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Food for Thought - Musings

Gentle Answers and a Harsh Word

From the age of 34 until nearly 40 I wore a badge and carried a gun. I worked as a deputy sheriff for the county of Los Angeles. I worked in the courts, the jail and drove around in a black and white police car. I was involved in pursuits, chased people with guns and patrolled the streets in Compton during the Rodney King riots. To become a deputy sheriff involved intense training—we were trained in self-defense, shooting handguns and shotguns, the use of pepper spray, Tasers, batons, even flashlights, but the most powerful tool I had at my disposal was my words. The sad thing is we were not adequately trained to use our words.

Fortunately for me I was a Christian who had spent many hours meditating and imperfectly living out the truths about words found in the book of Proverbs (see previous Musing for a listing of many of those verses). In this Musing I want to share with you the truth about words that proved to be my most powerful and reliable tool. The truth is found is Proverbs 15:1: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

The first thing that strikes me in this passage is the imbalance of this statement. On one side of the scale we have an answer (which oftentimes may be quite lengthy) and then on the other side we have a single word! One word has the ability to stir the coals of anger so that it blazes forth causing untold destruction, escalating an interaction. I have witnessed the power of a single word to incite emotional reaction, even physical and deadly exchanges. I imagine that you can think of a number of such words that if spoken in our day and age would ignite a strong reaction in many. This truth does not only apply to face-to-face encounters but also to the exchanges on social media.

It is time to begin to own the destructive power of a harsh (i.e. difficult to endure, hugely critical, vindictive, hurtful) word. This involves not only giving our attention to our choice of words but also to the motive/goals of the word(s) we choose. In some instances the same word can be harsh or not harsh—much of it has to do with the why, the who and the circumstances of the interaction Thus it is helpful to know our self (reasons, motives, goals behind this exchange) and to know, as we are able, the person we are interacting with—even in a general sense that they are one created in the image of God and worthy of our love and patience.

The second thing that strikes me is that the first portion of the verse indicates that this is an already volatile situation—wrath is being manifested. The person is coming into a difficult and charged situation, for wrath denotes great anger, often combined with a desire for vengeance. The turning away of wrath is no small feat but is possible through a gentle answer. The power to respond in gentleness flows from a trust of God and dependence on God, an internalized disposition of grace filled gentleness by the one giving the answer. The words must flow out of an inner settled-ness that does not get caught up in or derailed by the wrath, the verbal attacks that are coming their way. A gentle answer serves to deescalate a situation while a harsh word can stir the coals of anger within another.

This verse serves as a sobering reminder of the power of our words and the ability we bring into encounters with others to bring calm and defuse situations, or detonate them. The choice is yours.

Which is easier for you:

1) Confronting a volatile situation with gentleness? What can you point to in your life that would support your answer? Why is this one easier for you?

2) The ability to interact in a controlled way with another so that anger is not stirred up? What can you point to in your life that would support you answer? Why is this one easier for you?

Our ability to respond in these ways that defuse situations and bring the possibility of peace is a byproduct of walking with God, trusting God, owning that God is wise, powerful, loving and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. When we are firmly planted in the truth of who God is and who we are—the beloved of God—we have the ability to be people of peace, full of grace and truth.

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