Speaking with Wisdom
My brother loved He-Man, but I was more of a Wizard of Oz fan. I read all the books and watched the creepy, cut-rate sequel, Return to Oz, so often I wore out the VHS cassette. But my favorite part of the classic film was when Auntie Em told off the grouchy, bicycle riding Almira Gulch: “For twenty-three years, I’ve been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now…well, being a Christian woman, I can’t say it!” Oh, could I relate! Growing up in a Christian home, I heard a lot about taming the tongue. It was basically a churchy version of the advice Thumper’s mother gave him in Bambi: “If you can’t say nuthin’ nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” But there is so much more to honoring God with our speech than being polite, and honest, and holding our tongue when we’d rather let it fly.
Words and Wisdom
It is interesting that when the Bible talks about speech, it is often paired with teachings about wisdom, or the Holy Spirit, or the Fruits of the Spirit. Words and wisdom are the milk and Oreos of the Bible. In Genesis, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters, and the world was spoken into being. Proverbs is full of sayings about wise speech, and wisdom is portrayed as a woman who will teach anyone who accepts her instruction how to live a godly life. The Gospel of John talks about Jesus being the Word of God. The Greek term John uses for “Word” is logos, which can refer not just to the spoken words but may refer to the rational, organizing principle behind those words—wisdom. And in the Epistles, if we pay close attention, we see that advice about how to talk to people often cozies up with a description of the sort of wise, Spirit-filled character we can have in Christ.
This is certainly the case in James 3, the famous “taming the tongue” passage. James talks about the challenge of controlling our words and our actions, and then goes on to describe two types of speech (praise and cursing), and two types of wisdom (earthly and heavenly). Many Bibles contain subheadings separating these concepts, but don’t let that fool you. They are intimately related. Let’s read what James has to say about the two types of speech and the two types of wisdom.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (james 3:9–18).
So, what is the connection between wisdom and speech? One is the source and the other is the product. Jesus once said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (luke 6:43–45 emphasis added). Our words are the indicators of what kind of wisdom is inside us.
Speech that is dishonoring to God—let’s call it “unwise speech”—follows the pattern of earthly wisdom. Wise speech that honors God follows the pattern of heavenly wisdom.
Years ago, I freelanced as a copywriter, writing print ads and video scripts for small businesses. As anyone in advertising can tell you, there are techniques to creating ads that make people want to buy, whether they need what you’re selling or not. I was careful about my client list, and used my wily wordsmithing skills to sell things like denture liners and freeze-dried applesauce. But plenty of people harness the power of words to promote unholy purposes, not only in the marketplace but in their lives and relationships. It doesn’t matter how clever or convincing our arguments are: if we use our words to lift ourselves up while tearing others down, we are operating out of what James called “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom, the kind that springs from envy and selfish ambition.
Paul fleshes out this concept when he contrasts the Fruit of the Spirit with the acts of the flesh in Galatians 5:16–26. It’s easy for us to focus in on the problematic behaviors described in Galatians 5, like drunkenness and sexual immorality, while skipping over the problematic attitudes that enable them tucked in the middle of the passage. But let’s stop and take a good hard look at the heart conditions Paul is calling out: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy.
These are acts of the flesh—the earthly wisdom that tells us that we should act and speak in the way that feels best at the moment, that we need to fight for what we think we’re due, and that we are justified in lashing out at those who get in our way. These are the attitudes that tempt us to cave in to our innate desire to be right, to be better than somebody else, to have the last word in an argument. These are the obsessions that make us replay slights and insults, real and perceived, in an endless loop in our minds, until we’re roiling with negative emotions that are ready to boil over and scald anyone close enough to grab our handle. This is a miserable, and miserably common, way to live.
I’m sure we can all think of times when we’ve listened to that kind of wisdom, when the voice that speaks those words, selfish, hurtful, and hateful, is the more enticing and convincing. We’ve not only allowed the weeds of hatred, envy, or factionalism to take root in our lives, but we’ve often tended and nurtured them like prized heirloom roses. Left unchecked, they can choke the joy and beauty out of life, strangle the good fruit growing alongside them, and leave us with a soul full of bitterroot.
