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Proverbs 12: Like Fire, Like a Knife are the Words We Speak

Good morning, church.  Please go with me in your Bibles to Proverbs 12.  I’m going to be reading several verses throughout my sermon, so it’s not going to be on the screens this morning.  If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand and someone will bring you one.

We’ve been in a series through the book of Proverbs for several weeks now.  Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and wisdom is different from information.  We have more information than we could ever ask for in our day, but wisdom is knowing what really to value in life, and how to live, what gives our lives meaning.  Perhaps more than anything what we need is not the information of our day, but the wisdom of times and places other than our own to help us break free of the common ideas and behaviors which have so shaped our culture—old ideas like joviality, fortune, prudence.

And Solomon, who wrote the Proverbs, insists wisdom isn’t hiding, but God is proclaiming and revealing it in every corner of creation—it’s just folly, which is really just evil and death by another name, folly is calling to us, too.  In the noise of this life, it’s hard to know what to believe.  Who can you trust to know and speak the truth?  How can we live in a way that won’t leave us empty and alone, that won’t leave us on the wrong side of history, regretting what we’ve done?

This morning, our passage is dealing largely with something I’ve been struggling over now for two years as a pastor—our words, the things we say to ourselves and to each other.  We forget, because we use them every day, but the things we say shape our lives, families, and communities, for better or worse.  Our words can either be the building blocks of a healthy community or the fire that burns the whole thing to the ground.  So pray with me briefly this morning, and we’ll hear wisdom calling to us through the ages.

I want to start with the overwhelming theme of our passage today, which is, your words both reveal and direct your heart.  Your words both reveal and direct your heart.  All of our prophecies are self-fulfilling.

[6] The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers them. [18] There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. [20] Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but those who plan peace have joy. [22] Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who act faithfully are his delight.

And on, and on.  The book of James, which I would call a New Testament book of wisdom, picks up this theme and gives three helpful analogies.  James says speech, or what in most other languages is called tongues or the tongue, he says the tongue is like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or like the rudder of a ship.  Wherever the tongue goes, eventually the whole body will follow.

It’s true, your words both reveal and direct your heart.  This is true for us individually, it’s true in our families, and it’s true in the culture of our communities.  Raising children and serving as a pastor has taught me this lesson in a thousand ways.  You are never more careful about what you say then when you’re around children—why?  You know this, why?  They repeat everything, and around five they stop repeating you, but then they’re little sponges.

It’s like having, do you remember in middle school everybody had those spy pens that would record five seconds of something and play it back, but now instead of a pen, I have a person doing that.  Cash right now, whatever you say to him, it just comes right back with an exclamation point on it.  Hey buddy.  “Buddy!”  Did you sleep well?  “Sleep!”  And then when they get older, the pen recorder turns into a full-on tape recorder following you around your house like an investigative journalist.

“Dad, on January 5th, at 2:34pm, you said we might go to the trampoline park in the summer when it’s hot, because that’s indoors.  It’s July now, so…let’s all just be men of our word.”  Or you have what you think is a private conversation with your wife about a neighbor and, hypothetically, said neighbor’s parenting habits, and then the next day, your child is standing on your front porch, again, all hypothetical, shouting to said neighbor exactly what mom and dad think about the way they parent their children.

And as a pastor, if you want to know my thoughts on some aspect of church or culture, horrifyingly, they’re probably online somewhere.  If you want to find some reason to be offended and never come to this church or speak to me again, it’s vieuxcarrechurch.org/sermons.  And I’m pretty sure whatever demon invented comments sections on church socials and websites is running a whole department now in the corporate hierarchy of evil.  That had to be a big promotion.  That guy, the one who invented customer service departments, the one who came up with internet account passwords, and the one who invented stickers that break instead of just peeling off are the VPs down there right now.

Parenting and pastoring have taught me, whatever comes out of my mouth directs my family.  Directs my church.  Directs my own life and actions.  The tongue directs the heart.  Your words are powerful in your own life, in your family, in your marriage, in the church.

I want you to notice something in these analogies, like a fire, like a knife are the words we speak.  In the ancient world, both fire and knives are elements of daily life, used to cook or do work, they’re also things they had to be incredibly cautious with, because they are tools of incredible power.  Your cooking fire gets out of hand, and you lose your house.  Leave a knife in the wrong place, and you lose a child—still today.  They are both incredibly powerful and routine.  Our words, in the same way, we use them every day, but they are incredibly powerful; and you have to be careful.  When you let them get out of hand, or worse, if you are intentionally using them to harm, they can do incredible damage.  A misplaced word spoken to a child.  A careless thought about yourself, or word to a friend spoken in anger, and before you realize it, you’ve opened a wound that won’t easily heal.

