Earlier this year, I bumped into a former student while on a trip back to New Zealand. She told me how she now loves acting and is part of a band that has released a worship song.
When I told her I was very proud of her, she said: “Do you remember what you said to me? I still remember you saying I was going to stand out, in the spotlight, for Jesus.” While I don’t remember saying this at all, her reply made me think, “How many other people out there are still holding onto the words I’ve said to them?”
We do not always know the impact our words can have on someone, but the Bible tells us the importance they can have over our lives and others. King Solomon, in his many proverbs, talked about how words can bring life or death, destruction or healing (Proverbs 18:21; 12:18). The Apostle James wrote a whole chapter on it. He described a perfect person as someone who can control their tongue (James 3:2), and explained how our tongues are small yet powerful, and have the power to “corrupt the whole body” (v.5-6).
So, how can we make sure we are using words wisely and for good? The teacher in me thought of using the “5W and H” questions—what, when, where, how, why, who—to come up with six ways:
Truth is the foundation of wise words. Proverbs 12:22 says that God detests lying lips, and twice in Ephesians, we’re told to speak truthfully (Ephesians 4:15, 25).
We are all taught this from a young age, but it can be hard to practise, especially when we’ve done something wrong and are scared to be found out, shamed, and sometimes, punished.
One time, a student left a sweet treat on his desk after class. Assuming he had gone home and not wanting it to attract ants, I ate it. When he returned to get it a few minutes later, I was caught off guard, so I said, “I didn’t think you were coming back so I threw it out. I didn’t want the ants to get it.” Even though I felt convicted, I still argued with the Holy Spirit, thinking to myself that it didn’t make a difference if I ate it or threw it out, it was still gone.
The next day, however, the conviction was so strong, I told the student the truth. I apologised, asked for forgiveness, and promised to buy him another one. I felt humbled in that moment, and I believed that by telling the truth, I was communicating to him that no matter how “small” the lie, telling the truth matters, and it sets us free.
When we choose to speak truthfully, we acknowledge that our God is the God of truth (John 14:6; John 17:17; Titus 1:2), and we open ourselves to His correction and wisdom, all of which are good for our souls.
However, we must be discerning when it comes to speaking the truth, and there are times when we can be wise by not saying anything at all (Proverbs 10:19; 21:23)!
For example, Job’s friends did well when they sat with Job silently for a whole week to mourn with him (Job 2:13). When they finally spoke, however, they ended up saying too much, causing Job to remark, “If only you were silent—that would be wisdom!” (Job 13:5). In the end, God rebuked them too, saying, “I am angry with you… because you have not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7).
This suggests that telling the truth is about measuring our words against the Word of God and speaking gently and in love as the Bible instructs.
How do we know when to be silent and when to speak up? Proverbs 12:18 contrasts wise words with “rash words” and similarly, James 1:19 says to be slow to speak.
I confess that I have said very unwise things whenever I’m tired or frustrated. In those moments, I can be quick to shout or say things that I otherwise wouldn’t if I were calm. This has taught me that the time to be silent is exactly when I feel the urge to speak only because of my emotions (i.e., anger). Pausing, leaving the room, or taking deep breaths before saying anything gives me time to gather my thoughts and examine my choice of words.
I have a friend whom I felt had been ignoring me for some months whenever we were together in public. I also noticed that whenever we talked, she didn’t ask me how I was or what was happening in my life, which led to very one-sided conversations. Although I felt hurt, I decided not to say anything at first, thinking perhaps it was just my perception or insecurities. But as it continued, I realised I needed to say something. Confronting and picking the time for it was both difficult, so I prayed for God to show me the right opportunity.
A week later, I saw her sitting by herself and sensed it was time. After I shared what I felt, she burst into tears. It turns out she was going through other work and personal problems. I was able to pray for her and we were reconciled. If I had spoken earlier when I was still feeling very hurt, it would have added to her emotional burden. But if I had not said anything, it would’ve been a missed opportunity to support and pray for her.
