Words
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Words

From Series: Wise Words

Proverbs 13:3  (ID: 2281)

When a powerful tool can either heal or harm, we must be careful in how we use it. Scripture shows us our choice of words is just such a tool. Examining this power, Alistair Begg explains the effect of words to divide and destroy—or, conversely, to restore and to calm. He also cautions against the empty use of religious jargon to mask a lack of devotion. In our use of words, we offer evidence of where we stand before God.


Sermon Transcript:

Proverbs chapter 13, and our launching pad verse, if you like, to what is yet another topical study—unusual for us, but I think profitable at the moment—will be the third verse. Proverbs 13:3. And Solomon writes, “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.”

Father, we pray now that with our Bibles open before us, you will teach us from your Word, that you will grant to us correction, that you will train us in the path of righteousness, that you will convict us of that which is displeasing to you, and that you will engender in us a genuine desire to become not only students of your book but also those who, by your divine enabling, put into practice what we learn. Save us from being tasters without benefiting from the nutrition of your Word. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

It’s probably superfluous for me to begin with this question: Do you remember your children’s first words? Some of the dads may have a little difficulty, but most of the moms will be on it immediately. Indeed, every so often, in the course of conversation, as your children grow, something triggers in your mind the first phraseology of their tiny lives, and you get very nostalgic about it, and you tell them, “I remember exactly what it was you said.”

As young parents, we were very eager to hear our children put a phrase together—any kind of phrase, it would be fine. Just say something! We’re desperate, having found that they can walk, to discover if they’re able to talk. We recall even now, through the years, the inexpressible joy that was represented in hearing them say for the very first time, “Daddy,” or “Mommy,” or “my daddy,” which would be even better, or “my mom.” We can recall still, those of us who are a little older, the evenings when we inquired of them how their day had been, and we listened attentively as they recounted the activities of the day, giving us a blow-by-blow account—far more information than we were bargaining for, and yet still, in the infancy of it all, enthralled by their words, we listened carefully, rejoicing in every aspect of the tale.

Then somewhere, inexplicably, along the journey, things began to change. It was probably a car journey, for many of us, when the moment of distinction appeared. We found ourselves demanding that the lips to which we had begun to listen with great care should be closed indefinitely and until further notice. We may not have put it in those terms, but the children in the back were in no doubt. And it was, for many of us, dramatically revealed—the distinction—when, on a road trip to Florida, we found that we were aging dramatically as the milometer ticked over, and we saw in the rearview mirror a picture of what we thought was our father. But it was actually us! And we heard coming from our lips words that we had sworn we would never, ever say. And we started to say in exasperation, “If you’ve got nothing kind to say,” or “If I hear that word from you again, I’m going to pull the car over,” or “When we get there, if you say that one more time, I’ll wash your mouth out with disgusting soap.”

And so it was that from the lips of our children, we were forcibly reminded of what we as adults knew to our cost and to our shame—that as Solomon puts it in Proverbs, “The tongue has the power of [both] life and death.”[1] Or as James in chapter 3, as we read it, says it so succinctly, “Out of the same mouth come[s] praise and cursing”[2]—an inconsistency which is not impossible but which nevertheless is incongruous.

And as our children grew, they began to remind us of the fact that words are seldom neutral. Indeed, in the week that has passed, we have employed words—adverbs, adjectives, verbs, nouns, the whole deal—putting them together in a way that had the potential for engendering strife, creating confusion, dissension amongst those who until that point were getting along quite happily. We also have known, I hope, in the week that has gone the ability to put phraseology together in such a way so as to encourage our listeners, to nourish them, and to heal them.

It’s already apparent this morning that we have moved from the consideration of friendship and laziness and, last Sunday evening, jealousy to put ourselves under the searching gaze of Scripture as the spotlight turns onto all the nooks and crannies in our life and probes us, exposing what we’re really like in the matter of our mouths, our lips, our words. We taught our children to sing,

O, be careful, little feet, where you go,
O, be careful, little eyes, what you see;
O, be careful, little hands, what you touch,
And be careful, little lips, what you say.
For there’s a Father up above,
And he’s looking down in love.
So be careful, little lips, what you say.

