James tells us that the tongue is an unruly member. If we can control the tongue, he says, we can control anything. At the same time, the Bible teaches that the tongue has tremendous power for good. We destroy with our words. We build with our words.
The wise in heart shall be called prudent: and the sweetness of the lips increaseth learning. Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it: but the instruction of fools is folly. The heart of the wise teacheth his mouth, and addeth learning to his lips. Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones (Prov. 16: 21-24).
Let us consider this passage in the context of marriage. The wise in heart are known as prudent (v. 21). Notice the general flow—heart to mouth. Wisdom in the heart leads to sweetness on the lips, which in turn causes others to learn (v. 21). Might this have application to words spoken between husband and wife? Understanding, like wisdom, is also in the heart, and it is described as a wellspring of life, bubbling up (v. 22). But what bubbles up out of the heart of the fool? Folly. The mouth of a wise man is instructed by his heart (v. 23). Moreover, his heart adds learning to his lips, which amounts to a reinforcement of the same thing (v. 23). Pleasant words are a honeycomb, going down to the soul and down to the bones (v. 24). Notice that wisdom in this passage goes from the inside to the outside, and then it travels from the outside back down to the bones of others. Now pleasant words are sweet to the soul of your marriage, and they are health to the bones of your marriage. Pleasant words are the words of the pure (Prov. 15:26).
A WORD FITLY SPOKEN:
Words are not abstract entities with an ethereal life of their own in Dictionary Heaven. Biblically considered, words are spoken in a particular place at a particular time, and full understanding is only possible for those who by grace understand the world in this same way. Words in this respect are like the Word. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The glory of words is therefore revealed only when they are enfleshed, ensconced, particularized. And this means that words were given to us in order to be set in place, like fine jewelry. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear” (Prov. 25: 11-12). “A man hath joy by the answer of his mouth: and a word spoken in due season, how good is it!” (Prov. 15:23). And again, “The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable: but the mouth of the wicked speaketh frowardness” (Prov. 10:32).
As a husband and wife speak to one another, they are to do so carefully. But there are two kinds of “carefully.” You should not have to be careful because you are handling a high explosive that might go off at any time. You should be careful because you are a jeweler of words—you are setting fourteen carat words in their appropriate place, and when you are done it will be worth ten thousand dollars. This is the right kind of “carefully.”
WORDS IN ISOLATION:
When harmful (or unhelpful) words are spoken, only the most hardened sinner flatly denies having said what everyone heard him say. But spin control still happens. Each sentence has a message—that which can be ascertained by a Chinese student of English through careful use of a Random House dictionary. Unfortunately, the denotative meaning of the sentence is only a small fraction of what is being communicated. Example: “We are having lasagna tonight.”
But each sentence also has what one author has called a meta-message, and which I will call its symbolic context. This is where the action is. The symbolic context of your words includes your past, your ancestors, your face, your tone, your silences, and where you place your accents. “We are having lasagna tonight?” And when this causes trouble, a favorite way of defending yourself is the grievous sin of pleading the dictionary. This is where you use the symbolic context to get your hook in, and then retreat to the dictionary to defend yourselves when your spouse counterattacks you for your unkindness. “When did I ever say I didn’t like your lasagna?” Trying to do this is a formal denial of the incarnate value of your words, the meaning that surrounds your every utterance, and practically it is an attempt to deny the Incarnation.
WATCH YOUR TONGUE:
Good communication in marriage is not necessarily a function of endless chatter. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit. Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding” (Prov. 17:27-28).
Good communication in marriage is not hasty. “Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him” (Prov. 29:20).
Good communication in marriage does not have to defend itself with “you started it!” It takes two to tangle. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1)
Good communication in marriage knows what the other would say because communication is not just speaking. It is speaking and hearing. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath . . ..” (Jas. 1:19).
Good communication is jealous and discrete. “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Prov. 18:8; 26:22).
A WELL OF LIFE:
“The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life . . .” (Prov. 10: 11). “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life . . .” (Prov. 15: 4). Every husband and every wife is called to be diligently biblical in their everyday use of words. This means diligent biblical application to the practical theology of language. “Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply thine heart unto my knowledge. For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee; they shall withal be fitted in thy lips” (Prov. 22:17-21).