“The fruitful words that people speak, will nourish and provide; for with the harvest of their lips, their hearts are satisfied.” (Proverbs 18:20)
“The tongue speaks words of life and death, that hearten or accuse; and those who love it eat its fruit – whichever one they choose.” (Proverbs 18:21)
This is the eighteenth in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 18, preceded by a brief reflection.
I wrote last time about the struggle many of us have with a critical spirit and its consequences for the words we speak. In our clearer moments, we lament having a critical spirit and desire to change, but we find our ingrained habits hard to break. This struggle is summed up by the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19) Still, Paul would not have us lose hope. For he also wrote, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9) Progress is possible. If we are persistent and patient, with the help of God, the smoldering embers of anger in our souls are gradually cooled and our words become less harsh, less judgmental, and less self-righteous.
But even as our critical spirit begins to heal, we can sense the Lord calling us to a deeper place. A place not only devoid of criticism, cynicism and negativity, but abundant in encouragement, hope and joy. Solomon tells us that our words carry with them the potential of both death and life. “The tongue speaks words of life and death, that hearten or accuse; and those who love it eat its fruit – whichever one they choose.” (Proverbs 18:21) Simply withholding words of death that criticize is not enough, we will only be satisfied when we speak words of life that bring hope and encouragement. This is a theme throughout Proverbs, where we read of the life-giving joy that encouraging words bring. “An anxious heart weighs a person down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (Proverbs 12:25) “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 15:4a) “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24) “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11)
The great spiritual transformation of the heart is to judge and speak to others the way we would have others judge and speak to us. Who among us doesn’t want to be an encourager? To speak with kindness, compassion, and sensitivity? To bless rather than curse? But how is this to be accomplished? How indeed?
In Proverbs 18, Solomon gives us a handle on this, “The fruitful words that people speak, will nourish and provide; for with the harvest of their lips, their hearts are satisfied.” (Proverbs 18:20) Solomon’s insight is that the words we speak are what nourish and provide for us. It is not simply that our words can give life to others, but that they also feed and bring life to our own souls. The focus in this verse is not on the effect of our words on others, but rather on ourselves. We are all familiar with the adage “you are what you eat.” Well, Solomon tells us that our words are the spiritual equivalent – our hearts are fed by the positive, affirming words we speak. And the result is a contented heart. Anyone who habitually encourages others can validate what Solomon is saying.
We find therefore that speaking words of encouragement creates a positive feedback loop. The more we encourage, the better we feel about ourselves, which enables us to encourage more. Given this, many of us still struggle to encourage others. Why? I would mention two reasons.
The first involves various pathologies such as selfishness, a need to be in control, unforgiveness, anger, and the like. Anyone suffering under these clouds cannot encourage others until they are first healed by the Lord. Scripture reminds us, “a salt spring cannot produce fresh water.” (James 3:12) Neither can a heart in chains set others free.
The second involves good intentions that miss their mark. These are not born out of anger, fear, or jealousy, but out of good motives that are simply ineffective. For example, suppose we love someone who is struggling but has not asked for our help. When we try to share relevant and potentially helpful advice, it is spurned and scorned. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6) In The Divine Conspiracy Dallas Willard points out that this verse is often misunderstood to mean that we may have certain wonderful treasures but there are some people who are not worthy of those treasures. This is directly opposed to the spirit of what Jesus is teaching. The point is not that the pearl is wasted, but that the person is not helped. Words spoken out of good intentions but without discernment are not life-giving. Encouragement requires both a heart that cares and a mind that’s wise.
People are hurting, we are hurting. Insecurities and fears run deep. And there seems to be no shortage of people who would criticize, judge, and condemn others. At times, it can feel as if the entire culture is tilting this way. The world desperately needs to hear words of encouragement – words springing from a heart of, “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12) As followers of Christ, we fight against the powers of darkness every time we encourage and build up another. Encouragement is truly a way that we can let our light shine before others. When we do this, we find that we too are encouraged. And in the words of St. Francis we discover that, “It is in giving that we receive.” (Peace Prayer)
There is much riding on our words – the spiritual life of others and ourselves. In Sacred Fire, Ronald Rolheiser writes, “We are mature when we define ourselves by what we are for rather than by what we are against. The capacity to praise more than to criticize defines maturity. The crowning glory of maturity and discipleship is the capacity and willingness to bless others, particularly the young. … Nothing so much depresses us as cursing others, just as nothing brings as much joy into our lives as blessing others.” (260)
May you be a blessing and encouragement to others today.
1 Whoever isolates himself,
pursues a selfish end;
Rejecting judgments that are sound,
and what they recommend.
2 The foolish find no happiness,
in learning what is right;
Instead, by airing their ideas,
is how they take delight.
3 Wherever there is wickedness,
contempt is close behind;
And with embarrassment and shame,
disgrace is intertwined.
4 The words that certain people speak,
have wisdom all should know;
Like waters gushing from the deep,
that fill up streams that flow.
5 It’s wrong to favor those who act,
in vile and wicked ways;
Or to deprive the innocent,
of justice for their days.
6 The lips of foolish people bring,
them constant quarreling;
Their mouths invite a battering,
from all those listening.
7 The mouths of fools will ruin them,
and lay their spirits bare;
Their lips are for their lives a trap,
and for their soul a snare.
8 A gossip’s words are like a snack,
that makes one satisfied;
They slide on in with greatest ease,
and settle deep inside.
9 There’s one whose way is laziness,
with slacker as a name;
And one destroying everything –
the two are much the same.
10 The name of Him who is the Lord,
is like a tower strong;
The righteous swiftly run to it,
and safely there belong.
11 The wealth amassed by those of means,
is like a town that’s sealed;
They proudly think it can’t be breached –
a lofty wall and shield.
12 It’s pride that surely comes before,
embarrassment and shame;
But when humility is first,
there’s honor and acclaim.
13 To answer without listening,
to what is being asked;
Reveals a foolishness that’s deep,
and shamefulness that’s vast.
14 A person’s spirit can survive,
when sickness has no cure;
But if that spirit’s hope is crushed,
it cannot long endure.
15 The heart that is intelligent,
finds knowledge where it can;
The ear that follows wisdom’s way,
makes seeking it its plan.
16 A gift will open up the way,
forestalling any wait;
It gives the giver access to,
the mighty and the great.
17 The first to speak and state his case,
seems sensible and right;
But after cross-examining,
it’s not so black and white.
18 To flip a coin can end a fight,
and make contention cease;
It separates opposing sides,
ensuring there is peace.
19 A brother wronged is hard to win –
a city that won’t yield; ,
Disputes keep people far apart, ,
like gates forever sealed.
20 The fruitful words that people speak,
will nourish and provide;
For with the harvest of their lips,
their hearts are satisfied.
21 The tongue speaks words of life and death,
that hearten or accuse;
And those who love it eat its fruit –
whichever one they choose.
22 The one who finds a wife who’s good,
finds one to be adored;
And he’ll receive the blessing and,
the favor of the Lord.
23 The poor will beg for some relief –
for mercy they will plead;
The rich will answer heartlessly,
and not a thing concede.
24 Some friends are unreliable,
and ruin you for good;
But one sticks closer to you than,
a brother ever would.