In continuing our summer series of reflections in the Book of Proverbs, Leah Vetro shares a message about gentleness, speech and how we choose to engage with others. She offers her reflections on how this can be lived out in the book of Proverbs Chapter 15.
Leah Vetro works as the Public Services Librarian at Tyndale University.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to our continuing series of reflections on the book of Proverbs this summer. I'm Leah Vetro, and I work as the public services librarian here at Tyndale. I'm so pleased to be speaking to you today, and the passage that I will be looking at is Proverbs 15 verse one, which reads, A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Before I begin, I want to let you know where I will be going with this talk. At first, I will discuss a little bit about gentleness and speech. And from there, I will turn to the implications that this passage has for how we choose to engage with other people, as well as my own reflections on how this can be lived out.
When I was a child, I could defuse conflict like nobody's business. I learned early that the right combination of words and tone, often with a heaping dose of grovelling or apologizing, whichever the occasion called for, could magically end any argument, or smooth any amount of tension. For most of my life, I wielded this is like a superpower or spiritual gift and received praise for my maturity and gentleness. When I discovered proverbs 15 verse one, it felt like further confirmation that I was really onto something godly. I was pleasing God and developing my reputation as an obedient child who was kind and never made any trouble.
However, as I grew older and became more aware of myself, and what healthy relationships and conflict look like, I learned that I needed to become better acquainted with what this passage means and what it does not mean. Being asked to speak from Proverbs seems like a great opportunity to do a deep dive into what is still one of my favourite passages on gentleness, but for very different reasons than 20 years ago.
This particular proverb is found in a section of the book attributed to King Solomon. This part of Proverbs deals largely in contrasting wisdom and foolishness or wickedness. Many verses are formed like couplets with an AND, OR but separate the wise course of action from the unwise. So, to begin, let's look at the Hebrew word for gentleness in this passage, and the words and concepts with which it is contrasted.
As a good Tyndale-trained student of the Old Testament, I'll begin with a brief word study. The word that is translated here as gentle in is the Hebrew adjective, rak. The word occurs 16 times in the Hebrew Bible, and three times in the book of Proverbs. It is used in the context of flesh, spirit, and words in speech. The final case being the most relevant to this passage, though it mainly connotes being sensitive or weak. The last two instances in Proverbs focus on words and tone and are typically translated as soft or gentle. Overall, the word appears to be referring to the quality of our speech, how we engage with others in conversation or conflict. A gentle quality of speech diffuses anger and calms wrath, as opposed to harsh or hurtful language that will cause tempers to flare.
But is that all there is to learn from this verse? It was certainly all that I took away from the passage when I was young. If I say things in a soft and gentle tone, poof, God is happy, and the angry person is now less angry. Perfect. But is the takeaway, then to never say anything that will upset anyone ever end of story?
While this verse is speaking to how we conduct ourselves in conversation, there are other important aspects to consider in applying this verse to how we interact with other people. This is the point when I realized that I was really only focusing on the first half of the couplet. The first half taken on its own, presents us with an incomplete picture of the wisdom imparted in this verse. In Proverbs 15, verse one, the word rak is contrasted with the word etzev, which is often translated as grievous or hurtful. So, speaking in gentleness is not limited to adopting a mild or soft mode of speech, but implies here a deeper quality of loving-kindness, the opposite of harsh or hurtful. It is not enough to just do what is called “sweet-talking” someone implied in that expression is that it is all talk and no substance. And I think that by contrasting gentle with hurtful, the implication is that gentle words must have real substance on their own, a substance that is not hurtful or harsh or grievous.
To make this point, I want to bring up the other instance of the word rak in Proverbs that is similar to the one in Proverbs 15, verse one, in Proverbs 15, sorry, in Proverbs 25, verse 15. It states through patience, a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone. Again, we have the same word, and again, it is being applied to speech. In this verse, the message is clear. Gentleness is powerful, it is strong, it gets stuff done in a big way. It is equated with the persevering power of patience, which can persuade even royalty and yet it is still gentleness. It is still softness, but in that softness is power. Power to what? Well, at its heart, Proverbs 15 verse one is about communication. So, the power to communicate effectively, lovingly, and I would add truthfully. Gentleness in both of these verses is not merely pacifying and calming. It is actively loving, and even strong in its ability to communicate truth effectively.
