Approximately twenty years ago, I was introduced to a practice called Nonviolent Communication when, unbeknownst to me, I desperately needed it. I was a full-time Ph.D. student and a part-time associate pastor. Not only was I stretched thin, but also I repeatedly encountered disheartening conflicts. Tension simmered under the surface of my congregation—an after-effect of clergy abuse committed by its founding pastor. Vitriol pervaded denominational gatherings, which I had attended for a number of years. Too often I witnessed more rancor than unity, more vehemence than graciousness, more arguing than listening, and a repeated failure to care for those most deeply pained by denominational policies.
Nonviolent Communication taught me a set of skills to stay connected to others in the midst of difference, disagreement, and dissension. It helped me to speak with courage and integrity and to listen with compassion and clarity. The book of Proverbs does something similar: it teaches “sagacious discourse,” as Old Testament scholar Bill Brown puts it. He writes, “Such talk sustains the community, for whenever speech loses its integrity, so also does the network of relationships that uphold the community” (Wisdom’s Wonder, 49). Wise speech is a thread that knits a community together with integrity. At the same time, communities must learn and practice wise speech so that all its members might thrive.
While references to “wise speech” and “foolish speech” are woven throughout the book of Proverbs, chapter 15 includes at least 8 relevant verses that illuminate various aspects of sagacious discourse.
Gentle and Calm Words
The opening verse of this chapter reads, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” A “soft answer” isn’t necessarily “nice.” In fact, it may be fierce and passionate. Yet it is humanizing and devoid of moralistic judgments, accusations, threats, and blame. It seeks to restore connection and contribute to communal flourishing.
Verse 18 goes on to say, “Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.” Those who “see red” and blast others with lightning speed fan the flames of dissension. They make matters worse. They deepen division to everyone’s detriment, including their own. Put another way, moral outrage threatens relationships when it is not transformed by wise listening. In contrast, those who listen to themselves, notice their anger, and transform it into passionate care are more likely to diffuse tense situations. They may even foster connection and collaboration among those previously at odds with one another.
Challenging and Caring Words
Along these lines, verse 4 says, “A gentle tongue is tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.” When our words flow from compassion and care, they give life. Even stern words wrapped in kindness nourish and sustain others. They contribute to growth, development, and communal health.
“Scoffers do not like to be rebuked; they will not go to the wise” (v. 12). This implies that wise speech may correct others for the sake of edification and moral formation. Wisdom may say, “No” or “You have gone awry” or “Your approach is full of bitterness; this is not the way.” Wisdom may chastise us with gentleness and timeliness, but not with haste, anger, resentment, or self-righteousness. Humility wraps itself around wise rebuke; only then can it serve life.
Honest and Accurate Words
Proverbs 15:2 picks up on another theme: wise speech is honest and accurate; it generously shares knowledge with others. “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” Verse 7 reiterates the same: “The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the minds of fools.” Here I cannot help but think of excellent teachers who communicate truth and cultivate morality. They exude honesty and accuracy.
In his book, A Life that is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom, Glenn Pemberton identifies four types of speech that Proverbs identifies as negative: lying, flattery, gossip, and slander. Intentionally obscuring the truth is a speech-act that flows from disdain. Proverbs 26:28 declares, “A lying tongue hates its victims and a flattering mouth works ruin.” Flattery is a form of lying. It is deceptive in its intent regardless of its content. Gossip may be accurate but it fails to contribute to others’ wellbeing because it is spoken out of turn, inappropriately, and without care. Slander aims to harm others directly. A little whisper here, a little whisper there meant to sow seeds of doubt about someone’s character and thereby destroy their reputation and standing in a community: this is folly.
Thoughtful and Well-Timed Words
While honesty and accuracy are the baseline for wise speech, thoughtfulness and well-timed words are necessary. “The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil” (15:28). Pondering entails reflection, patience, and self-discipline.
Wisdom communicates information so that it is more (rather than less) likely to be received. Proverbs 16: 21, 23 frame this as “persuasive speech.” “The wise of heart is called perceptive, and pleasant speech increases persuasiveness. . . . The mind of the wise makes their speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to their lips.” What persuades? Speech infused with brevity, clarity, good judgment, and friendliness. And speech that considers the particular needs and social location of others.
Showing restraint in word and deed is a mark of wisdom. Speaking “few words” is one kind of restraint, as Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking but the prudent are restrained in speech.” Speaking slowly (after reflection) is another form of restraint. “Do you see someone who is hasty in speech? There is more hope for a fool than for anyone like that” (Proverbs 29:20). Speaking before listening, sharing information without consideration for its impact, interrupting others in the midst of deliberation: such hastiness erodes relationships and erects barriers between people.
Knowing what to say and when to say it is a hallmark of wise speech. Proverbs 15:23 may be familiar in this regard: “To make an apt answer is a joy to anyone, and a word in season, how good it is!” Nuggets of wisdom shared generously; well-known facts presented accurately in a debate; moral stories narrated when you have your child’s attention: all of these cultivate wellbeing.
A lot has changed since I first learned Nonviolent Communication. Our communal need for sagacious discourse is far more acute. Think about the venom spewed in social media, the ad hominin attacks perpetuated by so-called TV news anchors, the malicious slandering of political opponents, and the swiftness to vilify those whom we label as enemies. Proverbs has much to teach us about speaking with wisdom and compassion in this foolish age. Perhaps together we might choose one speech pattern to change in our own lives while prayerfully trusting the God of Wisdom to teach, renew, and empower us in this effort.
This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on Aug 15. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).