Words are powerful. The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” simply is not true. Rolling off a three-ounce slab of tissue (the tongue), words may carry the payload of a two-ton bomb, or the comforting care of a mother’s caress of her newborn babe.
For the believer in Jesus Christ especially, words are important. It is through two primary words—the Word of Scripture and the Word of Christ—that God has revealed Himself to us. God chose words to communicate His truth to us and through us. And now, the Bible says, we are His ambassadors, chosen by Him to carry His message of reconciliation to the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). And how is that message carried? By words. If we are to be effective in carrying the message of the gospel to the world and if we are to be effective in delivering the ministry of encouragement in the church, it will be because we are skilled (wise) in the way we carry and use the Word and our words.
That’s why God’s message for tongue control is so important. Words are not only a core of our ministry as counselors, even more fundamentally, our tongue control (or lack of it) demonstrates and reveals the character of what we are. That’s what Jesus said: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
The result is that there are essentially only two kinds of words. Solomon said it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). In other words, there are deadly words and there are life-giving words. Those two categories provide a framework for how we can help our counselees think about how they use words, and for how we think about the words we use with our counselees. Some of our counselees have brought deadly destruction into relationships by their words, and their only hope is to bring life-giving restorative words into those relationships.
How does Scripture guide us in directing them? Even more specifically, what does the book of wisdom (Proverbs) say about words? According to the wisest man, Solomon, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what are the deadly words (words to avoid) and what are the life-giving words (words to embrace)?
“Don’t Say That!” Avoiding Deadly Words
In both popular culture and in some “therapies,” there is an idea that if one has a feeling, it should be expressed—that it is deceitful not to express those feelings, no matter how uncomfortable or hurtful they might be to others.
Conversely, Scripture says that there are things that must be left unsaid and unexpressed. Being “true to our feelings,” is not most important; honoring God is ultimate. It is not essential to love ourselves by expressing ourselves however we want, whenever we want; it is essential to be loving with our words, so that in every moment, our words give grace to the hearers (Ephesians 4:29).
To guide us, and our counselees, Solomon points to several categories of words that are deadly. These are relational killers. They destroy hope. They incite bitterness. They provoke anger. They should not be avoided, “if you can,” or “as much as possible.” They should be avoided. Period.
Lying. This is by far most prominent category of deadly words in Proverbs (e.g., 12:22; 24:28). Lying comes in many forms—outright deception, failure to reveal the full truth, avoidance of topics, flattery, and hypocritical living. Deceitfulness is so heinous because lying is a fundamental attribute of Satan and to lie is to align oneself with his philosophy. The liar would rather follow the example of Satan, who is a liar (John 8:44) than Christ, who is the truth (John 14:6). To lie, in that moment is to be opposed to Christ, as an antichrist (1 John 2:22).
Anger. By my count, there are at least 50 verses in Proverbs that speak about anger and wrath, so about two chapters in that book is about the wisdom of not speaking harshly, rashly, bitterly, and contentiously. Anger will break marriages (21:9, 19). It promises freedom and “victory,” but it is a trap (22:24-25). Anger will not bring about resolution and a “cease-fire,” it will only provoke ongoing hostilities (26:20-22; 29:22; 30:33). Cultivating anger is not wisdom, but sinful folly (12:16; 13:10; 14:16). As James (what some writers have called, “the Proverbs of the New Testament”) has said, “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
Gossip and slander. To slander is to suggest that I have all the facts and am positioned to pass judgment (James 4:11-12); but gossip will only betray a trust and destroy a relationship (Proverbs 10:18; 17:9; 20:19). Rather than believing the best about all things, gossip and slander suppose the worst and seek the destruction of those of whom one is envious.
All these kinds of words (and more) are foolishness, which the Bible explains not just as “silliness,” or “immaturity.” In Scripture, the fool is the one who engages in willful sin; he knows what to do and does not do it, flaunting his “right” to sin (cf. 15:2; 19:1). The person who uses these kinds of words has perverted and hated knowledge (15:4, 7, 14); he has an uncontrolled heart (26:23-24; 30:12), and he has lacked (or ignored) godly counsel (15:32).
When you hear someone use these kinds of words in counseling, you have been given a glimpse into his or her heart. Like a mask being pulled off a thief caught in an alleyway, the irrational and ungodly speaker has revealed his true identity. Your goal is to help them identify these kinds of words for what they are—sinful foolishness—and help them put on corresponding words of grace, which is where Solomon also leads us.
“Comfort, O Comfort…” Giving Life through Words
For every evil word that destroys, God has a corresponding righteous word that will give hope and life. It is possible to speak differently than in the categories mentioned above. What kinds of categories of words do we want to teach our counselees to embrace? Consider just a few:
Truth. Instead of lying, put on truthfulness. These are words of integrity that indicate one is in fellowship with God. He is speaking the way God speaks (12:17); he has life (Proverbs 12:19); and he gives wisdom and understanding to others (Proverbs 23:23). Words of truth mean there is no blatant deception, no hiding of the truth, full revelation (whenever full revelation is appropriate), compliments without flattery or for personal gain, and true living (he is what he purports to be).
It should also be noted that truthful words come from the heart—one speaks true words to others because he speaks true words to himself (Luke 6:45; Psalm 15:2), so our counselees will only learn to verbalize true words when they reject deceitful, lying talk in their minds. Truth-telling begins with truth-telling in the mind and heart.
