Mary Poppins famously sang, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, “ a helpful reminder that sometimes difficult or arduous tasks are made better by just a small addition of positivity or fun. There is a similar principle which holds true in conversation: hard news and difficult truths can be better accepted when presented in a kind or gentle way.
The Scriptures remind us of this fact more than once. We read: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness (1 Timothy 2:24; ESV).” Likewise, the Spirit directed the churches, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:6; ESV).”
In the Old Testament, the proverbs have quite a bit to say about our speech. For instance, “the wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness,” and “the heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body (Proverbs 16:21, 23-24; ESV).” Likewise, we are told, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear. (Proverbs 25:11-12; ESV)”
The purpose of instruction and correction should never be to simply show ourselves to be more right than the one we are instructing or correcting. Rather, if we are teaching in love, or reproving in love, the goal should always be to bring about change in the one being instructed or corrected. This is most certainly true of the commission that Christ gives to His church.
Jesus told His followers to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16; ESV)” God does not want people to be lost or condemned (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). He very much wants them to listen to the Gospel and be saved, for the Gospel of Christ has the ability to save men who respond to it in faith and obedience (cf. Romans 1:16-17). For this to happen there needs to be persuasion, not coercion; God wants men to obey from the heart because they are convicted of the truth.
God pleads with people, “Come let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18).” When Jesus preached, He attempted to lovingly reason with people, persuading them with intelligent conversation, illustrations and sound scriptural applications. His apostles, appointed by Him to continue His work, did much the same. We read, in Acts 17:2, “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” Notice that such behavior was Paul’s custom. Likewise, in the next chapter of Acts, “he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews (Acts 18:19).”
The apostles, having been so taught by Christ, also behaved with gentleness. Paul was able to say of his time with the Thessalonican church, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children (1 Thessalonians 2:7; ESV).” And he likewise wrote to the Ephesian church, saying, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3; ESV)
The world is certainly full of people who think that they can win arguments by out-shouting the other person, or by belittling, insulting and mocking their opponents into submission, but this is not the pattern of speech that God wants from His followers. Correcting sin, error and bad behavior are all necessary endeavors, but God wants such things done in a proper, loving manner, understanding that the goal is not mindless conformity, but honest repentance and sincere faith. Gentleness, love, self-control, patience and sound reasoning are all hallmarks of the speech God uses to communicate to us, and they are hallmarks of the speech we should use with one another, for, “if anyone speaks, let him do so as the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11a).”
All of which means that the follower of Christ is called by Christ to choose their words with care, to be mindful of the impact of their speech on others, and to give careful consideration to how others will respond to what we say. A word “fitly spoken,” to use the language of the proverb, is one that fits the moment, fits the audience and is able to accomplish the goal for which it is set forth. Such words, chosen with love and forethought, are indeed precious and beautiful, not least because in a world filled with anger, hatred, bitterness and a lack of self-control, they are all too rare.
The church of Christ lovingly and gently invites you to come worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.