Grievous Words – Dr. Molly Marshall – Baptist News Global

The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech.

By Molly T. Marshall

“A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1, KJV) was one of the first Bible verses I learned as a child. Not only were we instructed to memorize this instruction, but to practice it, even with brothers at home. Not being a very quiet little girl, I was glad when I learned one could translate “soft” as “gentle.”

In a political season nearly devoid of civility, many need to return to Sunday school (or attend for the first time!) so that this wisdom might be inscribed in their hearts. The coarsening of public discourse is alarming, and great harm can be inflicted through venomous speech. Gentle answers are rarely heard.

Bullying by name-calling is acceptable neither for children nor adults. To be called a loser, weak, ugly or disgusting repeatedly, is more than disrespectful. It breeds contempt, one of the vilest human emotions. Hate-speech kindles rancor, which often escalates beyond words to acts of violence.

Certain conventions of speaking are becoming more acceptable, seemingly necessary. It appears that in debates, pundit exchanges and town hall conversations, speakers not only interrupt their interlocutors, they over-talk them and sometimes actually yell at them. The most persistent voices drown out the others, and listeners are assaulted by the cacophony.

Private communication is no less fraught with discord. We have all read about the harmful things posted through social media that have led to devastating consequences for victims. The critical tone of emails and texts can spawn misunderstanding, and often recipients return in kind. Who among us has not wanted to use more caps and exclamation points when responding to an untoward message? Perhaps the buffer of technologically mediated communication leads persons to say things they would not say face to face.

Has it always been this way with humans? Apparently so, but grievous words are circulated more widely in our day. One of the foul fruits of the “fall” is the poisoning of the great gift of being homo loquens, the “speaking animal.” Even the remarkable scholar Martin Luther preached and wrote perniciously about the Jews. His inflammatory words detract from his stature as a reformer and theologian, and some have suggested added fuel to Hitler’s fiery denunciations.

Scripture offers a breadth of guidance on godly speech, probably because we humans fall so short of this practice. Here is a brief sampling from each testament.

From the Psalter we hear:

“The one who walks with integrity and works righteousness … speaks truth in the heart. This one does not slander with the tongue … (15:2-3).

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).

“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips” (141:3).

Proverbs is replete with instruction:

“There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword. But the tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:18).

“The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable. But the mouth of fools spouts folly” (15:2).

“She opens her mouth in wisdom. And the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” (31:26).

From the Epistles we receive these exhortations:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29).

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Col. 4:6).

“Know this, my beloved: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger …” (James 1:19).

The Gospels also offer a pathway to follow:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).

“The good person out of the good treasure of his or her heart produces good, and the evil person out of his or her evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart one speaks” (Luke 6:45).

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11).

In this new year of mercy, so designated by Pope Francis, we have the opportunity to revise our speech. Rather than echoing the visceral and heated rhetoric that presently reverberates, we can use prudent and restrained language. Rather than derogatory pronouncements about those with whom we disagree, we can practice gracious words that build up others, for the common good.

For some of us, it may mean that we listen more and speak less. As the sages remind us, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he or she closes his or her lips, that one is deemed intelligent” (Prov. 17:28). That is surely a worthy pursuit!


Molly Marshall is president and professor of theology and spiritual formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, in Shawnee, Kan. Her weekly blog “Trinitarian Soundings.” Dr. Marshall was one of the favorite speakers at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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Hamrick Lectureship Check Presentation to the Ministerial Scholarship Fund

FBC Lectern for FurmanJanuary 17, 2016, would have been Dr. John A. Hamrick’s 100th birthday. We chose this date to honor him by turning the remainder of the funds in the Lectureship Fund to the Ministerial Scholarship Fund. I presented the check to Dr. Malcolm Clark chair of that fund. These are my remarks.

“Some of you did not know or experience Dr. John Hamrick. He was the most influential South Carolina Baptist of the last one hundred years. He was an outstanding preacher, a serious theologian, a Biblical scholar. He was a visionary with a keen ability to get things done. He loved Baptist history and was a leader in Christian education. Most of all, he was a man of great faith. He often said, “If God gives you a job to do, he will find a way for you to do it.”

The Hamrick Lectureship was a fitting tribute to him because of his love of our history and his devotion to Christian education; therefore it gives me great pleasure to honor his devotion to Christian education by presenting this check which represents the remainder of the lectureship funds to the Ministerial Scholarship Fund in the amount of 3,699.11.”

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The Right Time and Place

One of the surprises that came with writing my book, Our Father: Discovering Family,* was getting to revisit at least in memory with some of the saints that inhabit my world. Some of them I wrote about others are still unsung. Most of these remembrances brought a smile to my face and a deep sense of joy and gratitude.

