"...let your words be few."
An Injection of Solomon's Antiviral Drug
Tucked into the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, we encounter this oft neglected and seldom practiced gem of advice: “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." (Ecclesiastes 5:2 NIV)
Wow, I like that one so much I should copy and paste it in a Facebook post and be certain to tag it “public” so everybody knows how good it is! OK, maybe not such a good idea.
Unless you’re living in a cave fifty miles beyond the nearest shop that sells a Coca-Cola product, you must realize the 21st century is a tough time for limiting our words. With the click of a button or two, we can spread our opinion around the globe and invest it forever in unseen memory banks. The old saying that spreading gossip is like scattering a feather pillow in the wind and then trying to regather all the feathers, just doesn’t quite cut it in our modern communications age where nearly instantaneous digital transmission enables everyone with a keyboard or “smart (?)” device the potential to become the next global viral internet sensation. And the adjective “viral” is sadly appropriate, since the spread of disease, and the spread of hasty words is equally destructive. Well not actually, the latter is far more destructive! Yet it seems we Christians can hardly resist the temptation to pontificate when given the opportunity. For “heaven’s sake” we are called to speak prophetically to the fallen world, right?
Well, perhaps. But before we go donning the garb of a modern-day Amos to call down fiery judgment on all that falls short of our understanding of holiness Christianity, we should consider ourselves a little more carefully. Perhaps exercise a little more reflection before projection concerning the beams in our own eye, the cultural biases latent in our own spirit, the ignorance remaining in our own minds of all the facts, and the deficiencies lingering in our own hearts that fall short of the unconditional benevolence of Christ-like character flowing from a heart perfected in love. Well, maybe I should just stop writing now! We all fall short, don’t we? So, should we not carefully consider how loudly, and how frequently, and how broadly we should broadcast our thoughts and opinions?
Unfortunately, avoiding the consequences of failure to heed Solomon’s admonition are particularly challenging for those of us serving in public ministry. Not that our hearts are necessarily more deceived, or that our minds more corrupted than others, but simply the mathematics and geography of life are not in our favor. The risks of unleashing hasty verbal overload are far more dangerous among those granted a regular opportunity for public discourse, because even we ministers are human and easily led astray by that unruly, infernal, pilot light lying behind our teeth and so easily sparked to flame (James 3:6). And those who are required by profession to share from their heart and soul on a regular basis (like every Sunday), are more likely to stumble in this area, simply because they are providentially planted in a more challenging obstacle course. (Did you realize James chapter 3 places the taming of our tongue within the context of the dangers of teaching and preaching?). We in the ministry, often deny this vocational reality, or in self-defense, we deflect the issue onto those “outside” our Christian calling. But whether in the secular media, or on the church platform, our words are easily, and all too frequently, weaponized in order to drive others toward our own conception of right agendas and noble ends. The sorry trail of “unfriended” brothers and sisters in Christ on Facebook betrays our proclivity to ignore Solomon’s admonition to let our words be few. :) (Apologies, but I could not risk an emoji moment!)
When it comes to pastoral public discourse, I’m reminded of a story my professor in seminary taught me years ago. A local pastor was invited to speak at the community prayer breakfast the coming week. He asked the host how many minutes he would be given. The host replied, “I’m sorry, but we can only afford you fifteen minutes this week rather than the normal thirty due to a special missionary guest presentation.” The pastor wisely declined saying, “If given an hour, I can prepare in a single day, if given thirty minutes I could prepare in a week, but if given only fifteen minutes, I best have a month to get ready.” He wisely acknowledged that brevity, not longevity, is the sweet and rare fruit of refined thought expressed in cogent and effective communication.
In an early book on leadership by John Maxwell, where he admonishes readers to “Be a People Person” he launches into his thesis in the first chapter by describing five qualities that attract us to others. The second quality is: “You want people to appreciate you... since the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated” (p 16). He drives the point home with a memorable illustration of a young politician holding his first campaign rally in the local theater. The appointed time arrived, but only one elderly gentleman sat on the second row of the otherwise empty theater built to seat hundreds. Befuddled, the young politician asked the old gentleman, “What do you suppose I should do with my prepared campaign speech?” The old man replied: “Son, I’m no politician or public speaker, I’m just an old farmer, so I don’t know much about campaigning. But I do know, if I took my hay wagon out to the pasture to feed my cows, and only one showed up, I’d still feed him!” The principle is, we should not underestimate the value of any single person. With that encouragement, the young politician launched boldly into his prepared speech, going on and on for over an hour before pausing to inquire; “Sir, you don’t seem to be reacting much to my speech. What do you think of it so far?” The old man replied, “Well son, I’m just a cowhand, and all I know is cows. But I do know if I took a load of hay out to pasture and only one cow showed up, I wouldn’t dump the whole load on him!” The principle here is clearly, don’t take advantage of people.
So, in this Valentine season, a practical application of Solomon’s wise warning is to routinely practice a holy K.I.S.S. in your ministry of public discourse. Of course, K.I.S.S stands for a sanctified motivation that Keeps It Short and Simple. As the African proverb goes: “Better nothing be said, then that which is said amount to nothing.” So, in order not to violate the spirit of this message, this lengthy devotional that cautions us to exercise verbal frugality must necessarily end rather abruptly. But I hope to return soon and continue the “rest of the story”—what we should be unreserved in proclaiming and just how it should be proclaimed. That Word will be revealed another day.
Maxwell, John C.: Be a people person: Wheaton, IL:Victor Books, 1989.
Rev. Duane A. Mathias, Registrar Nazarene Bible College