Reconciling. Rather than words spoken in rashness and anger, life-giving words are those that seek restitution and reconciliation. We might say that these kinds of words are protective and saving. In fact, Solomon often speaks of these words as providing healing and life (e.g., Proverbs 12:6, 18; 13:3; 16:24; 25:15). The reconciler is more interested in preserving the relationship than preserving his fragile self-image. He prioritizes the needs of others and the need of the relationship over the exaltation of his own pride.
Cautious and few. Too many words too often create too many problems. It’s better to say little and be asked to say more. Solomon says that the more one talks, the more likely it is that he will sin with his words and that to cease speaking is wise (10:19; cf. also 15:28; 17:27-28; 18:8). Not speaking too quickly or too much also is a way of saying to the other person in the conversation, “I value what you have to say more than I value what I want to say.” It is an expression of caring love.
A corresponding category to “cautious and few” are words that are well-timed and appropriate. To be cautious about speaking does not mean that one never speaks. There are times to speak, when speech is necessary. And the need of the moment is always to build up the other person, to be the instrument of God’s grace in her life. When this person speaks, the words are received with desire and delight (Proverbs 15:23; 25:11-12). One of the graces of these kinds of words is that if they are said at the right time with the right demeanor, you can say virtually anything to anyone without provoking offense (27:6).
Open to counsel and correction. One who is wise with his words understands he is not always right and seeks input from others to guide and direct him (Proverbs 15:32; 20:18). To accept counsel is to acknowledge imperfection and a desire to be more like Christ.
As counselors ministering to people who have broken others with their words and been broken by the words of others, we want to help them learn to speak the way God speaks: With truth that is covered in grace and peace. And when our counselees learn to speak that way, they will come to know something like what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden before their fall into sin (Proverbs 15:4). And when they speak with these kinds of words, we have clear evidence that they are being transformed.
But how will our counselees make these changes?
“I Can’t Stop Myself…” Learning to Speak Words of Life
It is easy to sit on the counselor’s side of the desk and say, “Stop saying evil things; start saying righteous things.” How can our counselees cultivate these new habits? Even here, Solomon guides us. He offers several mind-renewing principles (new ways of thinking) that will help our counselees change their speech habits:
Make a covenant. In Proverbs 8:6-7, the wise man makes a promise (covenant) to himself. Before he gets into a situation where he might speak deceitfully, he decides, “I will speak noble things…right things…utter truth.” He not only has covenanted with himself what he will do, but he has thought through potential circumstances and determined to act righteously before he is even tempted to speak unrighteously. Sometimes we fail with our lips simply because we haven’t thought ahead and pre-decided what we will do. [To help my counselees with this, I have put together a two-page list of some of what Solomon says about our speech. I will often use that for a homework assignment, asking them to highlight the 3-5 verses that speak most directly to what they need to stop doing, and the 3-5 verses that speak to what they most need to start doing, and then ask them to develop a plan for how to do that, according to what those 6-10 verses teach.]
Seek godly counsel. Not all counsel is helpful, but godly counsel saves (Proverbs 15:22, 31-32; 20:18). Those who struggle with their words will ask others for help. They will ask for others to correct them when they sin with their words, and they will implement the counsel of their wise counselors. There is also an implied directive to counselors here: not to give correction is a corruption of love. It may be difficult, but correcting other’s sins is an act of love that values their standing before God and their eternal condition more than what they think of us.
Pursue knowledge. Sometimes counselees sin with their words simply because they have not been taught. They aren’t rebellious. They want to be like Christ. They simply don’t know what the Bible says. They don’t know that angry words aren’t righteous words or that profanity and vulgarity demeans the name of Christ. They need knowledge. So show them what the Bible says about their words (e.g., Proverbs 11:12; 15:7, 14)
Cultivate righteousness. We not only want to help our counselees change the way they speak, we also want to help them change the way they think and what they desire. We want them to develop a transformed inner man. That means that they should pursue a life of righteousness in all things, not just with their words. So by all means, help them with their words; but more than that, help them with their heart and with all their desires so that everything they want and think about is being moved towards the likeness of God (Proverbs 10:32; 16:23; 18:4, 20).
Having careful words isn’t just the “will power” to not say wrong things; it is the intentional pursuit of a righteous heart. When their hearts change, they will long to honor Christ and all their words and all their actions will be changed. And that’s our goal for all our counselees—to honor God in all they do.
A Word for Teachers: Counsel for the Counselors
One final word is appropriate here. Everything that Solomon says about words will be helpful for your counselee. It is also helpful for you and me.
We also need to have our words transformed. In the everyday relationships of our lives, we need to cultivate wise and gracious words. We want Christ-honoring speech when correcting our teenagers, training our toddlers, reconciling with our spouses, talking to our mechanic (who might have a larger-than-expected bill for us), and the cashier at the end of a too-long line at the grocery store. And in the counseling room, we want to exemplify Christ-transformed speech. We want to speak out of the control of the Holy Spirit and we want our own speech to be life-giving, hopeful, and appropriate for the need of the moment (Ephesians 4:29). So as you go to teach and counsel these truths to others, first let these truths speak to and transform your own heart.