So let’s start with us as individuals.  Let me ask you, what do you say to yourself, what do you think of yourself, and is it wise?  Is it what God says about you?  What does God say to you, and does it match what you say to yourself?  I know, in my private thoughts, I’m able to bear the compassion and forgiveness of Christ to most people I meet, but having compassion on myself is extremely difficult.  Forgiving myself for mistakes—and not even mistakes, but just human limits.  No.  Over and over in a thousand ways I tell myself I’m not enough to be helped and loved—when the truth of the gospel is that I never had to be enough in the first place to be loved by Christ.  He sees all of my failure, but he still wants to be with me, still wants to adopt me.  “Our Father…”

I’ve known people who call themselves ugly or stupid when the truth of Scripture is that they are wonderfully made and bear the image of God.  People who say to themselves “you can’t trust anyone,” when God is asking them to trust in him daily and to live in community with his people.  People who tell themselves they have to pay for what they’ve done, when the truth of the gospel is that Jesus paid it all, and in him you are able to be forgiven.  Be careful with your words, church.  They direct your heart.

And in your marriages, in your families, in your close relationships, how do you use your words?  Are you careful to tend the fires of what you say to one another; do your words sustain the relationship like a meal cooked over flame?  I’ve been in rooms, where v.18 here is very real, and married people, people who have loved each other for a lifetime, are stabbing each other with words back and forth like knives—blame, bitterness, dragging up past wrongs, trying to gain moral high ground—instead of allowing love to cover their transgressions.

Or where friends who love each other use their tongues like fires, to say just the right thing to burn the conversation down.  Parents who know just the thing to make their child feel shame.  Words like knives.  We shouldn’t use words against each other; we should use them to provide for, to nourish each other.

And in the church and culture, what do your words do?  Online or over dinner tables, in conversations with friends about hot topics, in church decisions and debates, is everything you say “what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” as Paul urges in his letter to the Ephesians?  Or are your words knives, hacking, dividing, cancelling, excluding, wounding?  Are your words like fires, out of control, burning it down?  V.20 says those who plan for peace have joy in their hearts.  Is joy what’s in your heart, or do your words in your relationships reveal something else in your heart: bitterness, perhaps, or anger.  Blame for the fortunes of the world.

Maybe in this we need repentance.  Maybe you need to make a call after service today—do it in the response time—or find someone after the service and apologize.  Tell them you’ve regretted it since you said it.  Ask for forgiveness, invite them to dinner.  One old, traditional prayer of forgiveness goes like this: “Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy…on the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone.”

So maybe we should ask ourselves, this morning, not just what we’ve said but what we’ve left unsaid.  Maybe you’re like me.  I sin less in the things I say than in the things I leave unsaid.  Anne-Elise, you are brave, and brilliant, and you do hard things, and I love you.  Do your children know you love them and think of them often, that you’re proud of them and miss them when they’re not with you?

Men, especially in our culture leave much unsaid, as though showing affection to another man or woman puts us in danger of being soft or inappropriate.  But you don’t have to flirt to be kind, and it doesn’t make you less of a man to show affection.  Does your friend know you love him, that you depend on him, and that your life wouldn’t be the same without him?  Does your coworker, or your employee know you think she’s doing a great job, that she has good ideas, and that you appreciate all of her contributions?

I’m sure we could go around the room, and each of us could talk about words spoken to us, conversations, good and bad, which echo in our minds, which have changed our entire lives, for better or worse.  Your words both reveal and direct your heart.  What you say matters.  Your words are powerful.

A second theme from our text this morning, related to the power of our words, is that wisdom is humble.  Wisdom is humble.  Verse [9] “Better to be lowly and have a servant than to play the great man and lack bread. [23] A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.”

To quote Lecrea Moore, speaking of America, “Welcome to the culture where humility is not allowed.”  In our culture, we want to stand out, speak out, stand up, write a blog, create a YouTube channel, get noticed, gain followers, get likes, gain influence, climb the ladder, take what you want, speak your truth, flaunt what you’ve got, fake it til you make it, never apologize, don’t show weakness, don’t back down.

But wisdom is humble.  Humility is probably one of the most misunderstood virtues in Christianity.  Most of the time we think of humility and meekness as some kind of apologizing, underdressed, bowing person who is always talking bad about himself, when that’s not humility at all.  Or we think of humble people as those who intentionally seek out low positions and humiliating tasks, which is closer, but not everything.  You’re fooling yourself if you think that by avoiding position, power, or responsibility you are living in humility.

