“You are in my house. You are in my house.”
The words were spoken in a soft voice. The speaker, a silver-haired older man with deep blue eyes, sat just as calm and hospitable as ever in his armchair as he spoke them. But the effect of these words was like a bomb – some kind of vacuum grenade that sucked all the noise out of the room and shut the mouths of a room-full of arguing twenty-somethings.
Well, not all the mouths were shut. Barham’s* mouth was hanging open, cut off in angry mid-sentence. The change coming over him was quite remarkable. His red face was returning to his natural Central Asian olive tone, the deep creases in his forehead were relaxing, and a softness seemed to return to his eyes and even his entire posture.
Somehow, our older host had known just the right words to say to defuse our explosive situation. The words he uttered cut to Barham’s heart, tapping deeply into Central Asian values of honoring the elderly and being a gracious guest. I sat back and exhaled slowly. Our host, pastor Dave*, had once again proven the power of a wise and soft tongue.
Barham, a new believer and a refugee, had moved in with his girlfriend, an American who was also professing to be a new believer. As their friend and community group leader, I had called them to repent and stop living together. When this counsel was rebuffed, we had brought a couple other believers into the situation. This only led to more angry opposition. Finally, we informed them we would be bringing their situation to the whole community group as a step on the way to informing the entire church. Not known to shy away from a fight, Barham and his girlfriend had decided to come to the meeting where we would inform the group in order to defend themselves and to tell us off for our self-righteousness.
In this season our community group was a motley crew of young Bible college students, newlyweds, internationals, and new believers. We were all very young and things were often very messy. We jokingly nicknamed our group Corinth because of the way the Spirit was working powerfully to save and sanctify even as sin messes spilled out on the regular, setting things on fire. This group was where I first cut my teeth in leadership in our sending church, and I was often overwhelmed and very much in over my head.
Wisely, each of the community groups was overseen by one of the elders of the church, who also served as a mentor to the group leader. These pastors would sometimes attend the groups themselves, often rotating between the several they oversaw. Dave was our appointed elder, but every week he was also at our group meetings (perhaps it was clear that we really needed this), though he seldom spoke during the meeting itself. He seemed content to let me do most of the leading, while he and his wife brought a welcome measure of age and gentle wisdom to our very young group.
The day that Barham and his girlfriend showed up to challenge us over step 2.5 of the Matthew 18 discipline process, we were meeting at Dave’s house. This proved to be providential, setting up Dave to remind Barham of this crucial point after the conversation had gotten out of hand. Earlier, I had done my best to handle the awkwardness of Barham and his girlfriend showing up and had also tried hard to be clear, kind, and firm as we responded to their accusations. But things had escalated, and it had practically become a shouting match as I and other believers present tried to speak sense to our friends who were running headlong into sin and ignoring all counsel.
But Dave’s wise word had evaporated all the anger in the room, and opened the door for spiritual sense to prevail. Barham hadn’t been willing to listen to us, his believing peers. But he softened under the gaze and the truth spoken lovingly by Dave, his fatherly host. That day proved to be a turning point, and Barham and his girlfriend did end up living separately again until they were eventually married.
This wasn’t the first or the last time that I saw pastor Dave drop a wisdom bomb, though it was one of the most dramatic. I had begun to see this also happen in elders meetings, where a group of us leaders-in-training were permitted to attend and observe. While other personalities were stronger or more charismatic, the room hushed every time Dave had something to say. There seemed to be several reasons for this. First, he didn’t speak up that often, so when he did, everyone was curious to hear what he was thinking. Second, he was the eldest of the elders present, having spent many years ministering to rural Kentucky churches, having experienced the death of his first wife, and living now with the heartbreak of adult children who were not believers. He had a wealth of experience gained through sorrow, earned on a long road of faithful service. And finally, when he did speak, the presence of spiritual wisdom in his words was unmistakable. Younger men like us who were mainly drawn to the words of the more dynamic leaders in the room watched and learned as those same dynamic men hung on every quiet thing that Dave had to say.
I remember a small prayer meeting from around this time, where Dave was giving a brief encouragement to the ten or so people present. In a season where I was tempted to equate busyness with faithfulness, he told us, “Our Lord led a busy life, but he didn’t have a busy heart… he didn’t have a busy heart.” As Dave paused thoughtfully, I remember wrestling with this small, yet weighty comment, knowing that I for sure had a busy heart, but realizing that my Lord indeed did not. Dave didn’t seem to have a busy heart either.
Proverbs 25:15 says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” In other words, do not be deceived, there is tremendous strength in gentle and wise words spoken at the right time. When this takes place, a soft tongue can break even hardest bone – or the hardest heart. I am reminded of Jesus’ gentle words to the Samaritan woman in John 4:17-18, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” These gentle words of the Messiah proved extremely powerful – they brought about not only this woman’s repentance, but the awakening of her village also through her.
I have seen this proverb lived out among very few men. But there are some, like Dave, who know and model the power of a gentle tongue. That tense evening with Barham in Dave’s living room, and every time I have seen him use it since, I have longed to someday have a tongue like that, to be able to break the hard and brittle with a soft word of truth fitly spoken. Like some kind of struggling apprentice trying to learn a new skill, I have tried my hand at it over the years. It’s not usually had the same effect. But there are times where it has seemed to at least not make things worse, and a very few times where someone’s entire demeanor has changed because I responded with gentleness rather than matching their combativeness.
It’s easy to feel like men like Dave are a different breed, some higher rank of Christian who have found the secret skills of wisdom. But then I remember that all wisdom comes from the same source, and that it is not selectively and secretly handed out to a special class of Christian. No, wisdom stands on the street corners, inviting all who would to come and learn from her (Prov 1:20). It is given generously by our God to all who are in need of it and dare to ask again for more of it (James 1:5). There is a trustworthy path to one day having a gentle tongue that can break a bone. And that is the path of asking our Father for wisdom again and again and again – and learning to watch those to whom the gift has already been given in abundance.
Yes, there is power in dynamic, charismatic speech. The Spirit does gift some in this way. But let us not forget the power of a gentle tongue, also gifted by the same Spirit of wisdom. Let us lean in and seek to learn when its softness silences a room and pierces hard hearts. When we are in its house, let us put our hands over our hasty mouths. For there is a power in a gentle tongue that is often overlooked, but is not to be underestimated.
*Names changed for privacy
Photo by Harlie Raethel on Unsplash
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