We can say the same thing under different contexts; the time and the place in which we say it can determine if we have spoken wisely.
The Internet also offers us too many spaces where we can voice our opinions. It allows us to say whatever we want while hiding behind our screens, which can lead us to say things we may not say if the person was right in front of us.
There were many times I went online to voice my concerns and arguments regarding controversial issues, and this has led to misinterpretation and a lot of negative tension. Through wise counsel, I’ve come to realise that my words were not producing the fruit I wanted, and that the important issues I feel passionate about are best discussed one-on-one and in person.
55 percent of all communication is body language, 38 percent is tone of voice, and only 7 percent is in the words themselves. This means when we choose to say something on the Internet, in a post or written comment, most likely only 7 percent of our intended meaning will reach our audience.
This leads us to the fourth point.
I’m sure some of us have heard of the phrase, “It is not what you say but how you say it”.
This is why Colossians 4:6 instructs us that our words should be seasoned with grace, and Proverbs 16:24 likens gracious words to something sweet that can bring healing. If you want to make a meal tasty, you want it to be well-seasoned; or if you’re taking bitter medicine, you try to coat it with something palatable. In the same way, when we coat and season our words with kindness and grace, they can be better received by our hearers and, in turn, bring life.
Reflecting on how graciously God speaks to me helps me speak with kindness. When the Holy Spirit convicts me of sin, when I read a command in His Word, or when I feel He impresses something on my heart, it is never harsh or threatening but gentle and encouraging. This reminds me of how it is God’s kindness, not His wrath and not a fear of punishment, that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
How we say things can stem from our reason for saying it. Checking our heart’s motivation before we speak is so important.
In the gospels, we see Jesus addressing the intent (the heart) of the religious leaders when they ask Him questions. The Pharisees are described as making “plans to trap him in his words” (Matthew 22:15). They were not interested in knowing the answer, and Jesus rebuked them for their evil intentions (v.18).
We can be the same way sometimes, saying one thing but meaning another. We may flatter others to get something we want or exaggerate stories to gain sympathy.
The only person who can expose our hearts and draw our attention to this is the Holy Spirit. When I am honest with myself and open to His prompting, I can be made aware of what is really in my heart and seek to put things right before I speak.
1 Corinthians 16:14 says we are to do everything in love, while chapter 13 specifically describes that if we speak without love, we are just a clanging cymbal (in other words, noisy and grating!). In effect, the Apostle Paul is saying, if we cannot speak in love, then don’t bother!
Whenever I am correcting a student, I’m reminded that I need to be doing it out of a place of wanting to mould their character because I care about them. Instead of just threatening with a consequence to get the desired behaviour, I make sure I am on eye level with the student and explain the reasons for the consequence, then I ask if they understand and will choose to do differently next time. I still follow through with the consequence, but I’m doing it to see a real heart change, instead of simply modifying their behaviour.
By now, you’re probably starting to feel that to speak wisely all the time is unrealistic and unattainable, because who can actually do all of this?
You are right to feel this way! This is not to set us up for failure or discourage us but to draw us closer to Jesus.
Jesus is the only perfect person to have walked this earth and He is the only One who can empower us to speak and act wisely. His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9) and it is His righteousness, not ours, that makes us perfect before the Father (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This leaves us with the most important aspect of using words wisely—whom do we listen to? Whom do we turn to for wisdom? The more time we spend reading the Bible and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to us, the more we are transformed to become like Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Before I teach or pray for others, I ask that He would fill my mouth and speak through me. Of course, I still make plenty of mistakes, but I thank God for His grace that is always sufficient and is always training me to be self-controlled and upright (Titus 2:11).
As you think through the “5W and H” questions for your words and wonder where to begin, I find it easiest to begin by thinking about the “when” and “where” . It is a quick assessment that allows you to pause and find an appropriate space when emotions are not spiking.
And whenever in doubt, just listen—to the person speaking, and to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.