect to the story. What does this mean? When others hear us spreading rumors, they immediately feel a certain emotion toward whomever the rumor is about. Later, when you go back and tell them it wasn’t true, or if they find out the rumor was a half-truth, the negative emotion toward that person still lingers. Damage is done that cannot be undone.[2]

We can do a lot of damage to others by sharing things that should not be shared. When you hear gossip it would be beneficial for you to ask

  • Do you personally know this to be true?
  • Would you share this if the person was there with you?
  • Is this something you would want shared if this was about you?

When we ask these questions, we take some of the fun out of gossip. Usually it will stop gossip in its tracks.

Flattery. Flattery is defined as saying positive things to another person for the purpose of manipulating them. Proverbs 29:5 says “To flatter friends is to lay a trap for their feet.” Someone has said, “When someone slaps you on the back they generally want you to cough up something.” Flattery is nothing more than fancy dishonesty.

It’s like when your teenager comes up to you and says, “Mom, I am so lucky to have you as my mom. You are always so kind and generous.” When these words come out of the mouth of your teenager you take a position of defense because you know that you are being set up. You are about to be asked for money, permission to do something, your child is in trouble, or they want the keys to the car.

Flattery and compliments are not the same thing. A sincere compliment (when you affirm something positive about someone) lifts a spirit; it lets people know they are noticed and appreciated. Flattery is manipulative. It is the kind of thing that comes before a sales pitch. Flattery treats other people as a means to an end rather than seeing them as people of dignity and value.

There are several other negative things in speech:

  • “the lips of the godly speak helpful words, but the mouth of the wicked speaks perverse words”(10:32)
  • “Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.”(18:13)
  • “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing” (12:18)
  • “Just as damaging as a madman shooting a deadly weapon is someone who lies to a friend and then says, ‘I was only joking’”. (26:19,20)
  • “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut” (10:19). If we are always talking we aren’t listening. If we aren’t listening we can’t be learning. The more you talk the greater the possibility that you are going to say something inappropriate.

Our speech says much more about us than we may like to think about. Jesus says it is from the overflow of the heart that our mouth speaks. In other words, we can see a person’s heart through their words.

The Good

Give Wise Counsel. Proverbs 15:2 says, “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness.” 15:7 says, “The lips of the wise give good advice; the heart of a fool has none to give.”

We have all had the experience of someone saying something that helped us see things in a way that opens a door of understanding. It may have been a teacher who shared words that brought insight; a counselor who helped you see things with a helpful perspective; even Scriptural teaching that gives us a great clarity on the things and ways of God.

I have been fortunate to have had around me people I could always turn to for wisdom. In college it was the Choir Director. I would stop in his office and discuss life with him. In seminary I had a Professor I could talk to. I have had Pastors that have shared their wisdom with me. I still have a handful of people that I know I can call and they will help me clarify things going on in my life.

Wise counselors are valuable. We should strive to be people who bring clarity and wisdom rather than a fog of confusion.

Sometimes wise counsel involves correction or rebuke. This is delicate. A person who can give a loving rebuke or correction is one who is a cherished friend. In Proverbs 15:31-32 says,

If you listen to constructive criticism you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction you grow in understanding.

The best way to extend wise counsel is to share your faith. Proverbs 11:30 tells us “the seeds of good deeds become a tree of life; a wise person wins friends (souls).” Proverbs 18:21 says “the tongue can bring death or life;” The best thing we can do with our words is point other people to Jesus; to tell them the life-changing truth of the gospel.

Using our words to praise God, to talk to Him in prayer, and to pray for each other, are great ways to use our time and energy. We should continually seek to honor the Lord with our words. In essence our words are either drawing people to the Lord or pushing them away.

Encourage. How desperately most people need to be encouraged. Encouragement is a sincere expression of gratitude that is often private. It is when we “catch people doing it right” and let them know we have caught them. It is affirming the good effort of a child (even if the outcome was less than desirable). It is appreciating what people do that often seems to go unnoticed. It is celebrating victories. Encouragement empowers people.

Proverbs 15:23 “Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time!”