We were simply, in verse, affirming the story of Hebrews 4: that every word that is spoken is heard by God, that nothing misses his gaze, that our lives are exposed before him, and the Bible has an inevitably uncanny capacity to discriminate and to search and to probe the very recesses of that which we seek even to hide from ourselves.[3]

Said Brooks, one of the Puritans, “We know metals by their tinkling, and men by their talking.”[4] And when coins were coins, you could flip a coin, have your eyes closed, and you could say, “That is a nickel,” or “That is a dime,” or whatever it is. Some of you who have lived a long time probably still possess that capacity. But certainly, there’s big difference between the copper of a ha’penny or a penny in Scotland and a sovereign or a half sovereign. Just to flick it in your hand, you would know by its tinkling what it was. Says Brooks, “And we know men by their talking.”

So, let’s consider this from three angles. That’ll be no surprise to you. Why three? I don’t know. Three rather than four. You should be encouraged that it wasn’t four or even five. And if you doubt that, just check with the people in the first hour.

I want to view it from three perspectives: Using words to harm. Using words to help. Using words to hide. Using words to harm, to help, to hide.

Using Words to Harm

First of all, then, it is an abuse of language when we use words to harm. This, says the Bible, is a sin that is to be avoided—a sin that is not unknown to any of us. Indeed, it is one of the distinctive facts of the fallenness of humanity that we do not need to teach our children how to use words that will be harmful or hurtful. They’re just doing what comes naturally to them.

What are the characteristics of words that harm? Well, there are many. Let me just give you three words to summarize it.

First of all, reckless words. Reckless words. I’m not going to give you every reference in Proverbs; it will be tedious. But you can search, and I think you’ll find that they’re all there. Every so often I’ll give you one, just because I will.

Proverbs 12:18: “Reckless words pierce like a sword.” “Reckless words pierce like a sword.” The picture is of somebody unsheathing a sword and moving it around in an unceremonious and unguarded fashion. Or, in the picture of the western on television, the fellow takes his guns out of his pocket and fires indiscriminately into the sandy street underneath the person, who’s forced to jump and try and avoid the indiscriminate use of this firepower.

By words we can destroy our neighbor, crush the feelings of a friend, set fire to relationships between people. Just with our words!

Secondly, and along with reckless, the words which harm are unguarded words. Unguarded words. Solomon speaks of “he who answers before listening,” and he says, “that is [to] his folly and his shame.”[5] We know what it is to answer before the question, don’t we? Doctors do it: “I wanted to tell you how I’m feeling.” “Let me prescribe for you!” “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t…” Pastors do it; they begin preaching before the person has shared their story. Husbands begin answering before their wives have told them what their concern was. And it is unguarded talk that begins to volunteer the information before the person has even time to take and to listen. And this unguarded, reckless, unbridled use of the tongue, said one of the Puritans, is the chariot in which the devil rides.[6]

Thirdly, words which are harmful are far too numerous. Far too numerous. “When words are many, sin is not absent.”[7] It really makes sense, doesn’t it, just in terms of the law of averages, that if we speak and we begin to speak too much, inevitably there will be things that are said that we wished we hadn’t said, things that we would like to take back and can’t, words that we let slip out that we really never intended to use, things that we said about another person that we really should have kept to ourselves. And the problem is in the volume of it all: words, words, too many words! “When words are many, sin is not absent.”

By these words we can destroy our neighbor, crush the feelings of a friend, set fire to relationships between people. Just with our words! Phenomenal potential for harm. One wrong word may spoil a person’s character, smear a person’s reputation, mar the usefulness of someone’s life for a very long time as a result of the use of words to harm.  

Says the poet, in not very good poetry,

A careless word may kindle strife,
A cruel word may wreck a life,
A bitter word may hate instill,
A brutal word may smite and kill.

 And James, of course, in the portion that we read earlier, develops all of this. You can read it for your homework. He says, “You know, the source of all of this is nothing other than hell. It is from the pit. The course along which it makes its journey is through the totality of a life.”[8] It is wrong for us to think that our words are somehow isolated from our characters—that we can speak in a way that is reckless, unguarded, profuse, without somehow or another it inhabiting and infecting the unfolding of who we are as a person.  It affects the whole course of our lives. And its forcefulness is such that while we may be able to take Shamu in Sea World and make it do all manner of things, “no man,” he says, has the power to “tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”[9]

Now, that language is straightforward, it’s clear, it’s unavoidable, it’s dreadfully painful, because all of us understand it. And when we use our tongues in a way that is harmful, a number of things will inevitably follow.

