“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” – Prov 13:3
Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is keeping your mouth shut. There can be this sense, like for Jeremiah (Jer 20:9), that the words you hold back are a burning fire in your bones. You see something outrageous and absurd, some spectacular production of pure folly. How do you not say something? So you speak, and there is temporary relief. You’ve unburdened yourself. You’ve cleared the air. But when the dust settles, you find the only lasting achievement is your own ruin.
We have to take in wisdom with wisdom. This proverb, like any axiom, if you take and run with it as an absolute, will lead to its own sort of destruction. Silence is not always golden. Martin Luther King Jr. fittingly observed that “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” We can easily fall prey to Pilate’s passive permissiveness. We wash our hands, keep our mouths shut, and pretend it isn’t our problem. The same author of this proverb also wrote that “there is a time to speak”, as well as a time to keep silent. (Ecc 3:7)
The proverb’s warning about guarding our mouths actually has less to do with our mouths than it does with our hearts. Jesus tells us that it is what comes out of us, meaning out of our mouths, which makes us unclean. (Mt 15:18) Our words are not mere intellectual constructions or strategic counsels. Our words express our hearts, our very selves. It takes a wise, humble, and acutely self-knowing man to perceive that his odds of his being helpful decrease when he opens his mouth. Notice I said the odds of being helpful. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to help someone by what you say. That doesn’t mean never speak. Proverbs speaks highly of the healing, refreshing power of a good word, a word in season, and delivering piece of good news. Speaking in that sort of way, though, speaking words of life, requires training, and discipline, and the humility to know such speech is a work of God’s Spirit.
It’s not only a concern for others that motivates us to keep our mouth shut. It should be an instinct of self-preservation. If we reckon with who we are, and the deep-seated corruption that we instinctively bring to the surface when we speak, then we will have a healthy fear of the propensity of our mouths to incriminate us. It’s because there’s a lot in us to incriminate!
The one sure refuge is found in the words of Jesus on the pages of Scripture. Every word of the Bible, even the ones that cut and hurt, has the quality of bringing life. The words of the Bible search us, and they know us, down to the rot in our hearts that we manage not to speak, and they also forgive us in Jesus. They offer us the path of life and healing. The more we can speak of Jesus, and speak his Word (not merely a formulaic gospel regurgitation), the more we can be sure that we are not only preserving our own life, but the lives of others.