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We’ve been studying Proverbs in Sunday school lately, and a few weeks back we were talking about all the teachings in the book that have to do with curbing our reactivity.
For instance, Proverbs 15:28:
The righteous heart reflects before
but the wicked mouth blurts out evil.
Do you know someone (maybe it's you!) with a wicked habit of just blurting things out, without pausing to consider how their words might be harsh, hurtful, or inappropriate? "Before answering" indicates that this proverbs is about how we respond to others. Righteousness means resisting that sort of unbridled reaction to the words and actions of others.
Or, think about Proverbs 14:17:
A quick-tempered person does
and the one who devises evil schemes is hated.
Other sayings, like Proverbs 15:18 or 22:24, describe a “hot-tempered” person, but 14:17 (and 14:29) singles out the quick-tempered, those with short fuses, who rapidly react to any provocation with anger. That kind of reactivity results in foolish acts. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that.
Proverbs like these made me realize something. The battle for faithfulness is often won or lost in the instant between someone else’s words or actions and my response. And the briefer that moment is, the more likely that my worst impulses will carry the day. If I’m quick-tempered, if I blurt something out without first pausing to reflect, foolishness and evil will inevitably result. But if I can just restrain my reactivity for a second, that creates an opportunity for my better judgment, my convictions, and the Holy Spirit to have some input. Then there’s a chance that I’ll overlook an insult (12:16) and offer a gentle answer (15:1), or even bless those who curse me (Luke 6:28).
All that to say, one of the greatest victories a Christian can win on the road to holiness and loving a neighbor is developing the ability to bite your tongue. If you can just restrain the knee-jerk reaction, a world of holy possibilities opens up. Sure, after a pause you may still offer a (now carefully considered) vicious retort. The goal is to blurt out kindness, understanding, encouragement, and forgiveness, for such things to become your knee-jerk reaction, but developing new habits like these takes time and a lot of practice. And learning a new way, retraining your tongue to respond with grace and gentleness, is only possible after reactivity is taken out of the equation.
So, practice biting your tongue today. Stretch out that instant before your response. It might not sound like much, but that’s a real victory. Reactivity breeds sinful speech: we’ve all been on the receiving end of it, and we’ve all perpetrated it. But if we focus our efforts on that instant when our reactions erupt, maybe we can open the door to a different kind of speech, that’s “gracious, seasoned with salt.” (Col 4:6) Maybe we can begin to bless the people around us with the thoughtful responses of a righteous heart.