Communicating with Wisdom
(And Some of Her Friends)
I like scrolling through Twitter to appreciate a theological insight, find a good book recommendation, or make sure Ja Morant is still the front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year. Recently, I decided to take a glance at a thread on a theological hottake. It turned into an hour slide into a potential level of Dante’s Inferno had he lived in this age. It wasn’t long before I was mentally doing what I abhorred about social media debates. I drew quick conclusions and made immediate assumptions. I defended certain expressions because they came from those I viewed to be on “my side.” Self-righteousness reared its head and I was guilty of the very thing I disdained without ever typing a word. I remembered a repeated phrase from my dad, “Boy, you can be right in the wrong way.” He was right again, and I was wrong.
Whether face to face or a keyboard before a screen, we are communicators. Effective communication is a two-way street. This remains true in times of social distancing as we explore ways to communicate. Whether with family around whom we now spend more time, or online where it is easier to spend way too much time, wise communication is greatly needed. Communication breakdown occurs for many reasons, and it is easy to assume the other person is guilty of them. Responsibility belongs to both speaker (typist) and listener (reader). Both require wisdom.
Wisdom: Fortunately, we are not left to seek wisdom on our own. God’s Word provides it. The wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James speak directly to the matter of communication—the use of words and the art of listening. All communication ought to be done with wisdom. Biblical wisdom is the skill and ability to navigate through God’s world according to God’s way. We need to know truth and how to apply it within the complexities of a fallen world. We do not attain this on our own.
God is the source and giver of wisdom (Prov. 2:6). Wisdom requires factoring God into all spheres and actions of life. This is the fear the Lord, which is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). Proverbs and James offer guidance for communicating wisely. In these books, we discover that wisdom does not exist alone. She has many friends and each one contributes to a deeper understanding and paves a clearer path forward for how to communicate, whether face to face or virtually. They inform how we differ with others in a meaningful and constructive way.
As believers, we desire to live wisely before God and others. Sinclair Ferguson writes of wisdom, “It is not a body of information so much as an understanding, a developed instinct, that enables us to plot a path through life so that we can be faithful to God, live in accordance with his word, and be fruitful in his service.” Wisdom should adorn our lives, clothing all our actions and inner dispositions.
Teachability: Wisdom’s first friend is teachability. Teachability relates to the art of listening. There can be no wisdom without it. First and foremost, we listen to God’s Word. We must receive it (Prov. 1:2, 3), hear it, increase our learning of it (1:5), and understand it. The listener receives wisdom in the form of instruction, a broad word encompassing warning (1:2a, 3a). The wise listener remains open to correction from both God’s Word and the wise among us. The fool despises wisdom by refusing to hear instruction. Listening to and embracing wisdom equips the Christian to listen to others who are wise (1:8–19). If one knows how to listen for wisdom, they are able to reject folly.
Prudence and Aptness: Prudence guides the communicator to know when to speak and when to remain silent. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (10:19). A wise communicator discerns the context and audience. Prudence understands the power of words (18:21) and uses them carefully, understanding when it is better to keep the mouth closed (11:12–13; 13:3). Closely associated with prudence is aptness. “To make an apt answer is joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is” (15:23). May God grant us the wisdom to speak with prudence and aptness, knowing what to say at the right time in the right way and when to keep silent.
Faithful and true: Along with wisdom come faithfulness and truth. These friends address both content and character. In Proverbs 12:19 and 22, we find “faithful” and “truthful” coming from the same root. Character and content matter, taking into account both words and audience. K. T. Aitken, in his commentary on Proverbs, shows how vital these virtues are for wise communication. He writes, “To be ‘true’ to other people and not merely to the facts is what is most important. The person who is sensitive to the facts and insensitive to people, and who takes pride in ‘being blunt’, wins no plaudits from the wise; for he can do just as much damage as the liar.” How much damage has been done for truth in the name of being blunt? The solution is not always to keep silent. Rather, it is to speak wisely and faithfully. A wise and gentle rebuker is like an ornament of gold (25:12) and faithful are the wounds of a friend (27:6; 28:23). Faithfulness protects us from slander and drawing conclusions about others that are not accurate (10:18).
Controlled: Wisdom also enjoys the company of the controlled, not the brash. A cool spirit has understanding (17:27). Derek Kidner sees three reasons to praise such controlled speaking: it allows for a fair hearing and does not draw conclusions prematurely (18:13, 17); it deescalates the emotions of the interaction by turning away wrath (15:1); and is more effective at persuasion (25:15). Social media debates do not offer time for a measured and soft response. It is easy to reply immediately and make assertions about motivations on social media. Let us be guided by controlled restraint lest we unleash unnecessary quarrels (17:14, 28).
Wisdom and her friends guide both our speaking and listening. These gifts from God come through His Word and direct our steps in life. May they keep us humble and teachable, embolden us to defend truth with love, and guard us from causing damage to others. Wisdom from God and the covenantal community strengthens our witness in a way where we can offer hope and clarity in a time when precision is needed. Let us listen well that we might learn and speak well that we might help. The tongue has the power of death and life (Prov. 18:21); let us use it in reliance upon God’s grace, knowing it is impossible to tame (James 3:8). Let us be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19).
Whether we are face-to-face or on social media, let us use our words for the glory of God and the good of His church and the watching world. While social media may present its own problems, let those who use it do so in biblical wisdom and fidelity to boldly proclaim and defend biblical goodness, righteousness, and justice (Ps. 37:1–6).
 Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study James (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018), 10.