The late Stephen Covey told the following story several years ago about an experience he had as he rode in a New York City Subway Car one Sunday morning:
“People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
“The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
“It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
“The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’
“Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”
How many of us here have had an experience similar to Covey’s?
How many of us here have had an experience like this and internally we fumed and said or did nothing but it affected our attitude the rest of the day?
How many of us here have had an experience like this and we spoke harsh words only to eat them later?
Now Covey quickly realized that things were not as they seemed at first to him and chose to assist the man. It was the wise and correct course of action.
And there are times, as Covey’s experience notes, we need to speak up. But how and when do we that?
But I think that Covey paused before he spoke and it paid off for all concerned – Covey, the man and his kids, and everyone in that subway car.
Our main verse for this morning reminds us of the pause that can redeem – a relationship, a situation, a faith.
It is Proverbs 15:1
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Or as The Message puts it:
A gentle response defuses anger,
but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.
Pretty clear verse, isn’t it? Not much to dig out is there?
There are many gems in this chapter about learning to be a wise person by speaking as a wise person. Verse 4 echoes verse 1:
Kind words heal and help;
cutting words wound and maim.
The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.
What accounts for the difference between the gentle answer/kind word response and the sharp tongued/cutting word response?
The attitude of the person speaking them.
And scripture has a great deal to say to us about that and one word is key to understanding our attitudes.
And the book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about our hearts.
There is Proverbs 4:23
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
And Proverbs 6:18
a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil,
(We studied this verse a few weeks ago)
But we also must look at what Jesus said about the heart because it is related to our speech and I begin with Matthew 5:8
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
If we are to speak words of healing and hope, they must come from a pure heart and purity meant here means sincere, blameless, and free of guilt. The alternative, which our main text reflects, is given great clarity by Christ in Mark 7:20-23
“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Finally some very potent and wise words from James as noted in James 3:5-12
…the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
I suggest this morning we consider the connection between our heart and our tongue and how we can make the first half of our main text a good habit and learn to stop the bad habit of the second half of the text.
How is a gentle answer created that can defuse a situation from getting worse?
It is a matter of the heart.
The flow of thoughts and motives Jesus speaks of has to do with the one way direction from the heart to the tongue.
it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come..
Evil is used here as an adjective and it means these things: of a bad nature- not such as it ought to be; of a mode of thinking, feeling, acting- base, wrong, wicked; troublesome, injurious, pernicious, destructive, baneful.
A wise person is a person with a gentle answer and they have a gentle answer because their hearts are clear. And their hearts are clear because they have allowed God into their hearts… and lives… and asked for and received the cleansing and healing they need. But, wise persons also continue to cooperate with the Lord in keeping their hearts clean from the things that feed angry words to our tongues.
One of the ways I think that we cooperate with the Lord in keeping our hearts and tongues clear and open is asking for, seeing clearly, and surrendering to God those unresolved painful moments in our lives that fuel angry words and actions which lead to conflict and fractured relationships with others and the Lord. And in my hand this morning is a book that I found, and continue to find, helpful in dealing with those moments.
It is called The Faces of Rage by David Damico. It was written and published in the early 1990’s. The subtitle of the book says a great deal: Resolving the Losses That Lead to: Anger, Guilt, Shame, Cynicism, Isolation, Compulsions, Pretense, Legalism, and Perfectionism.
He names eight significant losses in the book:
The Loss of Safety
The Loss of Purpose
The Loss of Significance
The Loss of Authenticity
The Loss of Eligibility
The Loss of Hope
The Loss of Dignity
The Loss of Power
And he suggests that as we face, grieve, and surrender these losses to God instead of letting them drive our behavior and, our speech, we gain freedom from the rage (and I suggest the sins of rage – notably harsh answers) that we deal with. And rage, I remind us, is one of the things that Paul tells the early church community at Ephesus to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”
I want to spend a few moments sharing some of the insights and stories Damico writes in this book. I normally don’t do this but it illustrates what happens when the losses, and the very real pain these losses create, go unresolved and the harsh words which both inflict and express the alienation, pain, and conflict.
By the loss of safety Damico means not just physical safety. He tells the story of Tom who claimed to be a compulsive worrier. He was never physically in danger in his home but emotionally felt unsafe because as Damico puts it, “He always had an underlying feeling that he wasn’t wanted. As long as kept the rules of the house, his parents left him alone.” (Of note, Tom was 10 years younger than his closest sibling.)
