Proverbs 15:4 ESV
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
Sometimes when those you love are hurting, you just want to shake them. They’re begin stupid, they’re being slow, can’t they just get better and stop hurting so much. More shamefully, and we don’t like to remember this part, their pain is inconvenient and painful for us. Perhaps they really are blowing it out of proportion. Sometimes the world isn’t actually ending. Generally speaking, though, telling somebody just to tough it out when they’re legitimately hurting, well, that’s a bad idea (it’s an entirely different matter when somebody is playing it up out of self-interest, playing the victim for clout). This proverb advises a different course: gentleness, healing.
To start with, we need to clear away a point of confusion. The word ‘gentle’ here has, as a good translation will inform you in a footnote, a second possible translation: healing. So we must not consider this proverb to speak merely of a ‘gentle tongue’; no, it speaks of the kind of gentle tongue which is a ‘healing tongue’. This is not to assert that the word simultaneously has both translations; rather, I’m saying that neither translation encompasses the whole meaning of the original, so we must remember both to understand the original (I’m not transgressing the principle of univocality).
A healing tongue, what is it? We can start by eliminating what we know it is not. We know it is not ‘perverse’, from the second half of the verse. We know by this that the healing tongue does not engage in ill-doing, not without compromising that healing. A healing tongue, therefore, cannot be a liar, though it may be silent. The healing tongue must speak the truth, must honor God and His character. That doesn’t mean tact is forgotten, though. Wisdom tells us that sometimes the truth does not need to be spoken, that to tell a particular truth brings only pain or fulfills only sinful desires. The right thing in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons is actually wrong.
The second half of this verse, together with the results referenced to the gentle tongue, gives us further insight. The healing tongue’s effects are not focused on the one speaking, in this verse. It is a ‘tree of life’, and it’s perversion ‘breaks the spirit’ of the one who is spoken to. No, the healing tongue turns outward. It is not selfish but concerned with others; it is gentle, a quality which only truly exists in export from one person to another, in relationship.
A gentle tongue, then, is selfless, and it is truthful. One further quality is essential to this, and unfortunately it’s both the most powerful and the most difficult. Wisdom is a lifelong endeavor. The fear of the LORD is its beginning, the Bible tells us (Prov. 9:10). How fitting, this, in light of the verse! Consider: it is by the sacrifice of the Lord Christ, the Wisdom of Proverbs 8:22-31, that the tree of life is planted that we may see it in Revelations 22:1. So may we, with wisdom, plant in imitation what this verse deigns to term ‘trees of life’ in our lives, healing others as He healed us. Of course, wisdom isn’t plug and play. Put simply, wisdom is the art of applying an understanding of the world and of God to practical actions, to the problems of life and heart and relationship and mind. It’s what Proverbs is all about. So for now, let’s summarize: wisdom is to fear God, to love Him and to love man who is His image, to love according to His law and not our own whims (Prov. 9:10; Gen. 1:26-27; Josh. 22:5).
This all leads us to another question: what is the perverseness which breaks the spirit? A healing tongue can go astray in many ways, but some basics are easy enough to understand, if difficult to apply with consistency. Gentleness formed of lies, for instance, is soothing, but it is painful too. Soothing pain with lies is like using heroin for pain. It might help, but the solution is a new and worse problem all of itself. Worse, it revolts against God’s character. Even pretty lies are lies. If I tell somebody that the friend they’re grieving for will come in the door in just a moment when I know that the friend is dead, I’m not helping; I’m just putting off the truth and exacerbating the pain. I’m not being gentle; I’m being cruel.
Another sort of perverseness disdains gentleness altogether. I said at the beginning of this that it can be tempting to just shake somebody who’s hurting, especially after they’ve been at it for a while, to tell them to just get better. Usually, the more somebody hurts, the more those around them hurt, whether because of the first person’s inability or the actions, inadvisable and even sinful, which they take under the influence of that pain. It can be irritating, and then they can get better for a while, and then they backslide, and you just want it to stop. In this circumstance, it can be tempting to mutter, ‘Tough love time,’ go in there, and relieve all of your pain on them. This can come in many ways. I might yell. I might guilt them. I might do any number of things, but the core problem here has already been accomplished. My motives are wrong. If I speak from my own anger and pain, for my sake instead of theirs, I’ve abandoned healing, abandoned gentleness, and I’ve started to care about myself above them, when God calls us to consider ourselves at most equal with any other (Matt. 22:36-40)).
Finally, sometimes healing and gentleness takes on a paradoxical form. Sometimes ‘tough love’ really is necessary. Here, a little harm now may be the gentle course because it will save so much pain later. I can’t give specific prescriptions here, to be honest. Every circumstance is different, and the wisdom required to carry this out rightly is great. I can lay out some guidelines, though. First, this ‘tough love’ must be from love, not from concern for oneself. Second, it must be true, or the whole pretext falls apart. Third, pray, pray, and pray. Pray for God’s gift of discernment to see the truth, the truth of what you should do and why you’re doing it, and for His comfort upon both you and the one you seek the healing of.
Having a gentle tongue is not an easy or quick task. We have tempers. We naturally care for ourselves a great deal more than others, however much we like to pretend otherwise. We resent God’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, this task God calls us to, and so we answer. Our only hold and hope in such times is Christ, Christ who is Wisdom, Christ who died that we might live eternal (Prov. 8:22-31; 1 Thess. 5:10).
Written by Colson Potter
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.