One, we will divide people who should be friends. Proverbs 16:28: “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates … friends.” In Britain, we refer to somebody, a man or a woman, as being a stirrer—that is, s-t-i-r-r-e-r. You would pronounce it “a steerer,” the same way you pronounce “a meerer,” as opposed to a mirror. So you have a mirror and a stirrer, or a “meerer” and a “steerer”—whichever it is. The individual stirs it up. They’re not in the room two minutes till they’ve got one person set against another person: “Did you hear about this? Do you know what she said? I was just talking on the phone to so and so, and she said such and such. I’m only telling you this because it’s true. I just have a little prayer request for you, in the corner.” Yeah, sure!

“A perverse individual stirs up dissension. A gossip separates friends.” Said Pascal, the mathematician and philosopher, “I lay it … as a fact that, if all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.”[10] Now, that may be a cynicism attaches to that, but there’s also great reality to it. That’s why it’s not important to say everything all the time. Certain things are just best left unsaid. Because we all say stupid things!

You know the little doggerel that we teach our children, again, is, “If your lips would keep from slips, five things take care,” or something. “Five things…” Oh yeah!

If your lips would keep from slips,
Five things observe with care:
To whom you speak; of whom you speak;
And how, and when, and where.[11]

It’s pretty good! To whom you’re speaking, of whom you’re speaking, how you’re speaking, when you’re speaking, and where you’re speaking.

Now, if we get realistic about this, then we can cut each other a whole lot more slack if we’re prepared to acknowledge how easily our own tongues are unguarded, how easy it is for us to be reckless by taking out the sword of our tongues and cutting a great swathe through relationships.  We know we can do that; therefore, why are we surprised if someone else does it? That is not to acquiesce to it, to tolerate it, but rather, by God’s enabling, to seek to banish it. But it is not to think too much of the dumb things that have been said, the untrue things that have been said, the malicious things that have been said. What else did you expect? For it would only be a perfect man who never offended in his words, says James.[12] And only one—namely, Jesus, that they marveled at the gracious, tender, kind words that came from his lips.[13]

Think about it. It’s not difficult to estimate how many friendships are broken, how many reputations are ruined, the peace of how many homes destroyed through careless words—words that harm, divide people.

I have two other points. I’m just going to give you the two of them; I can’t expand on them.

Harmful words destroy the praise of God’s people. Ephesians 5: “Be filled with the Spirit.”[14] Ephesians 4: “Do not grieve the … Spirit.”[15] How do you grieve the Spirit? In part, by the use of words that harm. You cannot—it is impossible to have a vibrant, meaningful, praise service comprising people who have spent the week with prattling tongues. You can make a noise, you can sing the melodies, you can engender all kinds of emotional experiences, but the reality of divine, Spirit-filled praise is hindered by the harmful use of my tongue. 

That’s why James puts his finger on it, and he says, “Brethren, are you really going to do it this way? Are you really going to move from cursing men to praising God? And these men were made in the likeness of God. Don’t you realize how incongruous that is?”[16] he says.

And also, the use of words that are harmful not only divides people and destroys praise, but it diminishes the progress of the people of God. In Jeremiah chapter 7—read it for homework—Jeremiah speaks to the people there, and he says, “You know, you folks think you’re going forward? I’ve got news for you: you’re going backwards. And the reason that you’re going backwards,” he says, “is because the plain instruction of God to you, you’ve got your fingers in your ears when it comes to listening, and you’ve got your eyes closed when it comes to seeing, and you’re moving in the wrong direction,”[17] and at the heart of it all, in verse 28, he says, “Truth has … vanished from their lips.” “Truth has … vanished from their lips.” They’re now going backwards! And the tragedy is, they think they’re going forwards.

Three things never come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity. The spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity.

You know the story of the lady who goes to her pastor, confesses to him that she’s been guilty of spreading a malicious rumor around their town. She feels badly about it. She asks for his help. He says, “What I want you to do is get a bag of chicken feathers, and take them and place them on every doorstep in the whole community, and then come back to me.”

