It was twenty-four years ago, and I can still remember where I was sitting when a boy in my freshman class struck out at me with those words. I deserved them. I had started it with a cruel remark about his acne.
Honestly, that might be the first time in my whole life I realized how damaging my words could be. I had this random, shocking moment of fourteen-year-old insight—my words hurt that boy just as much as his words hurt me.
Unfortunately, as awesome as it is to have these sorts of deep flashes of understanding—and I mean that with only a tiny bit of sarcasm at the expense of my self-absorbed younger self—understanding doesn’t always lead to a change of behavior. And my words—they are just exactly the thing that constantly get me into trouble.
I think that what people don’t always realize is that guarding our words isn’t just about what we say; it’s also about how we say it and why and when. All I have to do is think of some of the well-meant, terribly-timed words of truth I heard when I had my miscarriages to realize that speaking with wisdom is about a lot more than just quoting Bible verses—even the really good ones.
I’ve been transcribing the book of Job this year, and it’s really fascinating because I’ve never taken the time to read this book slowly. Job is one of those books where we tell the story, quote a couple great verses from the middle, and then move on. I’ve read it before, multiple times, but always quickly for a class or in three-chapter-a-day chunks on a Read Your Bible In A Year schedule. When you transcribe, you must of course move a lot more slowly. It gives you time to really contemplate what is happening. And one of the things that really stands out is the way Job’s friends use their words.
They start out so well, Job’s friends. After Job loses everything, they come and sit with him in silence for days. Sometimes there just aren’t words. I truly believe that if those men had gotten up and left after those days, they would have gone down in history as some of the wisest and most compassionate friends ever. But unfortunately, they all decided they had Something To Say, and they opened their big mouths and ruined everything.
This could be the story of my life. (side note: potential memoir title: She Opened Her Big Mouth and Ruined Everything)
One of the main lessons I am learning in the book of Job is that truth spoken without love and wisdom can cause deep wounds on the heart of someone who already is hurting. This is why Scripture says we are to speak the truth in love. It’s why Proverbs reminds us of the value and beauty of a word fitly spoken—because the opposite is something worthless and ugly and often downright damaging.
How great a forest a little fire kindles!
So much of what Job’s friends say to him sounds just exactly like something out of the book of Proverbs. They are the kinds of words we like to underline in our Bibles, because they are truth. But Job’s friends were so caught up in their own false view of what was happening in Job’s life that they were completely unable to see the inappropriateness of their words.
Job’s friends were guilty of one of the biggest sins, in my opinion, of Christians—using the right words but at the wrong time. I confess my own guilt of this sin. So often—especially with my kids—I am so focused on their mistakes and what needs correcting that I fail to see their deeper heart-needs. I use my Bible as a club to beat them over the head with.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time to speak hard truth, and to speak it clearly without backing down. The more I read Scripture, the more I am convinced of that. And sometimes the truth needs to cut like a blade. But that time is not while someone is in deep suffering and grief.
There is a time to sit and be quiet and to just offer straight-up grace and love to someone. A time to remind a wounded friend that they are loved, seen, cared for. Throughout the book of Job, Job’s response to his friends moves from anger to deep hurt to defensiveness and back again. Their words cut him like sword blades, because he knew the truth of their words, only all of a sudden those truths didn’t make sense anymore. Suddenly everything was upside-down; his whole understanding of God and how He deals with people had been turned on its head; and his friends were piling on with accusation and absolutely no compassion.
Whole books have been written on the topic of words—I know, because I’ve read many of them. But as I read Job, I am reminded that the Words of God are powerful beyond even the wisest words of His people. His Spirit teaches me afresh that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and that I need Him desperately if I am to recognize those times and do what is right.
Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be acceptable in YOUR sight, O Lord . . .