BY CLINT LOVEALL - SPIRIT LAKE FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver."
Prov. 25:11 NRSV
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment." His words echo what my grandmother said often in my childhood, "If you can't say something nice, keep your mouth shut." I think both Ben and my grandma knew there was a time for saying hard things that must be said, but that far more often our angry and hurtful words do more harm than good.
It isn't easy, holding back the tempting word. Lately it seems we hear a lot of angry and demeaning speech. Some days it feels like we hear almost nothing else. It has become OK to insult, to accuse, and to ridicule. Offensive is often somehow equated with truthful, and even many Christians seem comfortable giving voice to ugly words that should remain unspoken. The wrong word at the tempting moment has become acceptable, even celebrated, and I'm not sure we are better for it.
As a person who gets to preach often, I spend a lot of time thinking about words. Almost weekly I find myself struggling over the exact right way to say something and pondering the truth of Mark Twain's quip: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lighting and a lightning bug."
What I think I probably don't do, however, is give enough thought and energy to the words not spoken. The words we hold back often matter as much as the ones we say out loud.
The word not spoken is often the more difficult; the criticism held back, the complaint not voiced, the angry curse, the insult left unsaid. James counseled Christians to "tame the tongue" but for most of us that is literally easier said than done. How many times a day do we say things that didn't need said? How often do we let the tempting word pass our lips when it should have been bitten back and left unspoken? How often do we speak in anger or judgement? How often are our words not "fitly spoken," at all, but rather spoken in a fit of anger or insensitivity.
Mr. Franklin and my grandmother had the gist of it. If our words don't reflect Jesus, don't say them. Don't insult and demean others. Leave the wrong but tempting word unsaid, and say the right words in the right way. As Christians, we have to commit ourselves not to add our voice to the unhappy and unhealthy noise all around us.
We can, and should, do better than that.