And she returned. She said, “I did it.”

“And now,” he said, “what I want you to do is go back down the same pathways and gather up all the feathers, put them back in the bag, and bring them back.”

“Oh,” said the lady, “but wait a minute! The wind has been blowing in my absence. They’re everywhere!”

“Yes,” says the pastor, “they are. And so are your words. And you can be forgiven, but you can’t get them back.”

See how quickly we can destroy a friendship, decimate a relationship, crush the spirit of someone, with just this little three-inch-by-five-inch piece of mucus membrane that all of us have stuck in here hidden behind our teeth? Very uncomfortable, isn’t it? I find it so.

Using Words to Help

So let’s turn to the positive side, see if that’s a little better. How about using words to help? Using words to help. If the speech of a scoundrel is like a scorching fire,[18] then “the mouth of the righteous,” says Solomon, is like “a fountain of life.”[19] Wonderful picture, isn’t it? Scorching fire, burning everything in its way. Fountain of life; people love to come to it and be refreshed. Or the healing tongue, he says, is like “a tree of life,”[20] reminding us that the power of the tongue may be employed to encourage, to affirm, to enrich, to reconcile, to forgive, to unite, to smooth, to bless. Add a verb, pick a verb, any verb.

These words are described in graphic terms in Proverbs—described as lovely earrings which would be an adornment for the wearer, beautiful ornaments which would be an enhancement in the home,[21] and perhaps in the most well-known and well-worn phraseology of Proverbs, these words that help are like golden apples in silver settings.[22]

Well, what are the characteristics of words that help? If the words that harm are reckless, unguarded, and too numerous, how about employing words to help? What will they be marked by? Well, let me tell you without expansion.

Number one, they need always to be honest words. Honest words: “Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth.”[23]

Secondly, they need to be thought-out words: “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.”[24] What a great verb! “Gushes evil.” The difference between the circumspect use of language and the completely unbridled, reckless use of terminology—just someone whose mouth is like the opening up of a fire hydrant on an afternoon, and all of a sudden, it’s everywhere and over everybody. Somebody said, “Is it possible to get a glass of water?” and the answer was, “Watch this,” and it went everywhere! Someone says, “I had a question about such and such,” and instead of simply getting a word, they get a dictionary.

I had this happen to me just the other day. It was actually humorous at the time, and a little painful. Someone asked me about a tag on my golf bag. They asked me to pronounce the word. I pronounced the word, and then I told them that it was an Indian word, and then I told them what the Indian word meant, and I told them how it related to a pigeon that was now extinct in the Smithsonian Institute, and a man had made… And I was well into this, and the person who’d asked the question—“How do you pronounce the word?”—I heard him saying from just off the tee, “Well, that’s a lot more information than I was looking for.” So I just kind of, like, just dribbled to a conclusion and tried to hit the ball. But it’s the difference between gushing and having an ordered response.

The words that help will also be few rather than many. Solomon deals with this quite ironically in chapter 17 when he says, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.”[25] Well, we know this from school, many of us, don’t we? You sit in a chemistry class, you’ve gotta make sure you sit next to the right person—somebody who knows what he’s talking about, an intelligent group. Don’t sit with the clowns, wherever they are. If you are a clown, move in with the rest and say absolutely nothing. Learn the art of nodding, and shaking, and the pursing of the lips, and the deep thinking of the ramifications of these great theories—and hopefully, volunteer nothing at all. Because even a fool is thought wise if he stays silent, and you may be taken as discerning if you hold your tongue.

The words also that help need to be the calm words—calming words that allow for a fair hearing in a dispute; calming words that allow tempers to cool; the calming, soft tongue which,  says Solomon, Proverbs 25, graphically, “The soft tongue has the power to break the bone.”[26] What an interesting statement! “The soft tongue has the power to break the bone.”

You say, “No, it doesn’t. How can a soft tongue break a bone?” You think about at the end of Romans 2: “Do you not know that the kindness of the Lord Jesus is there to lead you to repentance?”[27]—that it is his kindness in the face of our rebellion, that it is his tenderness in the face of our resistance, that may be used to melt our hearts as we say, “This kind of love is amazing to me!” The child says, “My father should banish me from the house forever, but he spoke to me with softness. He spoke to me with tenderness. And I closed the door in my bedroom, and it was though he had broken all the bones in my body by the softness of his tongue.”

