“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” – Proverbs 15:1-2
So I was on FB the other day (“Facebook” for anyone who has spent the last 10 years in lost deep in the rainforests of Amazonia is a place where 1.86 billion people freely share intimate details about their waking existence and more than occasionally their opinions on every conceivable issue of the day). No, really – I was on FB. Ok, not so much of a stretch to believe that, I admit.
Thumbing down my timeline while waiting to board a plane – because apparently that’s what we do with smartphones these days – I idly began counting the positive, uplifting comments vs. the negative remarks. Predictably, in this age of the instant megaphone, negative posts won by a margin of nearly 7 to 1. You can guess the topic.
What struck me most was not that people have opinions. Nor that they feel free to share their opinions. We call that the market place of ideas and it’s a hallmark of free societies.
Rather, what gave me pause was the level and tone of anger and bitterness from people on all sides. While it’s not surprising how loud the decibel levels have become over the last couple of years there seems to be a boiling-over happening today. And I was reminded of a verse from Proverbs 15 that reads “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”
We all know folks with no filters. Something comes into their minds and immediately erupts from their mouths. I was certainly guilty of that during much of my younger years.
While the ability to measure what and how we share our thoughts is a clear mark of spiritual and emotional growth, the opposite is also true. Not being able to control one’s words is usually a sign of social immaturity and can do significant damage to relationships and peace of mind. (Editor’s note: to some, too much filtering leads to “bureau-speak” and creates all sorts of social ills.)
The Book of Proverbs is filled with wisdom seemingly crying out to us, as relevant today as when these 31 chapters of sayings were first collected over 2,700 years ago. In Chapter 15, King Solomon speaks to the importance of moderating our words by comparing positive comments to their negative counterparts, and the results of each: peacefulness or wrath, knowledge or folly, healing or a crushed spirit.
Said differently, when we can’t control what we say, we don’t just fail to uplift or enlighten (or especially persuade). Rather, we create lasting divides between ourselves and others that can often never be bridged.
Jesus offered a clear guide on how communicating with others can be both persuasive yet uncompromising. His approach combined a number of ways to share ideas without shutting out the other person with shrill arguments or crass insults.
For example, he used countless stories (parables) – or illustrations – to breath spiritual truth into ever day life. His mastery of hyperbole to drive home his point (e.g. “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it away” – Matthew 5:29) shocked his listeners without insulting them. He spoke eloquently, often poetically. He asked questions of his adversaries rather than condemning them. He used physical demonstrations of his points (e.g. washing the feet of his disciples, holding up a Roman coin to distinguish God’s provenance from worldly obligations, the lesson of unselfishness while pointing to a widow giving her last two coins).
Honest disagreement is healthy. Mindless insults and condescension neither broker peace nor win discussions. Our words are the outward displays of our hearts and minds and can betray what we think rather than what we show. In the words of James 3:9 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
Here’s a thought: before you initiate or respond to the next perceived offensive comment on social media or in a social setting, pause and ask yourself a couple of things. Do you have a hard time controlling your words? How will the other person hear what you say? Will your response help bridge or divide?