We need to begin with the obvious, which is that Scripture teaches that our words affect how we are doing, not to mention those all around us. But this “obvious” truth can, if unattended, deteriorate into the vagaries of generic uplift. When we speak the good word, it must be a word that is truly wise and good.
“A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance: but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13).
“Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Prov. 12:25).
Summary of the Texts
We begin by juxtaposing two proverbs, asking each of them to illumine the other one. The first tells us that there is a link between the condition of the heart and the condition of the countenance. A merry heart results in a cheerful countenance, just as a man speaks out of the abundance of his heart (Matt. 12:34). The heart is a thermostat, setting the temperature of the rest of your activities. If the heart is sorrowful, the spirit is broken, and if the heart is merry, then the countenance shows it.
So, then, how do we adjust the thermostat? When a man’s heart is heavy, then his heart stoops. He becomes discouraged. He cannot carry the weight that providence is asking him to carry. When someone wants to help, what they need to do is come in order to speak a good word. A good word makes his heart glad.
Timing is Everything
But this is a good word, not just any word, and not any old word that somebody thinks is good. “He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him” (Prov. 27:14).
Suppose your roommate, or your spouse, or somebody in your house, comes staggering out to breakfast, and pours himself a bowl of Grumpy Nuggets, with no sugar. Is that the time to wave your spoon in the air in time with the old gospel song you start to sing in a raucous manner? “Cheer up, ye saints of God, there’s nothing to worry about/Nothing to make you feel afraid, nothing to make you doubt./Remember Jesus loves you so why not stand up and shout?/You’ll be sorry you worried at all tomorrow morning.”
And the word of Scripture is fulfilled; you are reckoned as one who curses.
The words you speak should be true, of course, but they need to be more than true. They must also be relevant, and in addition to being relevant, they must also be timely. As it has been well said, the only difference between salad and garbage is timing.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear” (Prov. 25:11-12). So don’t be like Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, saying true things all day long, in wildly inappropriate ways.
And your words should also be kind. The lock on the door of your mouth should have three keys—is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?
There is more involved in this than just heeding an exhortation to “be nice,” or to “say nice things.” If we need to do this kind of thing in wisdom, and we do, we need to do it in imitation. What we do, we are to do as children, as imitators or followers of God (Eph. 5:1). We worship God through the Word, and so it is not surprising that we are logocentric, that we are people of words. We serve and worship the God who is love, and so we are to walk in love (Eph. 4:15). And, in the same way, we worship the God who spoke the perfect word, the fitting word, into our hearts, and so we are to do the same to others, by imitation and by analogy. Our words are to be gospel, and our words are to be gospel-like.
We want to take it apart in order to find out how it works. But we need to begin with the reality that it works. The Bible calls the preaching of the cross “folly” to the worldly-wise. Why should we be surprised when they come up to us and say that what we are doing doesn’t seem relevant to them. Of course it doesn’t. That is a design feature. God defines what a word fitly spoken looks like. God defines what a perfect setting of silver should be.
God defines truth. God defines necessity. God defines kindness.
Need and Grace
We learn how to speak to others, speaking the good word, by observing closely how God speaks to us. And when the gospel comes to us, what is it? We have human need on the one hand and divine grace on the other.
The good word spoken is therefore the intersection between need and grace. The good word that preaching brings is this—it is the declaration of the grace of God, addressed to human need, and the declaration is backed up with the authority of God’s throne.
So when you come to encourage someone, what is it that you are imitating? It is not a hollow appeal that glibly says, “don’t worry, be happy.”
The Declaration of Christ
Christ, then, is to be preached. By that we mean Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ buried, Christ risen, and Christ ascended. When He is declared in this way, the pattern of death, resurrection, and ascension is not put out there to complete an argument in your intellect, although it may do that. Neither is Christ over all to be preached in such a way as to soothe or excite your emotions, although it may do that as well. We are to love God with all our minds, and we cannot do that without the preaching of Christ crucified. We are to love God with all our hearts, and we cannot do that without the preaching of Christ risen and ascended. But something more is necessary.
No, the faithful declaration of this gospel is always aimed at the citadel of the human will. You are not here as spectators, or observers, but rather as worshipers, and this means that you are on the mountain of decision. And when you go down again, into your day-to-day activities, you will be in the valley of decision.
Here you are, and here is the Word declared. What are you going to do?