“A gentle answer turns away wrath”—Proverbs 15:1. We’re all confronted by unfairness, unfriendliness, unkindness, generally disagreeable people, because we ourselves contribute to the mixture. It takes far more to respond in gentleness than it does to give way to unbridled passion and anger.  You’re driving the car: “Well, if I ever get the chance again, I’ll know what I’ll say next time. ’Cause I was slow off the mark, but I’ve got it now! I hope she says it again. I hope she says it as soon as I get back, because I’m ready for her this time.” Oh, three cheers! Go ahead and gush. Go ahead and be reckless. Go ahead and stir up dissension. Go ahead and defend your course. “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Boy, is this… If you think… I hope that you all find this distinctly uncomfortable! Because speaking it is much worse. Especially ’cause you know me over nineteen years. Some of you know me intimately! So I retreat with Dick Lucas: If you knew what I was really like, you’d never listen to me preach. If I knew what you were really like, I’d never preach to you. And there we are, sinners before the dictates of Scripture.

“A gentle answer.” I could only think of one instance in my whole fifty years of life. And the reason I thought of it was because it just came home to me as an encouragement in the last few days. I don’t tell you this to be self-serving in any way. Indeed, it is a judgment on me.

It takes far more to respond in gentleness than it does to give way to unbridled passion and anger.

It all happened about eleven or twelve years ago—maybe ten, doesn’t matter. But we had traveled into the Adirondack Mountains to go to the camp at which we spend time every summer. And I’d seen as we arrived on this initial occasion a sign coming into the town that said “Donuts and Hot Dogs,” and I made a mental note immediately and got up early in the morning and made my way, drawn by the allure of the sign.

Because we’d traveled 450 miles the previous day, I gathered up all the rubbish that was in the car from the trip—it was extensive—and as much as my hands could hold. I then got out of the car and worked my way into this small building and to the donut lady and the donut man who were immediately on the left-hand side—just a kind of booth with shelves and donuts and a wastepaper basket, a garbage can. And so, I went, before saying anything, started to stuff my garbage in the can.

The lady, who was fairly fierce, said, “Hey!” over the top of the counter. “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I was just put…” She said, “Don’t put your stuff in there! That’s not for your stuff. If you have stuff that isn’t donut stuff, that stuff goes down there.” So you know this is a crisis in my life that is looming right here, ’cause I have already processed a number of places that I could tell her where this garbage could be put. And somehow—maybe because I was tired; I don’t know if it was the grace of God—but somehow or another, I said, “Okay.”

Now, the reason I remember this is ’cause this never happens to me. And so I went down the thing and put it in the big drum that was down at the end, and I came back, and I said, “Okay, right?” You know, here we go: it’s cinnamon with the large coffee. And then the next day, and the next day, and before the week was ended, we had not what you would call an intimate relationship, but at least there was a civility between us.

Now, ten years have elapsed. Thursday, as I got ready to leave, I couldn’t leave without going for my cinnamon. So I had a cinnamon donut, a large coffee, and the New York Times, and I was now sitting outside on an old picnic table. And it was hot, as it was here. and she said, “You know, there’s something you could do for me.”

I said, “What’s that?”

She said, “Could you pray to God that my son would be reconciled to his wife?”

I said, “Well, I would be privileged to do that.”

She said, “Because I have been praying to St. Anthony, and he is really slow off the mark, and nothing is happening at all.”

And the opportunity to break through that crusty religious frame was not generated as a result of some slick methodology but actually was ten years in the making, because, in the mercy of God, I didn’t tell her where to stick the garbage.

Now, maybe that’s just me, you know. Maybe you don’t have those thoughts.

Using Words to Hide

Finally, just a word about using words to hide. What I’m referring to here is the temptation to hide behind empty words—sanctimonious jargon, pious platitudes, using words as a disguise for real heartfelt devotion. Says Solomon, “Mere talk leads only to poverty”[28]—financial poverty, relational poverty, spiritual poverty. He says, “Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.”[29] He says, “You can’t do it. You can’t conceal it. You’re not going to be able to disguise before God the reality of your character by thinking that you can take the earthenware part of your life and simply glaze it over with all the kinds of terminology that make people think that you’re in the know and that you’re on track.”  And there is nothing that creates this more in the realm of hypocrisy than within the framework of a religious environment, and we become adept at hiding the poverty of our own spiritual life behind terminology—words that are a thin disguise.