I also realize that my small home town of Woodruff, South Carolina was the ideal place to encounter people whose values would guide my life. Yes, it was the segregated South and yes these people were prisoners of their place and time. Never-the-less, I did not see or experience the meanness that is so evident today. I did not hear the harsh rhetoric toward public officials that is so pervasive today.

I got a head start on race relations. While we lived in the Abney Mill Village and in a company house. The company sent crews to do regular maintenance. One day the two person crew at our house consisted of two Black men. They were repairing a bedroom window and I was watching them from the inside. I had not yet learned how to tell time. When one of them asked me the time, I simply threw the alarm clock out the window to him. They loved it. From then on when we met on the street they greeted me loudly and recited the story to their companions. This incident set the tone for my life. Everyone enjoys a good laugh. Laughter is a healing force.

Pink Robinson was the custodian at Woodruff High School. He had a laugh that was unmistakable. And contagious. When the windows were open, you could hear his laughter as he returned from an errand on Main Street roughly two blocks away. Smiles spread across the classroom no matter which class you were in when his laughter rang out. It is not a stretch to say that everyone loved Pink.

Rev. Susan Sparks, a Baptist pastor in New York City, a lawyer and a standup comedian, has written a wonderful book, Laugh Your Way to Grace. She contends that Christians have forgotten how to laugh in church. She maintains that laughter is a gift that needs to be nourished. She’s right. Some of my best memories are of Northside Baptist Church and the saints and sinners that I met there.

*Our Father: Discovering Family. Wipf and Stock. 2016.

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Take No Bitterness into the New Year

Many people regard New Year’s Resolutions with the same disdain they attribute to the much-maligned fruitcake. I am a proponent of both. For several years now I have made the same New Year’s resolution and I do my best to keep it. I will take no bitterness into the New Year. Whatever has happened during the past twelve months that tends to sour my disposition, cause me pain and create separation, I resolve to let go. Whatever offenses I have suffered will not be dragged into the New Year. As the years pile up, keeping my resolution doesn’t get any easier.

Forgiveness is not as easy as it might sound. Partly it requires developing a thicker skin and realizing that I take far too many things personally. I need to lighten up. This is one of the concepts my friend, Dr. Monty Knight, discusses in his book, Balanced Living; Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Weaknesses. Continuing with Monty’s philosophy, I don’t have to go to every fight to which I am invited. That is a major concept. Let it go. Tom Newboult, a minister of religious education, once told me that sin is giving more importance to the moment than it is worth. In other words, don’t dwell in the negative. I think Tom hit the nail on the head. What a great concept!

Turning a negative into a positive is another methodology for dealing with difficult situations. Since I administered a not-for-profit agency for most of my career, I am often attacked with, “Well, Mitch, you are just an idealist.” My reply is, “Thank you. I hope so.” The main thing about forgiveness for those of us who are Christian to remember is that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven.

Susan Sparks in her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, suggests that we rediscover the power of humor. She maintains that we take ourselves far too seriously. We need to repackage some of the comments that cause us pain.

Bitterness is a terrible task master. It will ruin your life and suck all the goodness you receive into a dark hole. I recommend a proactive approach. Go on an active campaign to make those around you glad that you are there. Build them up by helping them feel good about themselves. Say something nice. Compliment her or him in a real genuine way. Call the person by name. Offer a specific compliment about a real accomplishment. On the other hand, when you receive a compliment acknowledge it graciously with a simple “thank you.” In my book, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, I discuss the power of words, but I am by no means the first to come to that conclusion. The psalmist said, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, oh God, my strength and my redeemer.”

Dr. Arthur Caliandro gets right to the heart of the matter with a three-word solution. “Life is now.” That statement is stunning in its simplicity. Live in the present. Don’t drag past hurts into today. I was part of a vivid demonstration of this principle. We were planning one of the annual John Hamrick Lectures while Dr. John was still living. A potential speaker was being considered. I called the speaker to extend an invitation. He told me that because he and Dr. Hamrick had been involved on opposite sides of a controversy, he would only come if Dr. Hamrick approved. When I told Dr. Hamrick of my conversation he didn’t hesitate. “That was then. This is now.” Wow!

I make no claim that getting rid of bitterness is an easy task. You and I have experienced great hurts. Unfortunately, we have also inflicted great hurts. I know that I am in the process of becoming and that God is not finished with me. Practicing my resolution of taking no bitterness into the New Year has helped me live a more productive, less stressful life. I believe you will experience the same happy results if you give it a try.

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