Worse, society seems to cheer on these attitudes. Go on social media or turn on the TV, and you’re likely to see exactly the kind of hatred, discord, selfish ambition and factionalism James and Paul warned us against. Outrage has become the new national pastime. I’ll never forget the Sunday when a man came up to me after the service and told me about his elderly mother, who had taken to watching political programming and cable news most of the day. “She was a lot nicer when she watched soap operas.” Ouch! What a sad commentary on the stuff filling our minds.
If unwise speech feeds our own base instincts and selfish ambitions, often at other’s expense, it seems obvious then that wise speech promotes God’s purposes, for the good of others. It manifests in the traits described in James 3:17: But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
It doesn’t take much self-reflection or headline scanning to realize that these characteristics aren’t very popular, or at least not universally practiced. They certainly don’t make us feel powerful and important. Instead they may make us feel vulnerable and insecure, as if people could take advantage of us if we lived that way. But I think we confuse this fruit of the Spirit with the generic niceness so many of us have been trained to display.
James penned what many people consider the most demanding book of the New Testament. Like his half-brother, Jesus, he managed to speak hard truths and urge people to take difficult, counter-cultural action, with mercy, consideration, and purity of heart. He submitted to and promoted God’s purposes in his writing, for the edification of all. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Wise speech is not necessarily speech that makes us feel good—it is speech that does us good, whether it is easy to swallow or not. Sometimes hard things need to be said. But they need to be said with mercy and consideration, and spring from pure motives that have the recipient’s best interests at heart.
The Creative Aspect of Wise Speech
There is a creative aspect to wise speech—not creative in the artistic sense, but creative in the sense of bringing about something good. As James 3:18 says, when we sow peace, we reap a harvest of righteousness. And who wouldn’t want to reap a harvest of righteousness? This creative, productive aspect of our speech is one of the ways that we reflect the image of God, whose words sparked all of creation.
Let’s take a look at John 1:1–5, one of the most theologically rich statements in all of Scripture.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Remember when we talked about the term for “Word” in this passage being logos, meaning the wisdom that is revealed by words and actions? John 1 shows us that the revelation of God’s wisdom in word and deed is the ultimate creative force. It was God’s wisdom that enabled him to speak the world into being, bringing light and life out of nothingness, and it is God’s self-revelation in Jesus, the Word of God, that enables those who receive him to experience the kind of life we were created for. On a smaller scale, our words and actions can bring light and life as well, when they are in line with God’s purposes.
There’s a note, scribbled on the back of a daily calendar page that has been pinned to the bulletin board in my home office for years. It says, “Risley family scholarship for women in seminary,” and was originally folded around a $50 check. That note and check changed my life.
I grew up in a family where education was valued, but college wasn’t the norm. I went back to college in my thirties, after my youngest started preschool, and became the first woman in my family to get a degree. I thrived in school, and it was becoming clear that continuing to seminary would be the best way to get equipped for the work God was calling me to, but the idea seemed so far-fetched that my professors might as well have suggested I fly to the moon!
But it didn’t seem far-fetched to my pastor, who met with me every week for three years and encouraged me to keep going. It didn’t seem far-fetched to my writing mentors, who pestered me about continuing my education. And it didn’t seem far-fetched to the Risleys, a family from my church who slipped that note and a check into my palm one Sunday. I used the $50 to pay my application fee, and launched into an adventure with God that has paid enormous dividends in my life and ministry. The words and actions of my pastor, mentors, and the Risleys opened a whole new world of opportunities to me, and in turn, I have used that opportunity to encourage and bless others.
God works out his purposes through word and deed, and he does it for our good, to redeem humanity and draw us back to him and to help us flourish. As followers of Christ, we have been invited to join him in that work, speaking wise words that promote God’s purposes and edify those around us.
Study: The book of Proverbs has many things to say about our speech habits. Find 5 verses that discuss the use of our tongues. What do they say?
Reflect: Unwise speech comes in many different forms, not just “bad words.” Sarcasm, crudeness, and others are easy to overlook as potentially unwise. What “words” might you use that may be called “unwise”?
Apply: Choose one person this week with whom you will seek to use wise speech.