The title of this blog came to my mind as I was reading the Bible in my devotions this morning. It is an expression that was common in those long ago days of my youth. This expression is actually defined in the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus thus: “Keep a civil tongue in your head (Old-fashioned) – used to tell someone to stop being rude.” (In this usage, “civil” meant respectful, deferential, gracious.)
Note the similarity of this expression to the Biblical expressions recorded in Proverbs 15:1:
- A soft (civil=respectful, deferential, gracious) answer turns away wrath,
- But a harsh word stirs up anger.
It was an example of a soft answer turning away wrath in my morning Bible reading that started this whole blog. I was reading the story of Gideon being used by God to defeat the Midianites. After the first miraculous victory, Gideon wanted help from his Israelite brethren from the tribe of Ephraim to help him mop up the fleeing enemy. Judges 7:24-8:3, “Then Gideon sent messengers throughout all the mountains of Ephraim, saying, ‘Come down against the Midianites, and seize from them the watering places as far as Beth Barah and the Jordan.’ Then all the men of Ephraim gathered together and seized the watering places as far as Beth Barah and the Jordan. And they captured two princes of the Midianites, Oreb and Zeeb. They killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb they killed at the winepress of Zeeb. They pursued Midian and brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon on the other side of the Jordan. Now the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘Why have you done this to us by not calling us when you went to fight with the Midianites?’ And they reprimanded him sharply. So he said to them, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer (the area in Manasseh where Gideon lived)? God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb. And what was I able to do in comparison with you?’ Then their anger toward him subsided when he said that.” (Gideon’s soft answer underlined above)
Later in the history of Israel a similar complaint came up which was not mitigated by a soft answer. The scene was after the death of Absolam when David was starting back to Jerusalem. The northern tribes complained that the tribe of Judah, being closer to the battleground, was first on the scene to welcome the King back instead of waiting for them. 1 Samuel 19:43b-20:2 gives the outcome, “Yet the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel. And there happened to be there a rebel, whose name was Sheba the son of Bichri, a Benjamite. And he blew a trumpet, and said: ‘We have no share in David, nor do we have inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel. So every man of Israel deserted David, and followed Sheba the son of Bichri. But the men of Judah, from the Jordan as far as Jerusalem, remained loyal to their king.”
The failure of the leaders of Judah to give a soft answer, giving instead an answer fiercer than the complainers, was a disaster. Though the breach was mended, it cost many lives in the process.
After years of rancor, malice and hatred in the public arena I thought the USA had reached the zenith of wrath and injustice. The events so far in 2017 have proved me wrong. It looks like we “ain’t seen nothing yet!” To watch dialogs on TV is to believe that no amount of soft answers will turn away wrath in the realm of the movers and shakers of our country. But I think it will still work in the common people in the secular world.
But it surely ought to work amongst Christians. During my sixty-eight years of being a serious Christian I have found it to be so over and over. Even when soft answers didn’t eliminate disagreements, they almost always resulted in people being agreeable about their disagreements.
Let’s examine Gideon’s soft answer which turned away the wrath of the Ephraimites to see what we can learn. Here is the underlined portion previously quoted from chapters 7 and 8 of Judges, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer (the area in Manasseh where Gideon lived)? God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb, and Zeeb. And what was I able to do in comparison with you?
Note that Gideon began his reply with a question (a practice which I have employed for many, many years). A question interrupts the attack by requiring some dialog from the attacker, or can even begin the conciliation process as in this case:
- The Ephraimites’ pride had been offended and they were furious.
- Gideon’s question, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you?” immediately addressed their complaint by implying that their accomplishments were greater than his.
- He then engaged in self-depreciation by citing Ephraim’s historically greater reputation than Manasseh’s.
- He then gave specific evidence. He and his tribe had only started the battle with Midian, but the Ephraimites had closed off the escape route of the Midianites and had captured and killed its two princes, Oreb and Zeeb.
- With four short sentences, Gideon’s soft answer defused the situation.
Let’s do a few “for instances” to show how we can defuse a hostile situation: Suppose that a loved one or close friend’s behavior, verbal or otherwise, indicates that we have distressed him or her. We might say:
- “I sense that I have done something to upset you. I certainly didn’t want to do that. Will you please tell me what I can do to remedy your distress?” Or;
- “Honey, why are you angry? Have I offended you somehow? If so, I am so sorry. Please tell me about it.” Or;
- “I apologize for upsetting you, it was really thoughtless of me. Please let me start over.”
Our considerate approach should pave the way for a calm solution to the problem.
The reverse is true also, Proverbs 15:1b, “But a harsh word stirs up anger.” Or put another way, “A soft expression of distress will prevent a serious and unnecessary conflict.” Inherent in this Russ Peters proverb is:
- Discuss this distress when it first appears so it doesn’t grow into wrath before we voice it.
- If the distress involves others (like our children) discussion should be delayed until we are alone.
- If the distress brings instant wrath we should go somewhere and tell God about it and ask Him to help us reveal our distress softly. (The old “count-to-ten” approach).
- God used this approach, per Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the LORD, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Shouldn’t we?
It is increasingly difficult to find people who habitually keep a civil tongue in their heads in the world around us, but we Christians, the very family of God, surely ought to!