Speaking Words of Love, Light, and Life with Each Other
In the 1970s a professor by the name of Albert Mehrabian proposed his famous 7-38-55 rule of communication. When we communicate our likes and dislikes, the listener’s acceptance of our communication will depend 7 percent on our words, 38 percent on our tone of voice, and 55 percent on our facial expressions and body language.
If I say, “I love pickled herring,” and my voice is slow and monotone and my face looks like a pickled herring, then, despite my words, you won’t put pickled herring out on the table next time we have breakfast together—unless you have a mischievous streak. And if I hear you tell me that you “have no problem with me” with an upbeat voice, but your arms are crossed and you are making overly intense eye contact, then I won’t be convinced.
Texting is less demanding than face-to-face communication.
This means that face-to-face communication is costly, because I know that you are weighing not just my words but also the tone of my voice and my body language. I am going to get an immediate—possibly uncomfortable—response from you. Is this why we prefer less demanding forms of communication? Like a phone call—or even a text?
On the flip side, with face-to-face communication there is far less room for misunderstanding. Even if I don’t get my words exactly right, my tone of voice and expressions will fill in the gap, clarify, or even correct my inadequate or poorly chosen words. Then again, maybe I don’t want you to hear my tone of voice or to see my body language. Perhaps it would say too much...
Texting is especially open to causing misunderstanding.
So although communicating by telephone may be less costly—because you are not seeing and weighing my expressions—it is also more open to misunderstanding. And communicating by email or text is the least costly form of communication: I don’t have to open up my expressions or even my tone of voice to your scrutiny. But I am now 93 percent open to being misunderstood. You have only my bare words, unqualified, unenhanced, and uncorrected by my non-verbal communication.
Now how is this going to work out in a society that is increasingly isolationist and wary of face-to-face contact and where even phoning someone is becoming rare? Research shows that phone apps are only the fifth most used app on smartphones, and I am told that Millennials dislike being called and prefer only text. In fact, they consider it a little rude to be called without prior warning via text!
The LORD has something to say about speaking in the book of Proverbs. His words, written some three thousand years ago, still apply whether we are speaking, writing letters, writing emails or texts, or posting on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
The Bible has a lot to say about the power of speech.
First, consider the Bible’s teaching on the power of speech.
And God said, “Light be.”And light was (Gen 1:3).
When God speaks, light and galaxies and teaming life burst into existence. His words are that powerful. And a word from Jesus could kill a fig tree, calm a storm, and raise a rotting corpse to life.
And our words, like those of our heavenly Father whose image we bear, have power to them. They can’t create ex nihilo, but they can build up and tear down. They can create and destroy. They can bring a torrent of good or evil. James tells us that just as a tiny spark can set ablaze a great forest, so too can the tongue set the whole course of a person’s life on fire.
Our words can do tremendous good or harm.
Very powerful things can do tremendous good or tremendous harm, and so they need to be tamed and controlled and directed in the right way. Proverbs addresses the tongue in the same way it addresses everything, by looking first at the heart.
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked. (Prov. 10:11)
When a person has a righteous heart, then their mouth is a “fountain of life.” Their words transform what is saline and dead into something fresh and teaming with life. This makes me think of Ezekiel’s river, flowing east out of God’s Temple, and raising abundant life wherever it goes:
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek. 47:12)
If you want your words to do good, then you have to ensure that the source is good.
Yet, as Proverbs 10:11 tells us, from a wicked heart the mouth wreaks violence and death. The quality of your words depends on the quality of your heart. That’s because your words come out of your heart. If you want your words to do good, then you have to ensure that the source is good. That’s why Jesus said to the Pharisees,
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Matt. 12:34-35)
Proverbs 10:19-21 builds on this principle:
When words are many, sin is not absent,
but he who holds his tongue is wise.
The tongue of the righteous is choice silver,
but the heart of the wicked is of little value.
The lips of the righteous nourish many,
but fools die for lack of judgment.
And Proverbs 10:31-32:
The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom,
but a perverse tongue will be cut out.
The lips of the righteous know what is fitting,
but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.
Note that when the righteous speak, their words are as valuable as choice silver, and nourishing. When wicked fools speak, their words are worthless and deadening.
The wicked must always be the center of attention.
Do you want to speak well? You can study elocution, voice projection, gestures, and rhetoric. But if your heart is wrong you will just speak deathly rubbish, eloquently. Heed also the warning about many words in Proverbs 10:19. There is an inverse relationship between quantity and quality of speech. This again goes back to the heart.
The wicked must always be the center of attention. If their wicked hearts can’t provide those few good and well-chosen words, then they will try to make up for it with the word count. The good and wise see the situation, see exactly what needs to be said, and say it concisely and without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves. The words of the wise are gems:
Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel. (Prov. 20:15).
Proverbs 12:18 says the same thing with different metaphors:
Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
We have all felt the stab and sting of another’s words. And we have all stabbed and stung others, and most often those nearest to us. This brings us back to the 7-38-55 rule.
If reckless words pierce, then the reckless words of a harsh phone call will pierce more deeply, because there is no body language to qualify the words. Perhaps there’s a tear in the speaker’s eye, showing that their harsh words come from sadness or hurt. But you will never know if you are on the phone.
The wise are very cautious with their words.
At least with the phone call, there is tone of voice to help carry the true meaning of the words. Harsh words by text or email can do the most damage, because even tone of voice is lost. Texting may be least costly for the communicator, but it is most open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding and the hurt that arises from that. You can’t see the face. You can’t hear the voice. You have only the cold words on the screen—bare, bald, and biting. Our reckless words by text tear others most deeply.
Thus, the wise are very cautious with their words:
From the fruit of his lips a man enjoys good things, but the unfaithful have a craving for violence. He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin. (Prov. 13:2-3)
A fool’s talk brings a rod to his back, but the lips of the wise protect them. (Prov. 14:3)
And that is why we must take so much care, especially in conflict. With a few careless words conflict so quickly rages out of control. Thus, Proverbs urges, in conflict, to speak gentle and wise words that please the Lord and bring healing, rather than gushing harsh and foolish words that anger the Lord and crush those around us:
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.
The eyes of the LORD are everywhere,
keeping watch on the wicked and the good.
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.
(Prov. 15:1-4; see also 29:20,22.)
These are the kinds of words we should want to speak:
A wise man’s heart guides his mouth,
and his lips promote instruction.
Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Prov. 16:23-24)
Communication is difficult. The paradox of our age is that the more cheap, instant, abundant, and impersonal our communication is, the more liable it is to hurt and wound. It costs nothing in time and effort to send a text, but it can cost us dearly in relationships shattered.
May we speak words of love, light, and life.
When Jesus spoke, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22). He spoke such words because he spoke from a heart of perfect wisdom and love. May we conform our hearts to the heart of Christ by repenting of careless and cutting communication—and by submitting to him and filling our hearts with his word:
I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11)
May our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). May we “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). May we “not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
From Christ-like hearts may we speak words of love, light, and life.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
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