A Wise Tongue (Proverbs 26:4-7, 17-28)
Is the internet a good thing or a bad thing? The internet is communication on supercharge, but just as face to face speech can be used for good or bad so can the internet. What we need is wisdom to speak for good in both face to face relationships and online. God’s wisdom in Proverbs can help us with this.
Is the Internet Good or Bad?
Our world has changed dramatically and unpredictably over the last 30 years with the development of the internet or worldwide web. Suddenly, the sharing of information and communication has been supercharged in a way we have never dreamed of.
But has this been a good thing? Is the internet a force for good or bad?
Tim Berners-Lee, created the World Wide Web over 30 years ago,
“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.”
Is the internet a force for good or bad? The answer is both! At its most fundamental level the internet provides new tools and means of communicating ideas. But what was true for communication dominated by networks connected by word of mouth is also true for communication supercharged by an electronic devices. Speech can be used for good or bad.
The Bible is very clear on this. For example James warns us of how destructive our speech can be:
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6)
And yet, the good news of Jesus is also spread through speech:
“”How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15; quoting Isaiah 52:7)
So how can we use speech for good and not evil. Whether it is on the internet or face to face, we need God’s wisdom. What the Bible has to teach about speech is just as relevant in the internet age as it was in the Iron age. Proverbs is full of Wisdom about how to speak. Its ancient wisdom of 3,000 years ago can give us wisdom for using the internet which is only 30 years old.
Wise and Foolish Speech (vs. 4-7)
So we come to Proverbs 26, which has a lot to say about how we speak or rather how we shouldn’t speak. Verses 1-12 of Proverbs 26 in particular focus not so much on wisdom, but folly and it is important that we understand the difference, before we apply that understanding to speech.
Wisdom and Folly, 2 key differences:
I think Proverbs presents two key differences between the wise and the foolish that we have seen over the last two weeks.
- Want to Live for God
Firstly, the wise are people who want to live for God and are eager to obey God in their everyday living, whereas a fool does not really care whether what he does is pleasing to God or not.
For example Proverbs says,
“A wise man fears the LORD and shuns evil,
but a fool is hotheaded and reckless.” (14:16)
- Want to Learn
Secondly, the wise have a desire to learn, whereas fools already think they know it all. The wise have a humility that accepts that others and God may know better, whereas fools have a pride that thinks they already know everything. For example:
“The way of a fool seems right to him,
but a wise man listens to advice.” (12:15)
Notice, that growing in wisdom and being a disciple are closely aligned. A disciple is someone who wants to learn and in particular wants to learn how to live to please God in their everyday lives. This is the essence of what being a Christian is all about.
Secondly, notice that wisdom is not the same as intelligence and foolishness is not the same as being stupid. You can have a PhD, but not want to live for God or want to learn about how to live a better life, whilst you may struggle to read, but still want to live to please God and learn from others how best to do it. It is perfectly possible to be wise and illiterate and foolish and be a Professor!
A Wise Response to Fools?
But, if we are seeking to be wise, how should we respond to fools in conversations and discussions? If we are a disciple how should we talk with people who reject Christianity, but want to discuss it with us.
Proverbs 26:4,5 show us that there is not an easy answer! One tells us not to bother talking to them, the other tells us to talk to them. These two Proverbs seem to contradict each other. As perhaps, verse 7 implies, you need wisdom to apply Proverbs! As is also clear, you cannot simply take one Proverb as a guide to what to do without taking into account the wider wisdom teaching.
However, what these two Proverbs also show us is not so much a contradiction, but a dilemma when it comes to speaking with fools.
- Don’t Answer Them
The first Proverb tells us not to answer a fool:
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.” (26:4)
With the wider understanding of Proverbs about fools we can understand this. They don’t share your aim in life, to live for God, so why would they take your advice. Also, they think they know better than you, so again they are not going to listen to you. Both these points suggest not speaking to fools.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is brought before Herod. Herod questions him, but Jesus refuses to answer him. He remains silent. Jesus was following the wisdom of the Proverb, Herod had shown his disregard for God’s ways and killed the one chance he had to learn from God when he had had John the Baptist beheaded. Herod was a fool and Jesus did not answer him!
