A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit (Proverbs 15:4).”
A “slip of the tongue” by an air traffic controller at the Paris airport saw two planes come within 300 feet of crashing into each other in July, 2020. A United Airlines flight from Newark, NJ was making its approach to land at the same time that an EasyJet was preparing to take off for Spain. The Newark flight was supposed to be assigned to land on runway 09L, as the plane headed to Spain was cleared to take off from runway 09R. Due to an unfortunate slip of the tongue, however, the controller gave clearance for Newark to land on 09R, instead of 09L. Furthermore, the controller didn’t have direct line-of-sight access to runway 09R because of an equipment malfunction. Eventually, the pilot on the flight to Spain asked why the Newark plane was given clearance to land on their runway, and warned of the imminent collision. The Newark plane was instructed to abort the landing and ascend, but by the time it engaged the evasive maneuver, the two planes were only 300 feet apart. The traffic controller was blessed that his slip of the tongue did not cause a devastating crash. Most of the time when we slip at the tongue damage occurs to others, whether it’s with family, friends, coworkers or people at church.
When we are careless with our tongue, this Proverb teaches us, “perverseness breaks the spirit.” Perverseness words include slander, gossiping, sharing hearsay, downgrading, or just being out-right rude. Deliberately deviating from what is good and spitting out evil words can crush another’s spirit. For a perverse tongue can be so vicious, it damages another’s innermost being.
The New York Times reported on an interesting study in an article titled, “What Happens When Parents are Rude in the Hospital.” A researcher at Tel Aviv University investigated simulated crisis scenarios in a neonatal ICU. Actors, posing as parents of patients, gave a variety of feedback to the medical staff. For example, one rude actor in the study played a “mother” who complained loudly enough for the medical staff to hear: “I knew we should have gone to a better hospital where they don’t practice Third World medicine.” The research shows that even “such mild unpleasantness” was enough to negatively impact the performance of the doctors and nurses. In fact, their ability to perform in these crisis situations was negatively impactful for the rest of the day.
Our tongue can wreak havoc on a person’s emotional and spiritual well-being. Our words can forever damage people. There is that old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is a lie. Spewing defamatory words can hurt people. Hurtful words stick with us and can tamper with our self esteem and relationships.
Many of us may remember hurtful words someone has said to us. These shrewd statements have stuck to us like glue. However, we have done the same to others. We have caused damage with our words. Every time we put down others, name call, or gossip, we are breaking the spirits of that other person.
Such a life falls short to who we are called to be. This is why the Proverb states, “a gentle tongue is a tree of life.” The same Hebrew word used here for “gentle” also means “wholesome.” Gentle means health, bringing healing. Demonstrating moral, up-lifting speech restores damaged relationships. Words bringing healing are words of thankfulness and words of encouragement. Words bringing hope and love to others rather than tearing them down.
A good example of this happened with my beloved Minnesota Vikings. During the 2015-2016 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings placekicker, Blair Walsh, led an NFL-high of 34 field goals. Before the Vikings’ playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, he had converted 33 of 34 kicks inside 30 yards in his career. So, when the Vikings were down 10-9 with 22 seconds left and Walsh lined up for a 27-yard field goal attempt, it looked like the Vikings would win. However, Walsh’s kick sailed wide and the Viking’s season came to a crashing halt.
In the midst of the social media storm directed against Walsh, a group of first graders in Minnesota set out to encourage the broken-hearted kicker. First grader, Allie Edwards, said, “Blair was really sad, and we wanted to make him feel better.” One of her classmates wrote, “Dear Blair Walsh, I think you shood keep trying. Don’t give up! We still love you!” Tyler Doffin filled a whole written page for Walsh: “Dear Blair: I fell bad for you. Don’t give up. You’re still #1. Practis more so that you can get better at cicing. You’re so good at cicing. So don’t give up! Keep trying! We still love you.” The kids’ act of kindness got his attention.
Walsh was so touched to hear from children who didn’t know him, he pushed his flight home back a day to visit the classroom. After the visit he said, “It was very touching to me. … A lot of [the cards] were very pretty and creative. … I will cherish them forever.”
Many of us can remember encouraging words from a friend or a family member who got us through some tough times. We cherish those words. Words of love and hope gave us comfort to make it through and overcome our trial. We too can be those encouraging people.
Proverbs tells us a gentle tongue delivers healing and encouragement….a tree of life. This may seem odd, or make no sense. The tree of life takes us back to the garden of Eden, back to creation…the beginning. The proverb is showing us this is who we are created to be. People with a gentle tongue, people of encouragement. We are to demonstrate life-giving words not degrading ones.
Barnabas is a good example of an individual who spoke out in gentle persuasion. Barnabas was not even his real name. His given name was Joseph from Cyprus. The Apostles called him Barnabas. In Greek the name means, “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas was an encouragement for the church. He encouraged the new believers in Antioch. He retrieved Paul from Tarsus and brought him along to assist with ministry in Antioch. Furthermore, Barnabas took on Mark as mentor when Paul refused to continue working with him. Barnabas was a bridge-builder who brought people together. He “had your back” in tough times.
We may not have the nickname, “Son of Encouragement,” but this is who we are created to be. Encouraging words brings life to others. Words of hope and love can bring life to our friends, family, coworkers, church and community. Our words are a powerful tool of influence. They have the power to encourage or discourage others. They have the power to hurt or to heal. Every time we lift people up, praise others, thank others, we are showing who we are called to be. Thanks be to God, amen!