It’s a peculiar danger that presents itself to all who are teachers. That’s why James says… You know, if every western mom, every southern mom, wants all their boys to grow up as cowboys, as the country western song says,[30] then every Jewish mom wants their boy to grow up as a rabbi. And James says, “Don’t force your boy to be a rabbi. Don’t volunteer for the rabbi’s job. Don’t you become the teacher in the market square. Don’t you, by any wrong motivation, sign up for that with a presumptuous heart. Because let me tell you, he who teaches will be judged more strictly.”[31]

Isn’t it amazing—it is to me—that when God reveals himself in his unsearing, unblemished holiness to Isaiah the prophet—the prophet whose whole life is about his lips—when God makes himself known to Isaiah, he falls on his face, and what does he say? “I am a man of unclean lips”![32] In other words, “The realm of my greatest giftedness is the arena of my deepest failure.”

Jesus warns that we will give an account for these things. Paul says to Timothy, “I want you to be an example to the believers first of all in speech.”[33] Not in preaching. In speech!

George Herbert, the poet of some time ago, has a poem in this book that was just given to me by a friend called “The Windows.” Those of you who are poetry aficionados will be able to take this apart in a better way than I, but I think I get the point; I’m not sure. Let me just read it to you. It’s called “The Windows”:

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
 He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
 This glorious and transcendent place,
 To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
 Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
 More reverend grows, and more doth win;
 Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
 When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
 Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
 And in the ear, not conscience, ring.[34]

Now, I think all that he’s saying is this: unless in the teacher there is a closing of the gap between

life and doctrine, then the teacher needs to go back to basics.

Jesus said the same thing to the Pharisees. He said, “You’re a bunch of talkers. You love it when people say, ‘Oh, have you seen them doing their alms? Oh, have you seen them attending the services? Oh, have you listened to their prayers at the corner of the street?’” He says, “If you live in such a way so as to hide behind the multitude of your words, enjoy your reward, because there never will be a reward on the day of judgment.”[35]

One of my teachers in London years ago put it in this way:

Have you seen William Braggins while toiling in prayer,
How he’s pleading and weeping and tearing his hair?
You can hear him all night, famous Bellowing Bill
’Cause he shouts all his prayers from the top of a hill.
Bill has had his reward in the praises of men,
And God’s not going to give him it over again.

Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, which I’ve been reading again to my profit, describes in a series of probably fourteen pages the conversation that ensues between Faithful and Talkative. And with this I want to draw to a close. I’m not going to read it all to you, but I can commend it to you. You can find this in the bookshop, and it will repay your study.

Faithful is on his journey, as you know, to the heavenly city, and he comes across a fellow whose name is Talkative. And he says, “Hey, do you mind if we walk together a wee bit?” And Talkative says, “No, that would be absolutely fine.” And Talkative says,

To talk of things that are good to me is very acceptable; with you, or with any other; and I am glad that I have met with those that incline to so good a work. For to speak the truth; there are but … few that care thus to spend their time (as they are in their travels) but choose much rather to be speaking of things to no profit; and this ha[s] been a trouble to me.

Very good.

So Faithful says, “Well what would you like to talk about?” “Well,” Talkative says,

what you will: I will talk of things heavenly, or things earthly; things Moral, or things Evangelical; things sacred, or things prophane; things past, or thing to come; things foreign, or things at home; things more essential, or things circumstantial; provided that all be done to our profit.”

A little bit of gushing there, wouldn’t you say?

Faithful then meets Christian. Christian says to Faithful, “What are you doing with him?” “Oh,” says Faithful, “this is a great guy. His name is Talkative. He seems to me a very pretty man.”

Says Christian,

[That] is to them that have not a thorough acquaintance with him, for he is best abroad, near home he’s ugly enough: your saying that he is a pretty man, brings to my mind what I have observed in the work of the Painter, whose Pictures show [best] at a distance, but very near, more [un]pleasing. … Religion ha[s] no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he ha[s] lies in his tongue, and his Religion is to make a noise therewith.

