We are becoming a nation of angry, short-tempered people. From road rage to airplane rage, grocery store rage and violence at youth sports events, the media has been reporting these emotional outbursts with unprecedented frequency.
More than three fourths of Americans believe angry behavior has increased in places like airports and highways, according to a recent USA Today CNN/Gallup Poll. Flight attendants and pilots report a dramatic increase in problem passengers: 66 incidents in 1997 had risen to 534 incidents in 1999, just two years. Today, twenty years later, it is closer to 27,000 incidents per year.
- Leslie Charles wrote a book with a great title: Why Is Everyone So Cranky? and in that book he says: I’m describing a fuming, unrelenting, sense of anger, hostility, and alienation that simmers for months, even years, without relief. Eventually, all it takes is a triggering incident, usually minor, for the hostile person to go ballistic. Cell phones … and [other] high tech devices allow us to be interrupted anywhere, at any time. This constant accessibility, and compulsive use of technology, fragments what little time we do have, adding to our sense of urgency, emergency, and overload.[i]
And we see that anger primarily in the way we talk to one another. St. Paul directs us, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Is your speech always gracious? I don’t know about you, but mine sure isn’t. I was driving home this past week, and Becky and I had had a meeting in town after the work day, so it was later than usual. I hadn’t eaten yet and I was hangry. You know what hangry is? It’s that angry that you get when you’re hungry. I was hangry. Really hangry. We had just gotten home from returning Aubrey to Ohio State hadn’t had time to shop yet, so I was picking up some pizzas for dinner. And as I waited in the tiny and annoyingly crowded lobby in Thats’a Pizza in Acme, I was thinking some really not-nice things about the other people crammed in there. Things I wanted to say to them about personal space, and personal hygiene, and moving to the side after you order, and generally being aware of the people around you. Fortunately, I didn’t say any of those things out loud. Put I was thinking to them really hard.
One of the hardest times for our speech to be gracious is when we’re giving or receiving feedback. When we’re correcting someone. When we’re being corrected by someone. In other words, when we’re being disciplined. I’m not just talking about the discipline we give to our kids or the discipline we received as kids. I’m talking about the discipline we give and receive as adults – when our boss gives us some “opportunities for growth” at work. When we have to work something out with a friend or neighbor or coworker or family member. When we’re correcting someone. When someone is correcting us.
The book of Proverbs has a TON to say about how we, as followers of Christ, speak, how we listen, and how we receive feedback from others. And I find it really interesting that Proverbs 15, which has a lot to say about receiving correction from others, also has a lot to say about how we speak TO one another. We’re going to focus on later Vv. 30-33, but first I want to look at Vv. 1-8.
Wise speaking. We aren’t talking here about the content of our speech – saying wise things. We’re talking about THE WAY we speak – saying things IN A WISE WAY. We have control of our tongues. There are two concepts in Proverbs that really get at the core of wise speaking – a guarded tongue and sterling speech. Followers of Christ are known for having a guarded tongue. We are people of few words. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Have you ever thought to yourself, “Stop talking! You’re only making things worse!” but somehow, you can’t? You just keep digging that hole deeper and deeper. Our mouths will eventually get us in trouble if left unchecked.
Now, it’s not that we don’t speak. It’s that we realize that words matter, and we use care in forming our words. This means that we do two things before we speak: we listen, and we think. We listen, completely, to what the other person has to say, and we make sure we have understood them correctly, before we speak. Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” In counseling sessions I am USUALLY really good at that. At home, not so much. I am forever interrupting Becky. Or assuming I know what she is going to say after she’s said like three words. She’s learned to deal with that – and I think the Holy Spirit is using her to shape me in it – by stopping and saying, “Okay, what am I going to say?” I never get it right. Ever. If I’d just shut up and listen BEFORE opening my mouth … Listen, completely, before speaking.
And think first. Proverbs12:18 says “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Rash words, words offered in the heat of the moment, never come out well. As a therapist I work with a lot of people who are having personal problems with someone else. Marriage problems. Co-parenting after a divorce. Problems with coworkers. The saying really does sometimes seem to be true, “Life would be easy if it weren’t for other people.” And I have a saying that I really encourage them to absorb – “Don’t react. Respond.” I’ve had clients make that the wallpaper on their phones. Don’t react. Respond. What’s the difference? Thinking. Think before you respond. Otherwise, you’re reacting. As followers of Christ we have guarded tongues. We recognize the value and impact of our words.
We listen carefully and we think before we respond, even when we are offering feedback, offering discipline, to someone else. You see, disciple and discipline come from the same root and both contain within them the concept of a pupil, a student. Today, the word discipline carries with it the idea of direct, and often harsh, feedback and correction. But in it’s original sense, it carried more the idea of teaching, instructing, educating, which includes correction. But the correction need not be harsh. Depends on the issue and what is at stake. One of our students here at Christ Church, Kegan, has been working with Margianne at Alfie Embroidery this summer. That means he’s a disciple of Margianne. And she’s teaching him the ins and outs of screen-printing t-shirts. He’s usually covered in ink when he gets home, but in typical Kegan fashion, he’s also usually smiling. He’s been instructed, and when he’s messed up, corrected. In other words, he’s been disciplined, because he is a disciple of Alfie Embroidery.
