Have you ever said anything to someone, say in an argument, only to later realize, the words that came out of your mouth were foolish and perhaps even sinful? I think most people can identify with this experience. For myself, I have more examples than I care to admit.
Of course, this concern of paying close to attention to what we say isn’t exclusive to conflict. It’s a requirement in literally every conversation we have, even among the joyful moments when the bond of a close kinship is at its highest; even among the pleasant peace among brothers or sisters in Christ…what we say matters…our words matter.
Solomon helps punctuate this point in Proverbs chapter 13, verse 3. Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin (ESV). The NIV translation renders the second half of the verse: …but those who speak rashly will come to ruin…
Firstly, it should clarified what this verse doesn’t mean. For starters, it doesn’t mean that not speaking is our goal or that everything you say or speaking quickly on a matter necessarily leads to ruin. Perhaps that is obvious but avoiding this extreme will help understand how to apply this proverb. Moreover, this verse isn’t exclusively referring to literal life and death situations, though there are times when that may apply.
Secondly, I’d like to propose a few principles of what this verse does means. For starters, with respect to the first part of the verse, who ever guards his lips preserves his life:
Principle 1: Not every we think needs to be said
Principle 2: To guard lips is to think about what we say before we say it
Principle 3: Aspects of your life include your character
With respect to the second part of the verse, but he who opens his lips comes to ruin or but those who speak rashly will come to ruin:
Principle 1: Some words can be thoughtless, even if you’ve thought about them a long time
Principle 2: Accountability is in store for thoughtless words
Principle 3: Even one word can lead ruin
Some other general principles from the whole verse include: (1) It is possible that you can hope to mean well, but actually end up harming; (2) The means by which you speak matters at least as much as the content; that is, whether there are many words or few, whether they spoke altogether or parsed out; (3) Self-interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing; that is, it is good that you strive to maintain life and well-bring and avoid unnecessary difficulty and hardship for yourself. There may be those who depend on you and so what benefits you benefits them; what is hard on you may be hard on them. Husbands, parents and single parents, or employers may relate to this.
The proverbs have lots to say about the importance of paying attention to what we say and to taking great care with our words. A few other examples include:
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.Proverbs 10:19 (ESV)
With their mouths the godless destroy their neighbors, but through knowledge the righteous escape.Proverbs 11:9 (NIV)
The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers them.Proverbs 12:6 (ESV)
18 The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.Proverbs 12:18 (NIV)
The thoughts of the wicked are an abomination to the LORD, but gracious words are pure.Proverbs 15:26 (ESV)
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.Proverbs 16:24 (ESV)
Matthew Henry likens the first half of Pro 13:3: “A guard upon the lips is a guard to the soul. He that is cautious, that thinks twice before he speaks once, that, if he have thought evil, lays his hand upon his mouth to suppress it, that keeps a strong bridle on his tongue and a strict hand on that bridle, he keeps his soul from a great deal both of guilt and grief and saves himself the trouble of many bitter reflections on himself and reflections of others upon him.”
Jesus said in the second half of Luke 6:45 (NIV, ’99), “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man bring evil things out the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
THE REASON WHY WORDS MATTER
The reason words matter is because they derive from the deepest parts of us. Jesus said they come from our heart and when we speak, we are revealing things out about our own soul, whether the good or evil that is stored within it.
The one who rightly guards his mouth is intimately acquainted with the readiness of the sin in his heart and realizes, knowing in advance, that his words can be his undoing; that his words may harm others and pierce like a sword and could possibly even destroy his neighbor.Tweet
He is aware that words have power to not only ruin the life of others, but even his own life…his own soul (as Henry puts it). The one who guards his mouth is guarding his heart (Proverbs 4:34). And he who continues to speak without thinking advance will inevitably sin.
OPPORTUNITIES TO SPEAK
Now that we have some sense of why paying attention to what we say before we say it has been granted, let us consider the opportunity to speak. What opportunities do you have to use your words? How often are you using your words on a daily basis? Who do you generally speak with (family, co-workers, professionals, neighbors, peers)? What do you typically talk about? What is the degree of interest in the things you find yourself discussing? What topics solicit the deepest emotions? What things prompt the most boredom? Where are you physically: Work, home, school, on television, in a podcast, writing a blog, sending a tweet?
These are all venues and opportunities speak and use our words. There is virtually no domain or aspect of life where we are not given an opportunity to speak. It goes without saying, there is a vast opportunity to speak. Thus, as it relates to our key verse, Pro 13:3, there is a vast opportunity to either preserve life or bring ruin.
Why is it that we speak when we do? If Jesus’ words are true, that what we say is the overflow of our hearts, then we must ask: What drives our words to come forth out of our mouth? Another way to ask: What is my motivation when I speak? This might be the crux of the matter as we seek to be the best stewards of our words.
What we say is important. How we say it is doubly important. Why we say it is perhaps most important. Our words don’t exist in a vacuum in our heart. They don’t randomly appear even seemingly disconnected to the good or the evil that Jesus refers to. Our hearts produce the moral character of our words. In most cases, even before before we speak our words, there is an intended outcome. We imagine some impact, especially if we speak rashly.
Words are like arrows that spring from the bow. The arrow will eventually land. The question is, where will it land? It doesn’t matter if you are a sloppy shooter or an expert marksman, the point is: words will preserve life or lead to ruin, and you are responsible for that. This is why your motivation matters. Before speaking, examine and test yourself (2 Cor. 13:5).
As we seek to make good use of our words, hoping to preserve life and avoid ruin, let us consider a few application questions. Granted, there are many other questions that could be asked, but here is a sample. Ask yourself…
- What is my primary emotion when I feel as if I must say something?
- What is my thought process when others don’t think of me as I wish for them to think of me?
- Consider: Must I correct the record?
- How do I wish others to think of me?
- Be honest with yourself.
- How acquainted am I with my own selfish motivations that drive the “overflow” words? (cf. Lk 6:45)
- Am I okay with inviting others to speak with me about their perception of my words?
- Ask: What do you think about that; am I missing something?
- What is the connection between your tendency to use the words you use with others and the the words God chose to speak to you?
- Thought: How we process God’s views of us in Christ and His word spoken to us in the Scripture necessarily impacts how we engage our neighbor.
- Give an example of a time when you nearly (or actually) “ruined” your life by what you said?
- What are my daily habits of practice with respect to “guarding my mouth”?
- Where the weak points in my effort to guard my mouth?
- More words than needed?
- Rashness or quickness to speak?
- Idolizing others’ perception of you?
- Unprocessed emotions or motivations?
- What are my favorite words that God has spoken to me? Why?
- e.g. From the Bible.
*If you see a need for grammar corrections, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.