Make Christ your model.  Christ who proclaimed himself to be God incarnate, in authority over kings, gathered crowds of thousands and taught them because he knew he had the words of truth; he debated the top minds in the temple, ate at the finest feasts, wore the finest cologne, revealed his glory on the mountaintop—and also he was friends with fishermen, and tax collectors, and prostitutes, and he loved his mom—his mom who was disgraced—he let her boss him around.  He cried with grieving women.  He left his throne, emptied himself, washed the feet of his disciples, and calls us to live our lives like his.

Humility is less about seeing yourself as lowly, and more about seeing yourself rightly.  If you are a Christian, yes you are a sinner, but you are also a child and heir of God; you are a friend and co-heir with Christ of the kingdom of heaven.  Humility, in short, is to value, in yourself and others, the things God values; believing, of yourself, the same things God believes of you.  He calls you sinful, broken, lost, wonderful, beloved, friend, brother, child, saint, the redeemed of the Lord.

Humility is the ability to be honest with yourself, and to treat others as greater than yourself.  C. S. Lewis says, if you ever were to meet a truly humble person, you would probably walk away, not with a sense of how lowly the man was, but with a sense of how much he cared about and listened to you.  He says the humble man “will not be thinking about humility” all the time, “he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

One pastor friend of mine, for example, is a very fine preacher, so people tend to come up to him after the service and tell him he did a great job and they got a lot out of it, and I’ve only ever heard him respond one way: he says, “Praise God.”  Not, “Oh, no, it was a terrible sermon,” or “Well, I shouldn’t be up there at all, let’s hear what you have to say next week,” but “Praise God.”  I asked him about it once, and he told me it’s a reminder to himself and to whomever he’s speaking with that, if ever a heart is changed through his preaching, it is the Spirit working through him, and God who should be praised.  Beyond that, he was grateful to God for the talents he had been gifted and he was grateful for the opportunity to nourish people’s faith; he considers this kind of service a great honor and a great joy.  Humility.

I know another pastor in our area who is probably the preeminent theologian in our region, brilliant man, educated in Germany, and I had the privilege for just a few months before I started here of going to church with him and being in a small group with him.  I called him Dr. C. When I greeted him, and he told me at church to please just call him his first name, then he introduced his wife.  He never hid his knowledge of the things of God or pretended others knew more, but he also didn’t flaunt it—just spoke up when it was helpful to do so—and he would always speak in such a way as to teach and explain, never to belittle.  Usually he would just sit and listen to others discuss the passage and come up to the small group leader afterwards to tell him what a wonderful job he was doing, and keep up the good work.  He would really open up during the prayer time, more than the discussion, because he was eager to hear about other people’s lives and to know how to help them, to be open about his own life and his struggles and ask for prayer.  I really got a sense that he depended on prayer.  Humility.

That’s two people in my profession.  I wonder what humility looks like in the things God’s called you to do.  It may look like getting a simple job to be able to provide for yourself, tithe, and care for others around you and living a simple, quiet life.  Or it may look like nourishing and celebrating the successes of the younger person at work who is more talented than you.  Or talking happily to your wealthy friend about the vacation you could never afford.  Taking time to listen to a child talk or throw a football.  Admitting that you have talents in some areas, and not others, and then using what it is you’re actually good at to serve the people around you “as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

And going back to your tongue, your words, humility for you may look like beginning to listen more than you speak out.  And not just listening quietly without ever changing your mind, but accepting instruction and correction.  Or for you—and this takes wisdom to know which, because for you, the opposite may be true.  Humility for you may be to recognize you do need to lead a small group.  You do need to be teaching, because that’s a gift God has given you, and you ought to use it in humility and gratitude to serve.

Or humility may be learning how to apologize to your wife or husband.  To apologize to your kids and admit when you were wrong.  To be the one to start the conversation about mistakes you made when they were growing up, so it doesn’t go unsaid.  To make contact again, to recognize that you are a person of worth and value in God’s eyes, and worthy of the deepest love and care.

“A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.”  As you think about your words, how they direct and reveal your heart, I want you to consider humility.

And in humility, as we close this morning, I want you to respond in some way.  Ask the Holy Spirit to show you truth about yourself.  Pray with the person next to you, or here on the kneelers, or with me in the back.  It doesn’t need to be some big emotional thing, you could just need prayer.  Very appropriately, this morning, as we prepare to take communion, if your brother or sister has something against you, go and make peace. Don’t leave anything unsaid this morning which needs to be spoken, and learn to speak in such a way that builds up the people around you.  Pray with me now.