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My father and grandfather loved aphorisms—short, memorable statements of wisdom. I not only inherited their love for them but became personally fascinated by the development and use of aphorisms. My fascination grew in response to my pastoral call. How can I say something with an economy of words that is memorable and precise and that communicates biblical wisdom? It is challenging and rewarding in conversation and preaching.

In Colossians 4:6, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Much of this text is captured in this aphorism: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and never be mean when you say it.”

right words

Proverbs 25:11 tells us, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.”

Communication is possible because we are made in the image of God, but it is never neutral. Perhaps you have heard this misleading aphorism: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The reality is that it doesn’t take long for the wounds from sticks and stones to heal, but hurtful words hurt deeply and linger interminably.

We have been saved by the “word of life” that brought us to Christ; therefore, Christians need to speak words of life even in the most challenging situations. Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ ” (Matt. 5:37). Speak truth truthfully and lovingly even when addressing difficult subjects. Do not choose words that destroy, pollute, or poison others. The more difficult the issue, the more careful the choice of words.

right way

The Scripture calls us to speak with language that is “seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6), reflecting God’s grace. The English language depends heavily on tone and manner of speech. The same sentence with the same words can actually communicate two entirely different messages depending on the tone.

right time

Speaking at the right time means speaking according to the need of the moment. Consider the friends of Job. They said some right things and used some right words, but they were ultimately destructive because they spoke at the wrong time. The Preacher exhorted in Ecclesiastes 3:7 that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” And James 1:19 says: “Be quick to hear, slow to speak.”

Say what you mean, mean what you say, and never be mean when you say it.

In my pocket I carry a card to use when I meet with someone. It has three questions to prompt our conversation and an acrostic: WAIT, meaning “Why Am I Talking?” My father challenged me to be a learner. He also informed me that there is one time in life when it is impossible to learn—while we are talking. Silence is necessary to listen so that we know how and when to respond.

right reasons

It is essential in redemptive communication to convey wisdom from our hearts to others’ lives. Christians must not speak simply to hear themselves talk; nor should we communicate only to relieve ourselves of a burden.

Redemptive communication is not for self-gratification but is for the recipient’s edification. A dear friend with whom I love to talk always begins our conversations, “Harry, my boy, I love you, and there is something you need to hear.” I know that what is about to come out of his mouth will come from his heart with the right words, with the right tone, at the right time, and for the right reasons: for God’s glory and my edification. From his first words, it is clear that he is talking not for his benefit but for mine.

James is clear: the tongue is difficult to control and has great impact when used. If it speaks from a heart full of sin, it will pour forth the poison of evil (see James 3:1–12), but if it speaks from a heart seasoned with the salt of grace, it will pour forth “wisdom from above” (James 3:17). So the issue in redemptive communication is not the tongue but the heart: “The heart of the problem is the problem with the heart.” Choose right words spoken the right way at the right time for the right reasons. J.C. Ryle rightly said: “Speak the truth in love. Truth without love is barbarity; love without truth is cruelty.”

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