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.
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).