My husband left a love note for me on the kitchen counter this morning before leaving for work. No particular reason. He was not atoning for some sin or laying groundwork for a romantic interlude. Just a few heartfelt affirming words of love and gratitude. I carried it around with me all day.
This afternoon I retrieved a letter from our mailbox that contained far different words. They were written by a man I’ve never met, but who nonetheless felt he knew me well enough to make several judgmental, cruel and hurtful statements — statements, by the way, which were false. The fact that the words were untrue didn’t alter the pain they inflicted. Words can do that.
It struck me that — for all the money we spend on improving our personal lives and relationships — our words are often the last thing to undergo self-improvement.
Last week I met a business communications professor at a prominent midwestern university. Since I sometimes write for business clients, I asked what kind of business communications he taught? How to write a business plan? How to draft a press kit or an annual report?
Sample Proverbs for Further Reflection
My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. Prov. 8:8
Hatred sirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs. Prov. 10:12
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. Prov. 10:19 (NIV)
The lips of the righteous nourish many…Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning …The lips of the righteous know what is fitting. Prov. 10:21,23, 32
A man of understanding holds his tongue. Prov. 11:12
Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Prov. 12:18
An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up. Prov. 12:25
He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin. Prov. 13:3
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. Prov. 15:4
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel. Prov. 15:1, 18
A wise man’s heart guides his mouth and his lips promote instruction. Prov. 16:23
The mouth of the wicked gulps down evil. Prov. 19:28B
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much. Prov. 20:19
He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity. Prov. 21:23
No, he said, today’s college students need instruction in even more basic business communications — like e-mail and business letters. These young adults pay hundreds of dollars to be instructed in the appropriate “words” to use in business interactions. It got me thinking. Do the words we use in our personal relationships deserve any less instruction?
The book of Proverbs in the Bible is an excellent free tutorial resource for word “etiquette” in interpersonal relationships. And the leading spokesperson on the subject is none other than King Solomon, identified as the wisest man who ever lived.
Solomon seems positively obsessed with instructing readers about words and how to use them. (Of course, years of relating to an alleged 700 wives may given him lots of practice!)
Check out the scriptures in the box that accompanies this article to see a small sample of his advice. Carefully chosen words, he says, can nourish, bring healing, keep us from calamity, and turn away wrath. They bring life. Inappropriate words, on the other hand, stir up anger and dissension, weigh a person down, crush the spirit, and can bring us to ruin.
This is not to suggest silence in the face of an injustice or to say that strong words are never appropriate — especially with unsafe people. There are many situations where tough words must be said. The key is motive and intent — heart stuff. Are we speaking like people “in whom the treasure [the Holy Spirit] is stored.” (II Cor. 4:7-9 Contemporary English Version) Words can be verbal hand grenades; they must be chosen with care.
I once attended a luncheon meeting of Rotary One in Chicago. Rotary One was the first Rotary Club in the world and, I believe, is still the largest. I turned to my host at one point and asked, “What sets Rotarians apart from other service clubs like, say, Kiwanis or the Lions?”
Rotarians, he said, embrace an ethic called the Four-Way Test. In everything they think or say or do — in business and in all human relationships — they first ask:
- Is it true?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Will it build goodwill and better relationships?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
- It’s as if they stole a page from Solomon’s textbook.
All that wisdom didn’t begin with Solomon, of course. It was God who set the bar high. Those of us who call ourselves His followers are expected to use language differently than everyone else. Why? Because the tongue has the power of life and death (Prov.18:21) and none of us have been treated as our sins deserve. (Ps. 103:10)
Our stone-throwing days are over.
Copyright © 2006 Verla Wallace. Used by permission.