In other words, the use of religious words to hide the absence of genuine religious Christian experience.

Our words and our works achieve nothing for us before the gate of heaven, but they are the evidence that our profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is true.

And if all of that is not demanding enough, listen to Jesus as he says we will all give an account on that day for every careless word we have spoken. And then he lays it down hard and heavy: by our words we will be acquitted or by our words we will be condemned.[36] What does he mean by that? Simply this: that you know a metal by its tinkle, you know a man by his talk, and our words and our works achieve nothing for us before the gate of heaven, but our words and our works are the evidence that our profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is true and not fake.  And therefore, inasmuch as my words give testimony to where I stand before God, by my works, by your words, by my words, we will either be acquitted or we will be condemned.

And then I find myself going back to the little poem that I say all the time and make a hash of it consistently:

If all that we say in a single day,
With never a word left out.
Were printed each night
in clear plain black and white
It would make strange reading, no doubt.

And then, just suppose,
before our eyes close,
We should read the whole record through;
Then wouldn’t we sigh,
and wouldn’t we try
A great deal less talking to do?

And I more than half think
That many a kink
Would be smoother in life’s tangled thread.
If half what I say in a single day
Were to be left forever unsaid.[37]

Small wonder that when David faces up to all of this, he says, “Set a guard over my words; keep watch over the door of my lips.”[38]

Father, your Word searches us and tries us, knows us. Cleanse us from our sin, Lord. Put your power within, Lord. Take us as we are, Lord, and make us all your own. Keep us day by day, Lord, underneath your sway, Lord. Make our hearts your palace and your royal throne.[39]

Forgive us when our words so recklessly and unguardedly and profusely harm. Help us, that our words may heal and help. And expose us, Lord, if we’re using religious words to hide behind, making ourselves and others think that we know you and love you and trust you and have repented and come to faith in you, when in fact, all we’ve done is just bought a bunch of religious jargon, and we’re a saint in the services and we’re a devil at home.

Look upon us in your mercy, we pray. And may your grace and that same mercy, the love that comes from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may it rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Proverbs 18:21 (NIV 1984).

[2] James 3:10 (NIV 1984).

[3] See Hebrews 4:12–13.

[4] Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, in The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866), 3:178.

[5] Proverbs 18:13 (NIV 1984).

[6] Edward Reyner, quoted in C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 6, Psalm CXX to CL (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 9.

[7] Proverbs 10:19 (NIV 1984).

[8] James 3:6 (paraphrased).

[9] James 3:8 (NIV 1984).

[10] Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts, Letters, and Opuscules of Blaise Pascal, trans. O. W. Wight (New York: H. W. Derby, 1861), 228.

[11] Commonly attributed to William Edward Norris.

[12] See James 3:2.

[13] See Luke 4:22.

[14] Ephesians 5:18 (NIV 1984).

[15] Ephesians 4:30 (NIV 1984).

[16] James 3:9‒10 (paraphrased).

[17] Jeremiah 7:24‒26 (paraphrased).

[18] See Proverbs 16:27.

[19] Proverbs 10:11 (NIV 1984).

[20] Proverbs 15:4 (NIV 1984).

[21] See Proverbs 25:12.

[22] See Proverbs 25:11.

[23] Proverbs 16:13 (NIV 1984).

[24] Proverbs 15:28 (NIV 1984).

[25] Proverbs 17:28 (NIV 1984).

[26] Proverbs 25:15 (paraphrased).

[27] Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).

[28] Proverbs 14:23 (NIV 1984).

[29] Proverbs 26:23 (NIV 1984).

[30] Ed Bruce and Patsy Bruce, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (1976).

[31] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[32] Isaiah 6:5 (NIV 1984).

[33] 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).

[34] George Herbert, “The Windows,” in The Temple (1633).

[35] See Matthew 6:1‒2.

[36] See Matthew 12:36–37.

[37] Grace W. Castle, “Suppose,” The Christian Century 29, no. 3 (January 18, 1912), 16. Paraphrased.

[38] Psalm 141:3 (paraphrased).

[39] R. Hudson Pope, “Cleanse Me.”

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.