21 April 2011

Mouth, lips, heart

by Dan Phillips

Proverbs has a lot to say about use and abuse of mouth, tongue, lips.

For instance, Proverbs 18:6 warns us that "A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating" —constantly writing checks that the rest of his body isn't up to cashing. Over and over again, "By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back" (14:3a), and he never learns: "Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him" (27:22).

By contrast, "The lips of the wise spread knowledge" (15:7a), and "feed many" (10:21a), because "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life" (10:11a). "The tongue of the righteous is choice silver" (10:2a) and "brings forth wisdom" (10:31a), but "the perverse tongue will be cut off" (10:31b).

That is why we see cautions against being overly wordy, overly garrulous. "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent" (10:19). Indeed, "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent" (17:28). For "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" (21:23).

So is that the solution? Simply exercise mouth-discipline? Learn to keep your mouth shut? Watch what you say, learn some Bible verses so you can make yourself say helpful and edifying things? Watch encouragers, learn how they talk, and do the same? There's some value in all that.

Yet I've known of folks in public and private life who lament the fruit of their lips, vow to do better... then simply repeat the disaster. What's the problem?

Of course, one problem is our common problem as Christians: remaining corruptions (Romans 7:14-25; 8:13).

But beyond that, I think the problem is when we don't go beyond the effects to the cause. Why do we say what we say? Jesus knew, because He knew man (John 2:25), and He knew Proverbs. Hear Him: "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matthew 12:34b-35).

What does that have to do with Proverbs? It points us to what I think is an absolutely critical verse to understanding the book, second perhaps only to 1:7/9:10/31:30. That verse is Proverbs 4:23. Here's my ad hoc translation, to catch the doubled verbal synonyms most versions overlook: "Keep watch over your heart more than all you guard, for from it flow the issues of life." Solomon emphatically traces it all — not merely to choices of behavior and action, but — to the heart. Every detail of our lives flows from our hearts, so we must maintain a watch over them more than we guard anything else.

Cutting right back to our topic, then, why do we say such bad things? Because we believe, cherish, and think such bad things. What fills the heart goes out the mouth. We can't really change our mouths until the atmosphere and furnishings of our hearts change.

This underscores the utter necessity of regeneration, of being born again and made new people (John 3:1ff; 2 Corinthians 5:17). We don't merely need to adjust our hearts, we need new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). We cannot merely learn new habits; we must be made new people by God's sovereign grace. But having been made new, we still are in constant need of continual renewal of our minds (Romans 12:3).

So why does this wife keep saying poisonous things to her husband, making it hard for him to trust her (Proverbs 31:11-12)? It is because, when she does, she laments how her mouth got her into trouble, and perhaps blames her husband for his reaction to her shaming speech. "I'll just keep my mouth shut," she vows — stoking the flames of martyred, bitter self-pity that rage in her heart. She does not realize that God calls her to think of her husband in a respectful way (do read that linked essay), and so to battle and put to death and wholly replace the poisonous thoughts that give birth to the poisonous words. They are her enemy, not her husband. If her heart changes, her mouth will change.

Or why does that husband keep belittling and objectifying his wife? Maybe he is mulishly unaware, or maybe he has some dull consciousness that his words aren't feeding an intimate relationship. Or maybe he just thinks she's too touchy. Whatever grain of truth there may be in any of that, his main problem isn't his mouth, it's his heart. It is that he does not see her as a gift from God (Proverbs 18:22). He does not value her as befits a fellow image-bearer of God (Genesis 1:27). He does not make the decision to assign her great honor and value as the weaker vessel who is his equal in being heir to the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). He does not love her — an activity of the heart that moves the hands and feet and lips — as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25f.). So he does not say words that are tender, appreciative, and loving, because those are not the thoughts that fill his heart.

These same principles could be applied to how we speak to children/parents, bosses/employees, church leaders/church attenders, and on and on. Attend to the mouth, yes, Proverbs calls us to do that, and to learn wisdom for how we speak.

But don't forget to start with the heart, or all efforts are doomed.

Dan Phillips's signature


Steve Berven said...

"We don't merely need to adjust our hearts, we need new hearts (Ezekiel 36:26). We cannot merely learn new habits; we must be made new people by God's sovereign grace"

Perfect! Just trying harder isn't going to work, if it doesn't start in the heart. Whitewashed tombs, and all that.

Robert said...

Thanks for the reminder, Dan. Wy wife and I seem to run into this from time to time...it is usually when there is a lot going on and we haven't made enough time for renewing our minds. Although, we usually catch ourselves fairly quickly and apologize before repenting and getting back into the Word.

T said...

My life's account is overdrawn, but my mouth has plenty of cheques left!
Woe is me, who will save me from this wretched atm

donsands said...

Excellent word for Maundy Thursday. Thanks.

"..stoking the flames of martyred, bitter self-pity that rage in her [mine] heart."

This is perhaps the heaviest of burdens that Christ wants to rid us of. Forgiveness, and grace are the easy yoke and light burden.
And it really is our Father in heaven giving us His Holy Spirit that will do all these things in our hearts. Luke 11:13

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Cathy M. said...

YELP!... Yelp...yelp... (Doppler effect as dog hit with stone flees scene.)

Rachael Starke said...



The pointy finger graphic doesn't help either. :)

(But good ouch, BTW.)

joel said...

"Keep watch over your heart more than all you guard, for from it flow the issues of life."

Is he saying to keep watch over your heart so as to protect something precious, or keep watch over your heart as you might guard an enemy that is seeking to do you harm?

Sir Aaron said...

A hearty Amen.

I also want to note that this is exactly why legalism and mere attention to rules and laws always fails. Our actions are a reflection of our hearts and no amount of attention to the symptoms will change the underlying cause.

2OFUS said...

Oh the ugly remnants of that violent old man. How I cry for discernment between faith and works

Merrilee Stevenson said...

I wonder if the low number of comments had to do with it being spring break for some of us, or because of the topic.

But it made me think of these verses :

James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence - and is set on fire by hell. 3:7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 3:8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (NET Bible - sent from CadreBible)

Even if we were to cut out that hunk of smouldering flesh, we would still have to deal with the sinful thoughts and feelings that exist before any words are formed on our tongues, and realize from whence they come. The only thing that would compel a sinful person to bridle their tongue would be a holy fear of the Lord, and a desire to honor Him, which doesn't come standard in our models without a total heart replacement.

DJP said...

Thanks, Merrilee; very apropos Scripture and thought.

Yep: God-glorifying and neighbor-loving are not our tongues' default setting.

Alex Guggenheim said...

Interesting and ironic! Thank you.

Ron said...

Thanks for that Dan,

Your leading verse causes me to recall how amazingly prophetic Proverbs was to me.
And how amusingly prophetic as well:

About a decade ago, it was hard to restrain the laughter.
The woman who was divorcing me- confronted me at my parents place.

"It's your fault!", she blubbered.

As I looked at those lips that I used to kiss. Lips now cut and swollen.

"It's your fault I got hit!" she continued.

"Oh, what happened?", I asked

"Your crazy tenant hit me!"

"Now, why would she do that?", I asked sensitively.

"Because she tried to deduct a bra from the rent check", she explained.

"And you confronted her on that?"

"While she was cutting the lawn..."

Indeed Dan, some "mouths invite a beating".

Thanks for that recollection.

Jim Pemberton said...

And I'm so glad God doesn't leave us to try to change our hearts by our own power.