- Do Answer Them
Yet, this is not always the wise way to respond. The second Proverb says:
“Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (26:5)
This Proverb argues that it is precisely because fools think they know best that you should answer them in order to show them their folly and stop them being wise in their own eyes.
Jesus again illustrates this in many places in the Gospels. For example when the Sadducees approached him with a clever argument that they thought proved that there was no resurrection of the dead, Jesus showed them how their argument was based on wrong assumptions about both God and the resurrection of the dead. He wanted to stop them being wise in their own eyes.
- Do we debate?
So how do we respond to fools, either online or in person.
Do we answer their questions or not waste our breath?
Each situation will be different. In particular, you need to decide is there any chance that this person will listen to the argument and consider it or are they just out to cause trouble?
Yes, we do need to argue the case for following Jesus, but we also need to be wise about when and with who we do it.
Let’s be real about the dilemma and pray for wisdom to make the right choice in our day to day lives.
Debates are one thing, quarrels are another. Debates tend to be over basic issues of understanding, but quarrelling is about personal disagreements. They can lead to division within families, churches and groups that can be very destructive.
Indeed, the Proverbs in 26:17-22 use quite destructive language. This is where misuse of the tongue can be quite devastating and special care needs to be given.
In contrast, Jesus came as the Prince of Peace bringing reconciliation between us and God, by covering over our sin, through the great sacrifice of his death on the cross. He likewise teaches us to forgive others in response and so cover over sin and bring peace in our relationships with one another. So as Christians we are called to be peacemakers:
“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
We are called not to cause quarrels, but quench quarrels. I want to point out 4 ways to help quench quarrels from the Proverbs in chapter 26 and a couple of others.
- Don’t Join In
Firstly, we are warned not to join in with quarrels not already ours:
“Like one who seizes a dog by the ears
is a passer-by who meddles in a quarrel not his own.” (26:17)
The image here is of two dogs fighting. If you try and pull one off the other by its ears, you will just end up enraging the dog more and probably be severely mauled yourself! It’s best to keep out of other people’s quarrels!
Jesus illustrates this. In Luke 12 a man comes to him who is quarrelling with his brother about an inheritance and asks Jesus to join on his side.
Jesus responded by refusing to get involved:
“Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”” (Luke 12:14)
Instead he tells the parable of the rich fool about the dangers of being greedy for money. He doesn’t engage with the issues of the quarrel or take sides, but he does promote the attitudes needed to help bring about peace.
- Don’t use Humour as a Smokescreen
Secondly, we must be careful not to use humour as a smokescreen for wrong speaking:
“Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbour
and says, “I was only joking!”” (26:18-19)
Here the issue seems to be that someone says something that is hurtful, deceitful or confusing, but then claims it was just a joke. Jokes are good. We start our staff meeting with jokes, but we need to be careful how we use comedy in our personal relationships. Too often jokes are used to put others down in our culture. But, whether it is funny or not demeaning others is not acceptable and can be quite destructive.
As Christians we need to avoid those kind of personally demeaning jokes, because they tend to cause hurt and resentment and stoke quarrels and broken relationships.
- Control your Anger
Thirdly, we need to control our anger. Like joking, carefully controlled anger can be appropriate and necessary, as Jesus shows us when he cleared the temple. Yet, when anger is a knee jerk response, it is usually quite harmful and can again cause greater disagreement and break down of relationship.
“A fool gives full vent to his anger,
but a wise man keeps himself under control.” (29:11)
The Bible teaches that God is slow to anger and if we are seeking to be wise or true disciples, then we must imitate God in this way. We must keep our anger under control.
- Stop Gossiping
Fourthly, the Proverbs here are very clear that gossip is something that fuels quarrels and division:
“Without wood a fire goes out;
without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (26:20)
In other words if we want to help bring peace and quench quarrels, then we need to stop gossiping and listening to gossip.
Gossip is one of those things that is so easy and so common. Yet, in reality it is something that is deeply anti-the Christian gospel.
