“The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control; and one with understanding is an even-tempered soul.” (Proverbs 17:27)
This is the seventeenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 17, preceded by a brief reflection.
The Bible attaches great importance to the words we speak. Proverbs 17 is no exception with at least ten verses on the matter. A common theme is, “The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control.” (Proverbs 17:27a) “Speaking with control,” or more colloquially “controlling our tongue,” is simple to understand, but hard to accomplish. For as the apostle James tells us, “No one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8) And yet, controlling our words is precisely what we are told to do over and over again in Proverbs and throughout Scripture.
We all instinctively know that controlling our tongue is important. Who among us has not at times said something that he or she later regretted? Perhaps it was a word spoken when we were angry, or tired, or simply not thinking. It is a tall order indeed to control our tongue, but it is not impossible. James doesn’t tell us to throw up our hands because the tongue can’t be tamed. Rather, he is using hyperbole to emphasize the enormity of the challenge. This is clear because he goes on to tell us not to curse; not to boast; and not to slander – all commands to control our words. Furthermore we know, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)
The principal challenge for controlling our words is that the root lies not in our mouth, but in our heart. For as Jesus reminds us, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Matthew 12:34) This means that unless we take a deeper journey into what is behind our words, real spiritual growth will be illusive. But what does that deeper journey look like in practical terms? How do we gain some level of control over our words? To a large extent we are left on our own thoughts and the guidance of others to accomplish this.
I tried an experiment twenty years ago that has had a significant impact on my spiritual journey. The idea came from Catherine Marshall, who described her experience of fasting from criticism. It was a straightforward idea – to abstain from criticism for one day. I have written previously of how I tried to follow her example by avoiding critical thoughts and words for a day. (https://pursuitofvirtue.org/category/guard-your-heart/) In brief, I failed miserably – having multiple negative thoughts within minutes of waking. But God plays the long game, and even as he revealed to me the extent of my critical spirit, he has continued to work on this area of my life.
According to Solomon, controlling our words comes from “knowledge.” “The one with knowledge shows restraint by speaking with control.” (Proverbs 17:27a) But this cannot be simply academic knowledge that merely informs because we Christians have “knowledge” of an untold number of commands about controlling our thoughts and words, but we still struggle to do so. Rather, this is empirical knowledge that enlightens, motivates, and enables.
1) Knowledge that enlightens. This is the kind of knowledge that opens our eyes by making us aware of our actions. The first time I tried fasting from criticism I was surprised at how critical I was. Spiritual blindness to our thoughts and words is a real problem because we live in a culture where complaining and criticism is seen by many as an inalienable right. It is all around us – in the media, in politics, and even the church. Constantly inhaling the air of negativity makes it hard not to exhale the same. Furthermore, there is a desensitization that occurs when critical thoughts and words are normalized, which can mask them in ourselves. But whatever the cause, recognizing the extent of our negativity necessarily precedes growth.
2) Knowledge that motivates. This is the kind of knowledge that shakes us out of our lethargy and leads us to resolve to change. In other words, a knowledge that ignites our will. There is much mystery in what motivates the heart, so we proceed with caution because the knowledge that moves one person to change may be a matter of indifference to another. For one person it may be the discovery of the damage chronic complaining and criticism has on those they love. For another person, it may be the revulsion felt at living apart from the kingdom of God. For another, it may be the result of a deeper revelation. For example, part of my negativity was a defense mechanism against feeling rejected – when a person didn’t meet my expectations, I responded with criticism. Wounds suffered early in life such as rejection, fear, and guilt, if exposed and healed by God, can motivate one to change.
3) Knowledge that enables. This is the knowledge that emerges from failure and makes us rely on the power of God to help us change. Because slipping is inevitable there is a temptation to despair. But when we call on the Lord through prayer, we discover he is the only one who can change us. When I catch myself with critical thoughts I have learned to pray the Jesus prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Taken in part from the words of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, and widely used in the Orthodox church, I have found it to be a powerful prayer to reorient my heart and mind to things above.
