The Wise Worker Guards the Tongue (Proverbs)
The Valiant Woman exercises care in what she says and how she speaks. The proverbs remind us that “to watch over mouth and tongue is to keep out of trouble” (Prov. 21:23). Sometimes, tongue-in-cheek, they also remind us that “even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28).
There are more proverbs about the tongue than about any other topic. (See Prov. 6:17, 6:24, 10:20, 10:31, 12:18, 12:19, 15:2, 15:4, 16:1, 17:4, 17:20, 18:21, 21:6, 21:23, 25:15, 25:23, 26:28, 28:23, in addition to Prov. 31:26). A righteous and gentle tongue brings wisdom (Prov. 10:31), healing (Prov. 12:18), knowledge (Prov. 15:2), life (Prov. 15:4, 18:21), and the word of the Lord (Prov. 16:1). A perverse and unguarded tongue sheds innocent blood (Prov. 6:17), breaks the spirit (Prov. 15:4), encourages evil (Prov. 17:4), brings on calamity (Prov. 17:20) trouble (Prov. 21:23) and anger (Prov. 25:23), breaks bones (Prov. 25:15), works ruin (Prov. 26:28) and becomes “a snare of death” (Prov. 21:6).
Communication in some form is an integral part of nearly every job. In addition, social talk at work can improve working relationships, or damage them. What do the proverbs teach about wise use of the tongue?
The Wise Worker Avoids Gossip
Is gossip really a problem in the workplace or is it merely innocent gab? The proverbs point to its danger. “A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler” (Prov. 20:19). Gossip causes strife. “A fool’s lips bring strife, and a fool’s mouth invites a flogging. The mouths of fools are their ruin, and their lips a snare to themselves. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov. 18:6-8). “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal is to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife” (Prov. 26:20-21). “Scoundrels concoct evil, and their speech is like a scorching fire. A perverse person spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov. 16:27-28). Gossip is a violation of trust, the founding virtue of a wise person. “Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent. A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (Prov. 11:12-13).
Gossip casts other people in a questionable light, raising doubts about a person’s integrity or a decision’s validity. Gossip projects evil into someone else’s motives, thus showing itself a child of the Father of Lies. Gossip takes words out of context, misrepresents the intentions of the speaker, reveals what should have been kept in confidence, and attempts to elevate the gossiper at the expense of others who are not present to speak for themselves. It is not hard to see how destructive this can be in a workplace. Whether the gossip places a question mark over a person's reputation or the worth of a project or a position taken by a superior, the shadow cast by such words causes everyone around the gossiper to be more guarded and suspicious. This cannot help but inject division among workers, whether in an office, on a factory floor, or in an executive suite. Not surprisingly, St. Paul included gossip in his list of sins that are an abomination to God (Romans 1:29).
The Wise Worker Speaks in Kindness, Not Anger
The Valiant Woman “opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (Prov. 31:26). No one likes to be on the receiving end of an angry outburst, so we easily recognize the danger noted in a number of the proverbs: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). “Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is to their glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). “Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention” (Prov. 15:18). “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city” (Prov. 16:32).
The Frustrated Customer
It had been one of those long, aggravating days—the kind where the nerves of everyone in the company were on edge. At least it’s almost over, thought Carlos, the customer service representative for Ace Windows and Doors. Just as he reached for his coat, his phone rang.
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The beauty of these proverbs is that they also provide a picture of the person who can deal successfully with anger. We should be “angry” (morally indignant) against sin, but we must not allow our “anger” (wrath) to control us. “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). The wise person gives a soft answer, overlooks an offense, and calms contention. The “teaching of kindness” is on the Valiant Woman’s tongue. Such people are “better than the mighty.” In the workplace such people are essential when irritations increase or tempers flare. As followers of Jesus Christ we can live out the fruit of God's Spirit when we control our tongue, not only by avoiding angry speech ourselves, but also by being a calming influence in a sometimes-contentious atmosphere.
The Wise Worker Blesses Others
The blessings from a wise tongue rest on the reality that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver; like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise rebuke to a listening ear” (Prov. 25:11-12). In the workplace we are often surrounded by anxious coworkers, and a good word may be just what they need. “Anxiety weighs down the human heart, but a good word cheers it up” (Prov. 12:25). We stand ready to give that good word because “a gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Prov. 15:4). Truly, “death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:21).
In today’s electronic workplace, the “tongue” isn't confined to our audible words. Gossip, lies, and angry words can travel at light speed through emails, blogs, tweets, and social media. We are called to be discerning, to recognize that death and life truly are in the words we use with or against one another in the workplace.
See Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), for more on this topic, especially chapter 5, “Orchestrate the Conflict.”