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Use Your Words Wisely

 
Carolyn Lacey | May 30, 2023

The first step in cultivating wise speech is by prayer. We also know that the best way of becoming wise is to saturate ourselves in God’s word. However, some practical tips can also help. What about in our moment-by-moment interactions? How can we train ourselves to say the right thing when difficult conversations take us by surprise? Or when we disagree with something a friend or co-worker says?

Quick to Listen

One key piece of advice is simply to listen. Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame”. 

How can we train ourselves to say the right thing when difficult conversations take us by surprise?

Listening is hard. It requires humility and self-control. When we interrupt people, we show that we care more about what we want to say than what they want to share. We presume our words are more necessary or interesting or helpful than others’ words. When we monopolise a group chat or work meeting or Bible study with our own viewpoints, we neglect to honour others who may also have valuable contributions to make and instead elevate ourselves as the most important speaker in the room. We may not do it intentionally, but our tongues reveal our pride and lack of restraint. 

Slow to Speak

So how do we learn to slow down—to be quick to listen and slow to speak? Here are a few questions we could internally ask ourselves before diving into a conversation:

  • Have I listened carefully to what this person is saying? Have I fully understood or do I need to ask them to explain what they mean? 
  • Am I being asked my opinion/advice or just to listen and understand? 
  • Do I have anything helpful to contribute to the conversation? Is someone else able to bring more wisdom/experience/knowledge to the situation? 
  • What could I say to diffuse tension or anger? 
  • What could I say to encourage, comfort or support? 
  • Will my words help or harm? 

It’s not a failsafe way to guard against sin, but getting into the habit of thinking before we speak may limit the damage we do with our words. I like the NLT paraphrase of Proverbs 10:19: 

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.

The tongue reveals what is going on in the heart, but it can work the other way too. For example, speaking unkindly about someone can encourage unkind feelings we have towards them, while choosing to say something appreciative can increase feelings of appreciation or respect. So training and taming the tongue is a way of training and taming the heart. 

When Someone Else Is Unwise

You may be thinking: what about when I am the one sinned against? Do we still need to be slow to speak when people are saying unkind, unfair or untrue things to us? In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Little Princess, 11-year-old Sara Crewe proves she is far wiser than I often am. Her advice? 

When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word—just to look at them and think. When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wished they hadn’t said afterward. There’s nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in—that’s stronger. It’s a good thing not to answer your enemies. 

(A Little Princess, p 115) 

Of course, that’s easier said than done—and some of us especially struggle to control our anger. But if multiplying words multiplies sin, keeping quiet is a sensible instinct—at least until we’ve had time to think and pray about our response.

When someone is being unkind or unfair to me, I have found it helpful to inwardly recite, “This is a person made in God’s image; treat them with dignity”. If the person offending me is a Christian, I will tell myself, “This is a brother/sister for whom Christ died. Do not dishonour him by dishonouring them.

Training and taming the tongue is a way of training and taming the heart.

It’s taken a while for these responses to come naturally (and I still fail frequently), but regular practice has helped. Perhaps you could try something similar the next time someone sins against you with their words. (And, if you really can’t control your tongue, there is always the option to walk away before saying something you will later regret!)

There is no quick or easy path to wisdom—and sometimes, that’s frustrating. But if wisdom leads to life, it’s definitely a path worth choosing. 

 

This article is an extract from Say the Right Thing by Carolyn Lacey. In the book, Carolyn offers practical guidance for using our words to glorify God and build up one another. 

Carolyn Lacey

Carolyn Lacey is a writer, speaker and pastor’s wife. She serves alongside her husband, Richard, in Worcester, UK, where she works part-time for her church as a women's worker. She teaches the Bible regularly at women's events and conferences, and is a mum to two grown-up children.

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