The Power of Words (Proverbs)
Big Idea: Words are powerful. So speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly — and ask God to change your heart.
Let me see if you can finish a sentence that I begin. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…”
You’re right, you got it. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I don’t know who ever thought of this saying, but they lied. It’s not true at all. Sticks and stones will hurt your bones, but words can actually break your heart. Words matter.
We can’t live without words. Just try going on a silent retreat. Even the most introverted among us will go crazy eventually. Tim Keller says, “We are built for and we have a need for words. Words are like food. Words are like air. Words are like water for us. There is a word hunger in us.”
The book of James says:
Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. (James 3:4-5)
Sam Allberry writes:
Ships are big. Rudders are small. One of the biggest ships in the world is the US aircraft carrier, USS Eisenhower. It weighs over 91,000 tons, is nearly 1,100 feet in length, has a nuclear–powered 280,000-horsepower engine, a complement of 6,100 men and women, and carries nearly 100 aircraft. It is vast. It is like a floating city. And yet all that weight, personnel, and hardware are steered by a rudder that’s just a tenth of one percent of the ship’s size. Something so comparatively small is able to maneuver something so huge.
That’s how it is with our tongues. They’re small, but they’re powerful.
Let me ask you: What’s the meanest thing that anyone ever said to you? Those words may have been said once, but they can stay with us for the rest of our lives. James goes on to say:
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)
He compares our tongues to a fire, that can set “the whole course of one’s life on fire” (James 3:6). Our words are like the cigarette that a 46-year-old woman in South Dakota threw into a forest. That cigarette started a fire that burned for two weeks, that burned eighty thousand acres of forest. Rumors, half-truths, grumbling, sarcastic remarks, hurtful things said in the heat of anger—all of these smoldering matches have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity.
Let me ask you, on the other hand: What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you? There was a man that I really respect who came to my wedding. He said something about me that day that I overheard – he didn’t even mean for me to hear it – that is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about me, and I’ve never forgotten it. Words can break a heart, but words can also heal a heart.
We’re going to look today at what Proverbs says about our words:
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.
We need to remember two words: Words matter. Your words are like a fire. Your words, the Bible says, are like a sword that can cut right into people. It can kill. But your words can also bring healing and life. How you speak is going to bring you and everyone around you life, or death.
A pastor was welcoming some members into the church. This is what he told them:
And now, I charge you that if you ever hear another member speak an unkind word of criticism or slander against anyone—myself, an usher, a choir member, or anyone else—that you stop that person in mid-sentence and say, ‘Excuse me—who hurt you? Who ignored you? Who slighted you? Was it [the pastor]? Let’s go to his office right now. He’ll apologize to you, and then we’ll pray together so God can restore peace to this body. But we won’t let you talk critically about people who aren’t present to defend themselves.’
I’m serious about this. I want you to help resolve this kind of thing immediately. And know this: If you are ever the one doing the loose talking, we’ll confront you.
That pastor says, “To this day, every time we receive new members, I say much the same thing. That’s because I know what most easily destroys churches. It’s not crack cocaine, government oppression, or even lack of funds. Rather it’s gossip and slander that grieves the Holy Spirit.”
We need to take our words as seriously as we do swords, guns, and fires. When someone uses them recklessly, we need to deal with it right away. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words kill. Words matter more than we could ever think.
Learning How to Speak
So words matter. Words can kill, but they can also give life. How then should we speak?
It’s actually quite easy. Proverbs tells us how we should speak: Speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly. Simple – yet as we’re going to see, impossible without God’s help.
The average person speaks sixteen thousand words a day. There’s lots of room to get into trouble with this many words. One former U.S. president (Calvin Coolidge) said, “I have noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.” Proverbs says something similar:
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
And then one of my favorite proverbs:
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
One of the best ways that we could improve in how we use words is to speak less. Words are so powerful that we need to guard how many words we actually use.
When we do speak, though, it’s important to speak honestly. Proverbs 12:19 says:
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue is but for a moment.
Proverbs 24:26 says:
Whoever gives an honest answer
kisses the lips.
Telling the truth is right, beneficial. Telling the truth is a kind act. One of my friends says that many times we’re too unloving to be truthful. Telling the truth is an act of love, even if what we’re going to say is hard. What we say has to be for the other person’s good, but our words must be honest even when it’s hard.
This is the hardest. It takes real wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. Proverbs 15:23 says:
To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!
Proverbs 25:11 says:
A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
We don’t know exactly what this means, but we get the idea. The right words, spoken properly, are full of beauty, artistry, and skill. They’re pleasing.
Here’s the thing. We can’t speak this way without God’s help. Proverbs 16:1 says:
The plans of the heart belong to man,
but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
Proverbs is clear about how we speak. Our words have power. So speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly
What Words Reveal
The problem with all of this is that we can’t just control our words. Our words are really an overflow of what’s in our hearts. We can’t just speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly. the problem goes much deeper. We need a new heart.
Jesus said as much:
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
Albert Einstein said:
The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is not a problem of physics but of ethics. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denounce the evil spirit of man.
What we say reveals what’s in our heart. So it’s actually wise to take a step back and examine our words. Nothing will reveal what’s going on in your heart than what comes out of your mouth.
Proverbs 22:11 touches on this same theme:
He who loves purity of heart,
and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.
What we need more than anything else is for our heart to be changed. A pure heart and words of grace go together.
What we say is a reflection of what’s inside. You’ll remember that the heart in the Bible doesn’t mean our emotions. It means it’s the essential you. Your heart is what makes you you.
That’s why ultimately we need Jesus. Jesus gives us the change of heart we’ve been looking for.
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
By all means work on your words. We’ll be doing this for the rest of our lives. But realize that the words are a reflection of what’s in our heart. The only way to change that is to ask Jesus to change our hearts, by turning away from our sin and trusting him.
God himself came to earth. One of his closest friends said of Jesus, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). He’s the only person who ever lived who never misspoke. And he died for us so that he could take upon himself all of our sins, all of our misspoken words. He gives us his righteousness, and also a new heart.
Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). We don’t need new words; most of all we need clean hands and clean hearts, given to us through the gospel.
If I were to summarize what I’m trying to say today, here’s how I would put it: Words are powerful. So speak less, speak honestly, and speak fittingly — and ask God to change your heart.
Jon Bloom says:
Today, make your mouth “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 10:11). Be “slow to speak” in general (James 1:19). Encourage more than you critique. Seek opportunities to speak kind, tenderhearted words (Ephesians 4:32). Say something affectionate to a loved one at an unexpected time. Seek to only speak words that are “good for building up,” that “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Be a person whose mouth is full of life.