Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pursuing Excellence in Speech

In the words of a famous quote which seems to have been separated from its source (likely Mark Twain), “’Tis better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”.

We humans tend to hastily fill would-be silence with nearly anything we can muster, especially this day and age. We strive to fill the alleged void with anything and everything, regardless of its value and worth (or lack thereof). Silence and stillness has become an enemy. Have we reduced our speech to merely that of "filler material"? Deliberate speech, even going into the realm of writing, is not familiar to most, as it requires considerable effort in cultivating wisdom and discernment.

2 Corinthians 8:7 (NET Bible, emphasis mine)
But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, and in all eagerness and in the love from us that is in you – make sure that you excel in this act of kindness too. (Paul is referring to the act of giving as the act of kindness)

The assumption Paul makes here is that Christians are actively pursuing excellence in everything. Because speech is included in everything (as painfully obvious as it may be), we see that Paul assumes Christians are actively growing in excellence in their speech! We should strive to excel by being discerning about timing and tone, meticulous with word placement and choice, and by being humble and loving in our dialogue. It is difficult to be a good witness for Christ while living as a verbal (or written) loose cannon.

To be clear, one who talks a great deal can certainly be spouting “hot air” (it pains me to say that this appears to be the most common variety), but the frequent talker can also be conveying a great deal of truth. Quantity and quality of words are not necessarily correlated, as there can be a great quantity of exceptional quality and, likewise, any combination of the two. However, one who speaks in large amounts should take great care to listen even more (James 1:19).

Further, the more we fill time with futility, the less room there is for considering profundity and for conveying gravity. In shoving meaninglessness into the void simply to have something to say, we extinguish the chance for possible meaning filling that time! In the pursuit of excellence in speech for the glory of God, we should lament futility, not partake in it.

Here are some suggestions for us all (especially me):
Listen more than you speak. (James 1:19 and Ecclesiastes 9:17)
Be attentive to both the verbal and the non-verbal communication of others.
Take longer, slower breaths, pause and pray before speaking (especially before rebutting).
Embrace silence and stillness (but not emptiness of the mind).
Study, study, study.
Seek wise counsel. (Proverbs 13:20)
Approach everything in humility!

2 comments:

Anthony said...

Proverbs 10:19
"When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise."

You speak of the frequent talker conveying truth, but I wonder if the 'many words' of the above proverb speaks not only of pointless 'hot air,' as you call it, but also unnecessarily puffed-up vocabulary? Why use seven words to say what can be said in three? How many of us so-called 'academics' are guilty of this aspect of having many words?

I remember being told when I was young, "You have two ears, but only one mouth - so you should listen twice as often as you speak." A good example of truth in brevity!

On a different note, Psalms 39 paints a beautiful picture of the importance of focusing our speech to places it should be used.

Over and over, Scripture gives examples of the power of language (how was Creation sparked?) - to use it carelessly is truly a waste.

Sarah Scott said...

Anthony,

Insightful as usual, my friend!

A rich vocabulary can be an art, but you raise an interesting question about the intention of that verse! There is a great difference between a great vocabulary and having the ability to find just the right word and using it merely to dazzle and impress (in the Pauline "puffed-up" sense that you mentioned).

You are right; our speech can certainly be a powerful thing. To give it free rein is to flirt with disaster!