And when we DO speak, when we instruct, when we correct, when we discipline, our speech itself is filled with grace. It is sterling speech. In other words, it is excellent. Look down at V. 23. An apt answer. Apt speech includes two concepts. The first is truth. We speak with integrity. We speak the truth, as much as we understand it. We may still be wrong, but we speak the truth as best we can, and if someone later corrects us, we receive that correction. Apt speech is full of integrity. It is true. And second, it is tactful. Proverbs has a lot to say about tact in our speech, about knowing when and when not to tell a joke, or say something at all. The right words at the right time. Tact also means that we understand the person we are instructing, correcting, offering feedback to, and we say what we have to say in a way that this person can receive it. We use tact. Some people respond just fine to getting yelled at every once in a while. Others don’t. My job as a leader isn’t to bend everyone to my will, to my style of leading. It’s to draw the best out of each person by coaching, instructing, and correcting them in the way that best suits them. Doesn’t mean I’m not direct when I need to be. But I offer feedback and correction in a way they can receive it.
In a 2011 Leadership Journal article, Gordon MacDonald shares the moving story about his friends Dr. Paul and Edith Rees. When the Rees’s were in their 90s, MacDonald asked if they still fought after 60-plus years of marriage.
“O, sure we do,” Dr. Rees responded. “Yesterday morning was a case in point. Edith and I were in our car, and she was driving. She failed to stop at a stop sign, and it scared me half to death.”
“So what did you do?” MacDonald asked.
“Well, I’ve loved Edith for all these years, and I have learned how to say hard things to her. But I must be careful because when Edith was a little girl, her father always spoke to her harshly. And today when she hears a manly voice speak in anger – even my voice – she is deeply, deeply hurt.”
“But, Paul,” MacDonald said, “Edith is 90-years-old. Are you telling me that she remembers a harsh voice that many years ago?”
“She remembers that voice more than ever,” Rees said.
MacDonald asked, “So how do you handle that driving situation from the other day?”
“Ah,” he said, “I simply said, ‘Edith, darling, after we’ve had our nap this afternoon, I want to discuss a thought I have for you. And when the nap was over I did. I was calm; she was ready to listen, and we solved our little problem.”
MacDonald concluded: “These are the words of a man who has learned that conflict is necessary, can be productive, but must be managed with wisdom and grace. By the time I reach 90, I hope to be just like him.”
And that brings us to the second half of wise speech – receiving feedback. Receiving instruction and correction. Look at Vv. 30-33. To the wise, the godly, instruction, council, advice, and correction are GOOD NEWS. But we don’t usually view it that way, do we? It’s hard to take feedback, isn’t it? When I was in seminary, I had to preach to the congregation and then turn in tapes and transcripts of the sermon to my preaching professor for feedback. And I had to watch them myself. AND I had to have six people in the congregation filling out a form I gave them to offer feedback as I preached. When I was studying to be a therapist, I had to council a classmate who was acting as a client in front of the whole class, with my professor observing and offering feedback. Later I had to counsel real clients with a camera in the room and my professor and any classmates not currently with a client watching me on TV and offering feedback when I was done. It wasn’t always easy to listen to, and absorb, and eventually receive and apply their feedback.
Early in my pastoral career, I worked as a youth pastor and then as an assistant pastor, and at one point my boss pulled me aside and said, “Your content is excellent. It’s always excellent. But your delivery needs to improve. Especially your eye contact. You need to do a better job of making eye contact with the congregation when you preach.” On the surface, I said “Thank you. I’ll work on that.” and walked away. Inside, I was fuming. “He’s just jealous because everyone knows I’m a better preacher than he is.” “Who is he to tell me I’m need to work on my delivery anyway?” But the more I thought about it, the more I realize, “He’s right. I really need to work on my delivery.” And I recognized how hard it must have been for him to say that to me. It wasn’t really his style. The next time I preached, I sought him out afterward and asked if I had done any better. And I kept working to improve. That brief, annoying interaction did more to transform me as a public speaker and communicator than a thousand compliments ever could have. I had to fight to receive it. I didn’t want to. But I am forever grateful for that brief exchange. I will never forget it.
Look again at V. 33. It takes humility to receive feedback. It takes humility to say, “I don’t know everything about anything, and this person has something to offer me.” It takes humility to be teachable. But a disciple of Christ is always teachable.
Pastor Scott Sauls spent five years working with Pastor Tim Keller at New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Sauls writes that there are many ways that he saw Keller model the gospel, but there is one thing that really stood out for him. Sauls writes:
Tim could receive criticism, even criticism that was unfair, and it wouldn’t wreck him. In his words and example, he taught me that getting defensive when criticized rarely, if ever, leads to healthy outcomes. He also taught me that our critics, including the ones who understand us the least, can be God’s instruments to teach and humble us: First, you should look to see if there is a kernel of truth in even the most exaggerated and unfair broadsides. . . . So even if the censure is partly or even largely mistaken, look for what you may indeed have done wrong.
Maybe the critic is partly right for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, identify your own shortcomings, repent in your own heart before the Lord for what you can, and let that humble you. It will then be possible to learn from the criticism and stay gracious to the critic even if you have to disagree with what he or she has said. If the criticism comes from someone who doesn’t know you at all (and often this is the case on the Internet) it is possible that the criticism is completely unwarranted and profoundly mistaken. When that happens it is even easier to fall into smugness and perhaps be tempted to laugh at how mistaken your critics are. Don’t do it. Even if there is not the slightest kernel of truth in what the critic says, you should not mock them in your thoughts. First, remind yourself of examples of your own mistakes, foolishness, and cluelessness in the past, times in which you really got something wrong. Second, pray for the critic, that he or she grows in grace.[ii]
Who here longs to walk in the way of wisdom, because it is the way of Christ? To follow the path of wisdom, the way of Christ? Then may your words be filled with grace, and may you learn to receive, and cherish, the instruction, and correction, that you receive. Let us pray.
[i] USA Today (7-18-00), 1A
[ii] Scott Sauls, Befriend: Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear (Tyndale House, 2016), page 16