A Good Word

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 12:25

Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.

Proverbs 12:25, RSV

The ancient proverb says, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad.”

THE BURDEN OF ANXIETY

Some thoughts from the morning newspaper caught my eye today. They come from the pen of humorist Fran Leibowitz, “There is no such thing,” she writes, “as inner peace. There is only nervousness and death.” That’s too somber, too cynical, for most of us, but it does describe life as many people live it. The proverb says that anxiety or heaviness in a man’s heart weighs him down. It makes a person stoop as though carrying an intolerable burden. Sadness, distress of spirit, has effects on people that are clearly visible. It brings them low.

Remember the experience of the patriarch Jacob? He had a favorite son named Joseph to whom he gave a beautiful, multi-colored coat. When news came to Jacob that Joseph had been torn by wild beasts, he was inconsolable. All his sons and daughters tried to encourage him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son mourning.” He would go down. His sadness would weigh upon him more and more until it brought him at last to die. Later on, Jacob spoke of Benjamin, the remaining son of the wife he had loved most. He could not bear the thought that something might happen also to this Benjamin. He said plaintively to his other sons, “If harm should befall him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” There it is again, the grief that crushes us, that presses us inexorably down.

You’ve known people with that kind of experience, haven’t you? I know a mother whose heart was broken when her son forsook his lovely family. After that, she was pitifully bent over. It was as though her body had received a terrible blow and she felt she could never straighten up again.

Students with learning disabilities, when confronted with a new academic task, can scarcely look up. Their hearts are anxious. They dread another failure. Their heads are down.

The tax collector in the temple, remember, would not even lift up his eyes toward heaven. I have known people like him, so oppressed with a sense of their sin and unworthiness that their gaze was downward, their shoulders hunched, their heads bowed. Heartbreak, heaviness, distress weighs us down.

Maybe this is your situation right now. Long, debilitating illness has drained your resources and stolen away your peace of mind. You feel so low today. Perhaps it’s because you are alone. You’re afraid that no one cares. Someone important in your life has left you. How burdened you feel! How down!

Maybe you fear you are useless. There doesn’t seem to be any work for you to do. You struggle to feel good about yourself. You sense a dark weight of sadness upon your spirit. Maybe it’s bereavement, maybe it’s fear, maybe endless waves of remorse. All you know is that you’re really down. All the brightness, all the zest seem to have gone out of your life. Your spirits are drooping. Anxiety is weighing you down.

THE GIFT OF A GOOD WORD

But there’s another part to this insightful word of Scripture, so true to human experience. There’s a hint of hope and healing which Fran Leibowitz didn’t see. Listen again, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but. . . .” Here’s a blessed “but” — a redeeming alternative — “but a good word makes him glad.” Can that be possible? What is a word? Just a combination of sounds spoken into the air and quickly gone. You mean to say that a mere word can help someone who’s really low? Sometimes we hardly dare to believe that. When we see people racked by sorrow, crushed by their circumstances, we wish we could do something for them. We wish we could take their burdens away, remove the source of their grief, somehow make things all right again. And because we’re helpless to do that, we wring our hands, we turn away. Talk is cheap, we think. What can I possibly say in the presence of such overwhelming sorrow?

But here’s the promise, and many, many people will bear out its truth: “A good word makes him glad.” Not just any word, friends, a good word. Words can hurt too, can’t they? We can speak words sometimes that are insensitive, inane, even cruel. Elsewhere in the Proverbs, we read about harsh words that are “like sword-thrusts.” Words can be malicious, even death dealing, for death as well as life is “in the power of the tongue.” What kind of word is a good word, a word with power to quicken joy?

It’s usually a word spoken after listening. Much of our speech is shallow, strident, unhelpful because we speak hastily. We rush in with advice or attempts to encourage before we understand. Silence in the presence of another is often the best preparation for speaking well. When he or she is terribly oppressed, it’s an impertinence to say anything before we listen. What suffering people are often crying out for is to be heard, to find a listening ear, to be able to give some voice to their desolation of spirit. Sometimes they begin to revive in heart when they can simply give expression to what they feel. A good word, friends, is a word spoken by one who has cared enough to listen, who has given to others the priceless gift of attention, who has heard them out.