Proverbs 15:30 “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart; good news makes for good health”.

Proverbs 16:24 “Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.”

One sincere and kind word can change a person’s day. There are stories of people who were planning to commit suicide but they gave up the plan because someone who took the time to notice them. In the movie “To Save a Life”.  There is a story of one student who had cleaned out his locker and was taking his books home (for he planned to kill himself that night). Someone saw him walking and offered him a ride home. They began talking. When they arrived at the boy’s home the other boy asked if he played video games. They went into the house and played games for a couple of hours. This new friendship quite literally saved this boys’ life. It all started with a few kind words.

One word of encouragement; one word that says you understand someone’s pain can help lift a burden that another is trying to carry. We all have plenty of people who tell us what we should be doing and how what we are doing could be (should be) done better. We can all use more encouragers; people who see what we are doing right.

The key is that this can’t be flattery . . . it has to be sincere. Encouragement should be about something significant rather than superficial. More about who someone IS or what they are doing, rather than about the weather or their appearance.

I wonder how many people have succeeded in life because someone believed in them and encouraged them. I was deeply moved by the encouragement of a theological Professor one day. His one comment has stayed with me and spurred me on. An author encouraged me to write and it spurred me on. Encouragement can set people free.

By the same token, how many people have been held back because someone told them they weren’t smart or didn’t have any talent? I wonder how many people have stumbled through life because someone said they “would never amount to anything”.

Practice Silence/Listen In Proverbs 17:27-28 we read,

A truly wise person uses few words; a person of understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.

Proverbs 13:3 says “Those who control their tongue will have a long life; opening your mouth can ruin everything.”

It is Solomon again who is speaking in Ecclesiastes 5:1-2

As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God. Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bring matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few.

So the principle thing Solomon seems to be saying is: use your words sparingly and carefully. One commentator wrote,

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier. . . [3]

When we are silent we have the opportunity to listen, to understand, and to learn. We will better be able to understand the true need of the one before us. There will be less chance we will be hasty. We will also have a better chance of hearing the whispers of the Holy Spirit. We will also give God space for Him to work. Rather than having a need to defend ourselves, we give God a chance to vindicate us.


We have covered probably more than one sermon should handle. I hope you have been challenged to listen to what you say. Words have power. They can heal or they can destroy. They can give life or they can steal life. They can lead people to Christ or turn them away. They will affect your reputation as either a good and godly person, or a foolish and profane person.

The book of Proverbs encourages us to listen carefully to ourselves (as well as to others). We are encouraged to use words carefully which means thinking before we speak. How often have you been haunted by words you said in anger or without thinking about the impact of those words. I know I have said things I wish I could take back many times. Some of those were very recent.

The best way to learn to control your speech is to make it a matter of prayer. Ask God to help you bridle your tongue. Ask Him to make you alert to reckless words you speak (and hopefully before you speak them). Ask God to help you to not feel the need to correct every misstatement or defend yourself against every negative comment. Instead ask God to help us have conversations that are seasoned with salt and filled with love.

Jesus told us that our words reveal what is truly in our hearts. I find that troubling. However, it is also instructive. It says that if I really want to do better with my words I need to keep examining my heart before the Lord. We need to pray the prayer of Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Test me and know my anxious thoughts! Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” The more our heart is right, the more our words will be wise.

We need to focus on using our words in a positive manner. Look for ways to encourage others. Be zealous about spotlighting positive things. As we change our focus it will be easier to resist the negative conversation that so easily entangles.

Finally, once again we need to remember to speak slowly. One of the bad things about the electronic age is that we can dash off a quick text or email and press “send” before we really take the time to think through what we are saying. The idea of delaying a response is a good idea.

Words matter. Words are powerful. They can be a tool for good or for evil. May God help us to speak as the godly and wise rather than as fools.


[1] Aitken, K. T. (1986). Proverbs (p. 137). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Morgan, R.J. quoting Larry Osbourne Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook 2007 edition pp. 240-242

[3] Foster, Richard Celebration of Discipline (Harper Collins: New York 1988) p. 101

%d bloggers like this: