“By mere words a servant is not disciplined, for though he understands, he will not respond.” – Proverbs 29:19
Teddy Roosevelt maneuvered the US military through more than a few tight squeezes during his presidency (1901-1909). He espoused this West African proverb as his guiding star in diplomacy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt was a man of action. He abhorred sabre-rattling and word games. If he threatened to leave his kid behind at the toy store, you can bet he would have done it.
Roosevelt’s proverb and the Bible’s one above give us the same advice: words will only carry the weight of the actions behind them. Empty threats create a vicious cycle—those hearing them become more hardened and self-willed, and those issuing them become more powerless and desperate. Wherever there is a gap between speech and reality, you can be sure that those most concerned in the matter will find it out.
You can rage yourself into exhaustion or whisper a warning, but the performance you can expect will always depend on the standards you enforce. Set and solidify your boundaries ahead of time. That’s your stick. Then speak softly.
Many popular education and management strategies spring from the spiritual conviction that all failures and deficiencies are the unfortunate result of ignorance. If you can only explain yourself in such a way so that little Billy understands the reason why throwing rocks at windows does not tend towards the progress of society, of course he will never do it again.
Such an opinion is naïve enabling, with children and adults. Understanding is not the issue for the servant in this proverb. He comprehends perfectly what is being asked, and why, and all your supporting motivations. But those are mere words. The real trouble is that without God’s help, we are incorrigibly selfish. If I cannot see any benefit for myself, I may fully grasp the theory of another’s desire, but it has no effect on me.
We are sometimes surprised (but shouldn’t be) that God himself works in this way. He doesn’t set his commands off in abstraction so that we contemplate good and evil with disinterest, like cultural curiosities of a foreign land. Trusting and following Jesus is the most beneficial life for us, and God fills his Word with reminders of that as spurs for us to live our best life.
“Keep my statutes and my rules,” God says. “If a person does them, he shall live by them” (Lev 18:5). Jesus says that the reason he came was so that we could have life, and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10). There is not a single empty threat or promise in the Bible, because it’s God’s cheat sheet for how He made the world. Not one of his words falls to the ground. He invites us: Go ahead, try these things out. He never has to raise his voice because he controls exactly how things work. He gives us the Bible to save us the trouble of “guess and check.”