A good word, then, is also an empathetic word. Those who speak in helpful ways, who encourage by their words, are people with a capacity for what we call “fellow-feeling.” They try to put themselves in another’s place. They search for what it must be like to go through something like this. They tune in to the emotion behind the words of those who struggle and suffer. They begin where people are.

Years ago I used to teach a seminary class on preaching and pastoral care. I would describe for each student a situation of trouble, of crisis, through which the pastor’s parishioners were passing. The sermon was to be preached in the light of that need. The art of pastoral care, you see, has a great deal to do with timing. Some things pastors may say are true but not helpful because they don’t take into account what is presently happening in the lives of people. The best students, the best pastors, are those who best stand in the shoes of their people, who best identify with their feelings, who best make it clear that they want to understand.

A pastor friend of mine has given me a great deal of help in learning how to speak good words. One of his oft-repeated counsels is, “No encouragement without empathy.” In other words, don’t try to cheer people up until first you try to sit where they sit, until you’ve given them some indication that you sense how desperately they hurt.

A listening word, an empathetic word, and also a word that is authentic. We don’t really help people when we tell them things that aren’t true. “He who flatters his neighbor,” says the proverb, “spreads a net for his feet.” The “good word” is a word deeply believed by us and sincerely meant. It’s something we have tested and found true. It’s not a cliche learned by rote, but a word presently alive for us.

The best words of all are God’s words, mediated through His people. He is the One supremely who listens to the cries of the crushed in spirit, who is touched with the feeling of their sorrow, who is afflicted in their afflictions, and brings them just the word they need. It’s our great privilege to be His ambassadors, His messengers. Never forget, you who believe in Jesus Christ, that you are members of His body. In your presence, Christ is present with people. He listens to them, loves them, calls and cheers them, through you. Never feel that your being there for them is insignificant. The Lord Himself is pleased to bring them His good word on your lips.

Is someone oppressed in spirit, weighed down? Let them hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “I will refresh you.” Is someone pressed by affliction, tormented by some thorn in the flesh, crying out to be free from it? Let them hear the Lord, saying what He said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Perhaps they too will find a way, like Paul, to glory in their infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon them.

Is someone anxious, quiveringly afraid? Let them hear God saying to them what He most delights to say, what He says more often in the Bible than anything else: “Fear not.” “Fear not, for I am with you. . . . Be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

I have some favorite passages that I like to share with people in their times of crisis and distress. Several are in the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Listen:

The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. . . . In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. . . . If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also with him freely give us all things? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? I am sure that neither death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What supremely good words those are! How alive they are with joy-producing power!

The good word is ultimately what we call the good news, the gospel. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” “Christ died for our sins.” He “rose for our justification.” Again, “If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. . . . God commends his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” What good words in the gospel!

Again and again, I have seen those words and others like them lift people up. God promises to turn our mourning into dancing. He does. He promises to take our burdens and give us a song, and He does. He promises to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds, and many will testify that He has done just that for them. There is no sin He cannot forgive, no suffering He cannot heal, no fear He cannot banish. And at the end, He will wipe away all our tears.

It’s true, friends, that anxiety in a man’s heart, in a woman’s heart, weighs a person down. And it may seem to us sometimes that, as I read this morning, “there is no inner peace, only nervousness and death.” But don’t you believe it. There is hope for the most despondent, the most weighed down right now. A good word, a gospel word, has power to make the saddest of hearts genuinely, triumphantly glad. Alleluia.

PRAYER: Father, for the good word of the gospel that has lifted us up and given us a song, we give You praise and thanks. Help us so to trust in Christ, so to walk in the Spirit, so to listen to people and love them, that we may be able to speak in Your name the good word that will make them glad. In Jesus’ name. Amen.