Throughout Scripture we hear the clarion call to control our thoughts and words. From Solomon exhorting the wise to “speak with control” (Proverbs 17:27), to Isaiah calling the people of God to “do away with … the pointing finger and malicious talk” (Isaiah 58:9), to Jesus commanding his followers to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1). But commands in and of themselves do not bring about change. We need to move beyond the academic knowledge from merely listening to the word to the experiential knowledge gained by doing what it says. (James 1:22).
One final note. Although overcoming a critical spirit is a great step forward, it is only a first step. The true goal for a Christian is a heart of positive, affirming, and encouraging thoughts and a tongue for speaking the same. More on this in the next post.
1 Far better eating dried out bread,
in quietude and peace;
Than feasting well within a house,
with strife that doesn’t cease.
2 A prudent servant rules above,
a son who causes shame;
Receiving an inheritance,
like those who share his name.
3 The crucible for silver ore,
the furnace flames for gold;
The Lord for purifying hearts,
of all the things they hold.
4 The wicked pay attention to,
whatever false lips say;
A liar to destructive tongues,
and what their words convey.
5 Whoever mocks the destitute,
insults their Maker God;
Whoever gloats at tragedies,
will not escape the rod.
6 Grandchildren are a crown for those,
whose heads are getting old;
And parents are a wondrous pride,
for children to behold.
7 Fine speech is not expected from,
the mouths of godless fools;
Much less are false deceptive words,
from anyone who rules.
8 A bribe is like a magic charm,
for those who give it out;
They see success at every turn,
and prosper from its clout.
9 Whoever overlooks a wrong,
wants love to fill their heart;
But speaking of the incident,
will tear two friends apart.
10 A sharp rebuke hits very deep,
on one with common sense;
More than a hundred lashes on,
the back of one who’s dense.
11 The wicked disobeying God,
seek only to rebel;
For them the messenger of death,
will sound their final knell.
12 Far better to approach a bear,
who’s cubs have disappeared;
Than meeting with a foolish dolt,
who’s bent on acting weird.
13 If evil is repaid by those,
for good that they receive;
Then evil will invade their house,
where it will never leave.
14 To start an argument is like,
a dam that springs a leak;
So drop the matter prior to,
a sudden burst of pique.
15 To punish those whose acts are good,
and pardon those with blame;
Are verdicts hated by the Lord –
to him they’re both the same.
16 Some fools think wisdom can be bought,
with money in their hand;
But wisdom’s something they can’t grasp,
or hope to understand.
17 A friend will love you all the time,
and always see you through;
A brother’s born for troubled times,
forever tried and true;
18 Those lacking commonsense shake hands,
by pledging their assets;
They guarantee to cover all,
a neighbor’s unpaid debts.
19 A person who is quarrelsome,
loves wickedness and sin;
And one who boasts their gate is high,
invites destruction in.
20 A person with a crooked heart,
will surely not succeed;
And one who has a perverse tongue,
will have distress indeed.
21 A parent always grieves to have,
a foolish girl or boy;
And those who have a godless child,
will surely have no joy.
22 A cheerful heart is medicine,
that eases pain and stress;
A trampled spirit dries the bones,
and causes weariness.
23 The wicked take a secret bribe
that’s slipped into their hands;
And so pervert what justice needs,
and equity demands.
24 Those understanding what is right,
keep wisdom in their view;
But eyes of fools look far away,
while wandering askew.
25 A foolish child brings misery,
that makes a father sad;
And fills a mother’s heart with grief,
and feelings that are bad.
26 If fining one who’s innocent,
is never good to do;
Then how much worse to strike a judge,
who’s ethical and true.
27 The one with knowledge shows restraint,
by speaking with control;
And one with understanding is,
an even-tempered soul.
28 Even fools are thought as wise,
so long as they’re not heard;
Yes, they’re perceived intelligent,
if speaking not a word.