How might an unresolved loss of safety be expressed through harsh words?
Then there is a loss of purpose. Damico tells the story of Reba, an attorney’s wife of many years who was considering suicide because she felt that her family, especially her kids, “don’t think I can do anything.” Of this loss Damico noted, “Purpose is lost when our attempts to contribute are rejected, scorned, criticized, stolen, or ignored.”
How might an unresolved loss of purpose be expressed through harsh words which keep things stirred up?
Loss of significance is another loss that is painful. There is Martin who had many lady friends and few male friends in part because of an emotionally distant relationship with his dad that he never seemed to be able to meaningfully communicate with. Damico says this about the importance of significance, “to feel significant is to feel visible, substantial, and essential” and he goes on to say that one of the great indicators of insignificance as being present are when the words, “children should be seen and not heard” are spoken.
Damico sat in a men’s recovery group one evening and they talked about the loss of authenticity. Phrases like “Why can’t you be like your older brother?’; an angry frustration with feeling judged for raising their hands in worship; and the anguished anger of feeling judged for not using the right terminology in the group, came flowing out of these men often with a lot of heat behind them. Damico links experiencing shame with the loss of authenticity that occurs “when we are shaped and molded by the expectations of others who are trying to make us into someone they want us to be rather than allowing us to become who we really are.”
How might an unresolved loss of authenticity be expressed through harsh words which keep things stirred up?
Then there is what I think is one of the most painful losses which lead to a heart that is gummed up by anger, rage, and expressed in angry words that keep things stirred up. It is the loss of eligibility.
“You’re too fat to play. Besides, if we pick you we’ll lose.”
“You’re so stupid. Every time you open your mouth something stupid comes out.”
“I’m sorry. You’re just not quite what we’re looking for to join this ministry team. Didn’t you say you’ve been divorced?”
“Look, if you can’t get it right, I’m going to have to find someone else. I can’t waste my whole day helping you.”
We’ve heard the words, haven’t we?
Damico says this, “An individual who struggles with the loss of eligibility has a profound sense of inadequacy and self-hate… if we carry this loss without resolving it, we will make others the victims of our own prejudice or bias as well.”
How might harsh words keep things stirred up when we do not resolve the loss and the very real pain when we are told we don’t count?
Then there is the loss of hope. Damico told the story of a man whose life was unraveling – rejected for admission into graduate school, no place to live, the death of his dad, the miscarriage of his wife – “Is it ever going to get better?”
“Hopelessness usually comes when we find ourselves in crisis and we: can see no end, can find no friend, can exercise no options, can experience no rest.”
How might this profound loss, keep the harsh words flowing?
A radio listener told Damico, live on the air, he had a lot of rage because his adopted father said to him that “he was sorry he had ever gotten me.” The man went to explain that he was made to sit in on a blanket in the backyard all day and when he came into eat or go to the bathroom, was ignored by the rest of the family who were told to ignore him.
It was the loss of dignity this man was trying to find.
Can we not understand the angry words of this man?
Finally, there is the loss of power.
The story is told a young man who sat in a therapy group run by Damico and simply tuned out. He had been in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, prison, and had attempted suicide three times and had numerous obsessive-compulsive issues.
Whether it is through abuse or neglect “somehow,” notes Damico, “the plug gets pulled and the lights (of love, grace, mercy, and peace) go out.”
And the angry words and demeanor continue to come out.
Time to come up for air, isn’t it?
Even as I wrote this section, I recalled things I had experienced, and said at times, in regards to these losses. They plugged up my heart and poisoned my speech.
But, I had a choice. You have a choice.
It never goes away until we are dead or unable to think, speak, and reason.
We can choose to hang on to these losses and keep letting the unresolved conflict, pain, and anger out in our words and actions…
Or… with the help and power of God
Face them, grieve them, and let them go… into God’s hands
The choice is yours.
You can start the process today and it might take awhile to get through but none of us have to live with these terrible losses. Yes, they will always be in our memories but we can chose, with God’s help, to let them go and not let them have power over us anymore.
I think that one of reasons there are people we seek out who have wisdom is because, in part, they have resolved these losses, and God’s great grace now flows out of their hearts and through their speech.
What is Christ saying to you this morning about your life, your heart, your speech? Will you let Him in? Will you let Him help you heal? Will you choose the way of wisdom and become a person whose gentle answer turns away wrath?
I pray that we all will.