It’s mid-afternoon and I have almost nothing to show for my day. Instead of crossing tasks off my list, I’ve spent hours replaying a conversation I had yesterday with a friend from church. I’ve been repeating her words and rehearsing what I could have said that would have made the conversation more fruitful. But I was caught off-guard and wasn’t prepared for my friend’s criticism and complaints—or my own discouragement and dismay as I listened.
Today, I wonder how I might have gently challenged the way she misrepresented a situation and mischaracterized other people. What would have been a wise response?
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a unique encounter. I often find myself in situations where I’m not sure whether to speak up or keep quiet—or what to say in those moments when I know I should speak. I’m sure you do, too. It can be hard to move past the feelings of embarrassment or shame over the times when we’ve spoken without thinking or stayed silent when we should have spoken. We can feel paralyzed by our imperfect speech in the past. It’s especially hard to speak with wisdom within the church as we try to honor the biblical command to use our words to build one another up, not put each other down (Eph. 4:15–16, 29).
But we can learn to speak with wisdom from heaven that will make our earthly conversations fruitful rather than frustrating, helpful rather than harmful. Use these four principles to cultivate wise speech that glorifies God and blesses others.
Proverbs 9:10 says wisdom begins with fearing God and knowing him. If we want to cultivate wise speech, we need to focus on the One from whom all wisdom flows. Our mouths speak what our hearts are full of (Matt. 12:34), so we want them to be consumed with Wisdom himself. But what does that look like in practice?
It means getting to know God through his Word and letting our speech be shaped by our knowledge of him. It means talking about him more than we talk about ourselves and others (a good antidote when we are tempted to gossip). It involves drawing attention to what God is doing in his world and in our lives, directing praise to him rather than seeking it for ourselves. And it means avoiding impure or improper speech (Eph. 5:4). The apostle James says that wisdom from heaven is pure (James 3:17). Wise speech reflects that purity by focusing on the One who is pure.
James also says that wisdom from heaven is peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy (James 3:17). If we want to cultivate wise speech, then we must consider our attitude toward those we speak with. In every conversation—especially when there is disagreement—we should speak with the goal of advancing peace, not conflict. We must view our conversation partners with mercy, not contempt. And we should speak to them with gentleness and patience rather than irritability or aggression.
Of course, this isn’t easy. Our words and our tone reflect our hearts, so we need to pray for humility, compassion, and grace. But as we look outward and view those we speak to as flawed image-bearers in need of mercy (just like us), we are more likely to use our words wisely.
Because our words reflect our hearts, we must regularly look within and check our attitudes and motives. If wisdom from heaven is impartial and sincere, then wise speech must be, too.
I have found it helpful (and challenging) to consider whether I’m impartial in my speech, especially with people who aren’t like me. Do I speak kindly to some people and not to others? Am I less interested in the viewpoints of some? Do I even make time for conversation with people I find difficult? If I’m honest, I’m guilty of favoritism—both with who I speak to and in the way I speak.
The good news is that we don’t need to feel helpless about this. The Holy Spirit can change our hearts and make us more accepting of people we struggle to appreciate. He can soften our hardness and humble our pride (Ezek. 36:26). Why not pause now and ask him to do that? Then ask him to show you who you could move toward this week, even if it’s just to ask about their day.
Wise speech produces good fruit in the lives of those we speak with. Wisdom from heaven is full of good fruit (James 3:17), and so are wise words. They bring healing (Prov. 12:18), comfort (2 Cor. 1:4), and encouragement (1 Thess. 5:11). They lead to repentance (2 Tim. 2:25), forgiveness, and restoration (2 Cor. 2:7–8).
We cultivate wise speech by anticipating the impact our words may have and the fruit they could produce. By praying for God to use our conversations to help others grow in faith, love, endurance, and hope. And by thinking intentionally about how that might happen.
When you meet with your friends, consider the challenges they experience and how you might encourage them to persevere. At church or small group, anticipate the needs of those present and pray for opportunities to encourage, comfort, and express love. As you talk with neighbors and colleagues, look for opportunities to share the love, joy, and peace of our Savior.
Every conversation is an opportunity to speak words that glorify God and bless others. Let’s pray for God’s help to cultivate wise speech and for faith to believe our words can make a difference.
Meet the Author
Carolyn Lacey is the author of Say the Right Thing: How Your Words Can Glorify God and Encourage Others. She is a writer, speaker, and pastor’s wife. She serves alongside her husband, Richard, in Worcester, UK, where she works part-time for her church as a women's worker. She teaches the Bible regularly at women's events and conferences and is a mum to two grown-up children.