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. (NIV)
Anyone who has ever had to give an important speech or had to write an important article knows the frantic search for the right voice. While we all speak and write every day in our own unique voices, we only really become aware of what that voice means when we are in a position where our words take on the consequences of making a point by being judged and weighed by others. Then, we suddenly become conscious of just how important it is to sound a certain way, to say things not just in our own unique way, but in the way best suited to the purpose.
For those who spend their Sundays at the pulpit, or for those whose mission it is not just to sell a product but to defend and spread the Word of God, this is a particularly strong concern. Speaking the Word is an act of the greatest consequence. Taking the wrong tone can take someone down the wrong path and away from faith, while the right tone can lead a fleeing sheep back to the fold.
In such moments, we wish to speak with “the tongue of the wise” and not “the mouth of the fool,” but how can we know the difference?
In the Bible, very few ever actually hear the voice of God directly. The prophets all speak with His voice, spreading His message. So rare and powerful is this gift, many of those who heard have books in the Holy Book with their names upon them. We know these people to be honest and righteous now, but from the perspective of a man or woman of Jerusalem, the prophet is only one of many claiming to have the answers. This is a daunting task, to take the divine truth and set it down in words that average people can understand. After all, most of us feel God and know God but don’t receive His Word directly in the way the prophets did. How can we find the right voice for this modern task?
Firstly, it is clear that God wishes we take care with our words, not just in a moment of performance, but in every moment of our lives. Not only is “a word fitly spoken…like apples of gold/In settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11, NKJV), but crass words act against our purposes. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29). This is a sentiment Our Lord understood well when He said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:11).
So we must be, as the verse above suggests, “gentle” in our language. But this only takes us so far. Many might be gentle without being wise. We might avoid cursing and other coarse language, keep blasphemy far from our tongues, and still not find the voice to command people to faith.
As ever, the source of much of our wisdom is Solomon, not just from the above proverb but Ecclesiastes as well. In chapter five, Solomon tells us, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools” (5:1). The wisest king in history would know something about that. And his advice is the same here as in Proverbs (5:2):
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few.
We should speak few words, always listening before we speak. And who should we listen to? God, of course. We must hear his directions in everything around us, but also to those we are speaking to. Though some of us stand at the pulpit and some of us preach to the crowd, we must remember that speech was designed for conversation, that we have to listen before we can respond. We must listen and not be impatient to hear what God wants us to say, what voice He has in mind for us. Or, as James put it, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
It is from the wisdom of this approach that a voice can be found. If we are listening for God’s words as well as the needs of our congregations or the people in need of the Word, our own words will begin to suit the purpose and find God’s voice. Just as a reader begins to write like a book’s author after spending hours with that book, and just as our letters and emails take on the tone of the other correspondent, so too will our voice suit God and our flock if we are willing to listen first and speak gently second. If we commit to this path—to leaving ourselves constantly ready to hear and to speaking little save but what God has said to us—there can be no trouble in finding the right voice. The voice will come of its own, and the service to the Lord will be certain.