Peter picking up on one of the Proverbs says,
“Above all, love each other deeply,
because love covers over a multitude of sins.” ( 1 Peter 4:8, cf. Proverbs 10:12)
Jesus died to cover over our sins, to expunge them from God’s memory and our conscience. That is the heart of the gospel. Gossip does the opposite. It increases the knowledge of another’s wrongdoing and so creates a deeper mistrust and anger between people.
We may think gossip is not too serious a sin, but the Proverbs here compare it with arson! What is more in Romans 1 it appears in a list of sin that includes murder!
If we are serious about being peace keepers, if we are serious about the gospel of Jesus, then we will be serious about cutting out gossip.
Bonus material (not included in the sermon that was preached).
Quarrelling, joking, anger and gossip can all involve spreading truth, but usually a distorted or one-sided version of truth. As we move on to verses 23-28, we consider when speech deals in more deliberate deceit.
Here we need to remember that as Christians, just as we are to be peacemakers with the way we speak we are also to be concerned with what is truth and not lies.
After all John’s gospel in particular reminds us:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Jesus brings us truth in every sense, but the enemy the devil is about deception and distortion of the truth. Also from John’s gospel, Jesus says:
“When [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
So as Christians we need to be concerned with truth, not just in the big picture issues, but also in our day to day engagements.
- See through the disguise
Yet, we also need to be aware that the people we encounter or the internet posts we read may not have this same concern for truth. We need to be careful not to be naïve.
Verse 23, in particular makes this point about people:
“Like a coating of glaze over earthenware
are fervent lips with an evil heart.” (26:23)
In other words, just as a pot made of clay might be made to look like one made of silver, by coating it with a silver glaze, so some evil people may make themselves look good, by using kind speech.
Wisdom means being discerning and not being easily fooled. There are plenty of people that can make themselves seem kind, charming and wonderful on first meeting, but whose intentions are deeply troubling.
Several years ago, we had a 14 year old turn up to our youth group. He had an incredibly charismatic personality and lots of the young people were soon deeply enamoured with him within the first week. Two weeks later, we discovered that he was a deeply predatory paedophile, who had been put in social care locally.
Whilst we do not want to assume the worst of everyone we meet, neither should we allow ourselves to be charmed in a way that means we don’t take the kind of precautions and safeguards we always should.
As Jesus says,
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
This is one of the reasons it is important that as many of our volunteers as possible undergo the safeguarding training that is being promoted at the moment.
- See through flattery
One form of charm that is particularly seducing is flattery:
“A lying tongue hates those it hurts,
and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (26:28)
We all like to be praised and our good points pointed out, because it boosts our ego and pride. Yet, we need to be careful that people do not use flattery to make us lower our guard to their evil intentions.
Again the New Testament is very aware of this as an issue. Paul writes in Romans:
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Romans 16:17-18)
Watch out especially when people are telling you how wonderful you are!
- Seek to be truthful
But as well as being on the watch for these subtle forms of deception in others, we also need to watch ourselves, that we are not acting in similar ways, that we are people of truth not distorters of truth or liars.
In the context, I think verse 27 is a warning, that deception will eventually rebound on the deceiver:
“If a man digs a pit, he will fall into it;
if a man rolls a stone, it will roll back on him.” (26:27)
Interestingly this is often the plot of many sitcoms. One of the characters tells a lie, then we watch them as their deception leads them into more and more trouble. It can be highly amusing to watch!
But, as Christians, our ultimate motive, is that we know that even though some people will get away with lies and deceit in this world, they will have to answer to the one who is the Truth and judge of all. Eventually, they will fall into their own pit!
A Wise Tongue?
Whether we are communicating through the age old networks of face to face interactions with others or over the ultra-modern internet age, wisdom in the use of our speech is so important, perhaps even more important than ever.
The Internet can enable distortions of truth to be spread on an industrial scale. After all Putin has charmed and flattered the Russian people into supporting him and his wicked war in Ukraine, enabled by the power of modern communications. Through the spreading of false rumours and distortions over the internet, Trump helped to fuel the violent attack on the capital in the USA.
As Christians we need to be wise to these wicked techniques and seek to be those who quench quarrels and treasure truth, seeking God’s wisdom and guidance about when to challenge and when to stay quiet.