So this demonstrates two truths about how we conduct ourselves in a gentle way with other people. Firstly, if gentleness speaks truth in love, then the conviction that we have truth to impart does not justify dispensing with the gentleness. The truth is important, necessary, especially since the mode of speech is meaningless without the content, but the gentleness piece is imperative. Truths are rendered more powerful and palatable when they are communicated with gentleness. Gentleness implies care for the person to whom you're communicating the truth. So, gentleness and love go hand in hand. However, the second truth is equally important. And that is, the gentleness without truth is empty, and even dangerous.
So, the second point prompts me to reflect a little bit more on my own takeaway from this passage, I acknowledge that I have never been great at speaking up or speaking out about things that are important but may create waves whether it is standing up for myself for others, or communicating a hard truth, my fear of rocking the boat and breaking the peace have often kept me silent.
And, if you'll pardon a brief tangent, but it will make my point.
Over the last few decades, many people have developed a passing familiarity with the Enneagram. And for those of you who are unfamiliar, the Enneagram, like MBTI is a tool that some of us find helpful for learning more about ourselves and our strengths and weaknesses. So, the point is that I am a type nine, the peacemaker. And why do I share this personal information? Because peacemakers more than any other type, seek to create peace, often at any cost? And I have sacrificed a lot, including at times my own mental health, just to keep peace. But am I truly peacemaking? Or am I just peacekeeping? When I was a child was being praised for true gentleness or for my or for my willingness to simply be quiet and not cause anyone discomfort? I had mastered the tone, but not the substance. It took almost losing friendships and damaging relationships to realize that people could tell when I was merely pacifying them or projecting gentleness only on the surface. In short, they often caught me out in lies and half-truths that were meant to re-establish harmony.
In fact, a few years ago, a friend of mine told me a difficult truth. She confronted me with the reality that I was sacrificing honesty and integrity for the purpose of keeping achieve peace. I was giving answers and responses with the sole purpose of creating harmony. It was pointed out to me that I was not loving my friend, nor was I loving myself. It was then that I fully grasped that gentleness that is not speaking truth in love is empty. Gentleness is a choice that we can make when we choose to communicate the truth. I learned that day that I was being gentle, without loving my friend enough, to tell the truth. And I watched her model telling a hard truth with gentleness. I had prided myself on modelling proverbs 15 verse one, but I was only doing it halfway.
Love that looks like Jesus’ love does not shy away from the truth. And in doing so, Christ always modelled speaking with gentleness to those he loved, even when they were being particularly dense or difficult. In this way, Jesus is our example for the virtues that we read about in the rest of the Scripture. In his ministry, we witness him living gentleness. Proverbs speak to the wisdom of minding how we talk to others. The Christ models what this looks like when it is lived out in love. While rebuking teaching and calling to repentance, Jesus practice gentleness, at least when he wasn't flipping tables. He demonstrates that it is not about maintaining peace. Indeed, one might actually wonder why he wouldn't choose to be more harmonious not rock the boat. Wouldn't he have accomplished more by not angering the elites and authorities, the people with the power? As the saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey”. But Jesus didn't choose to do it that way. He combined both truth and gentleness in his mission to inaugurate God's kingdom on earth.
There are times in life where we will need to speak truths that we would rather not speak or hear truths that we would rather not hear. But life is not about keeping peace for its own sake, or desiring that other people simply keep us comfortable. However, gentleness as a sign of love and care can go a long way to suffering the hard edges the truth often has, gentleness can indicate to someone that I'm speaking to them in love. And it she can show me as my friend did when love is the motivation behind a difficult truth. We live in a time that calls for many of us to speak hard truths to people we love and respect and have difficult conversations with people we love yet disagree with. Perhaps examining our hearts for the love that must be present. And choosing to communicate gently can advance difficult dialogues, and promote real peace instead of false peace. And help us reject polarity for learning how to live with disagreement and difference in a more Christ-like way. So, in conclusion, I do really still love this proverb. Living it out is significantly harder than it was when I was misunderstanding its full meaning or ignoring some of its more uncomfortable implications. But now for me, it points away to growing in love and learning how to speak truth, especially as someone who would rather just not and keep everyone happy, and it points away to exercising a real power that can break bones if I choose real gentleness.
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