Dale Johnson: This week I am thrilled to have with us Dr. Jim Newheiser who is Professor of Biblical Counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s also the Director of their Christian counseling programs there in Charlotte as well. He’s married to his wife Caroline. Jim is a long time ACBC certified member. He’s a fellow and he also serves on our board. I’m so grateful to be working on a consistent basis with Dr. Newheiser and for the wisdom that he brings and the way in which he is a wonderful sounding board to me on so many issues. I just really appreciate his wisdom. He really needs no introduction to our audience at ACBC. He’s been a teacher among us for quite some time.
Jim, recently you did a breakout session at one of our Annual Conferences on this topic, wise speech from Proverbs, the beauty of words and the way in which God, by revelation, has given us words and language and communication and how we are to utilize those words. One of the things you talk about is the beauty of a theology of words. Help our listeners to understand what you mean by a theology of words.
Jim Newheiser: Many years ago, Paul Tripp wrote a book called War of Words and I was really impressed by the fact that he begins in terms of the fact that the Bible begins with God speaking. He speaks the world and everything in it into being. The next voice you hear is a really bad voice and that is the serpent who is denying God. He talks about how everything that is said after that, by anyone, including us, is either representing God’s speech or the serpent’s speech. It provides such a more rich view of speech than just the common grace wisdom so many people in the world may think about. I mean, everybody thinks, hey, gossip’s a bad idea. Lying isn’t good. We don’t want to hurt people with our speech, and not that we practice that, but there’s general agreement that those are good things. My talk is from Proverbs. Proverbs has all these statements of wisdom that, in some ways, sound similar to Egyptian or Babylonian wisdom, yet Proverbs begins in the fear of the Lord and covenant relationship with the Lord. So it’s not merely tricks to speak well, but it’s actually, in relationship to God, speaking His Word, His words to others. Then as you already said, God has revealed Himself to us in words and knowing Him would be impossible without those words.
Dale Johnson: That’s a really interesting way to describe that and I love it because what you’re doing, instead of taking words that we sort of flippantly utilize or, you talked about the issue of Gossip, for example, we sort of look at that in 2D as something that’s been splattered across the page and we sort of give it value or yeah, we probably shouldn’t do that. It’s a moral impropriety. What you’re describing is that God’s revelation, our idea of words, it adds depth to it when we understand that this is placed within an understanding of who God is and how we speak. What we speak is revealing. It says something about us. Are we saying things consistent with God or are we not? Now this matters because words are a part of what we do in counseling, not just our words to the counselee but even the words that the counselee gives to us, and they tell us something about the counselee. So what are some of the things that you learn about the counselee when you hear them speak?
Jim Newheiser: Yes, like you said, counseling is words. We’re talking, we’re listening, and we’re using the Word of God. Jesus, in Luke 6, says it’s out of the heart that the mouth speaks. So, if you want to learn how to help the counselee, you have to listen. Often times, even when people try to put on masks and hide their real thoughts and intentions—there’s an expression I have. Especially like with an abuser, if you just let him keep talking, he will hang himself with his words. As people keep going, you often will find out why they did what they did or what they believe that is behind what they did wrong, their bad theology, their wrong view of God, their wrong view of what they expect from God, or how God treats them, or that God is not a loving father. So listening is so important. We often use Proverbs 18:13 that says it’s a folly and a shame to speak before you’ve heard. It’s especially true in counseling. Then, as you said, we also then use God’s Word to help people.
Dale Johnson: And where there are many words, there’s much sinning, the Scripture says. We’ve got to be cautious about the way in which we speak, but it is helpful, as a counselor, when you’re asking questions and you hear people talk. You get a sense of how they’re seeing life, how they understand life in relation to God or not. You get a sense of how they’re interpreting what’s going on around them—maybe justification, why they’re doing the things that they’re doing. It’s revealing about them. Listen, I wish this weren’t true, but our words are often harmful. Sometimes the way that I speak, sometimes the way maybe that you speak, it can be harmful to people. The Scripture even warns us about the volatility of our tongue and the dangers of it. So Jim, I want you to talk for just a second about how it is that we as people harm each other with our words.
Jim Newheiser: A verse I love is James 1:19, which tells us we should be quick to listen and slow to speak and slow to anger. I even know for myself in recent days, I’ve had situations that were really difficult for me and I wanted to speak and tell people exactly where they were wrong. There might have been some accuracy to what I said, but there would have been transgression mixed. Just slowing down—and this is the thing I think where social media is especially insidious in that what I would say to someone I disagree with, if they were in the room and I’m looking at him, would be very different than sitting alone and typing on my phone screen the first thing that comes to my mind. So I think, you know, our hearts are revealed by our failed words and that’s why we need to be so guarded in our speech, because there will be things that come out of me that feel perfectly just or right that may not, as you say, speak the truth in love. Sometimes something may sound true and yet it’s not edifying. I may think this person is awful in a certain way, but that’s not necessarily going to build them up to throw it at them.
Dale Johson: You know, at the same time, what’s amazing to me is, yes, we speak and sometimes flippantly and we’re very harmful in the language that we speak, and sometimes that’s unintended, but it’s harmful nonetheless. I think that’s obvious based on us as being sinners. I think the more brilliant thing is, how is it that God allows us, by our words, to do something that is encouraging, to do something that’s edifying, to do something that builds another person up? What a stewardship. What a responsibility that God has given us. So what are some of the ways that we can think about building others up with our words?
Jim Newheiser: There are all kinds of categories in Proverbs in terms of sweet speech, encouragement, and affirmation, but I would go back to the fact that, because our words are flawed, the more we can use the actual Word of God with people—and that’s what we do in counseling. That’s why we’re biblical counselors. It’s very hard for me to construct a paragraph, a book, a sentence without there being something wrong with it. If I am focused on the Word of God, I’m reading it, my counselee is reading it—these are perfect words.
It’s been sad to me, sometimes, seeing even people who would call themselves biblical counselors saying, well, you don’t want to get out your Bible too fast. You don’t want to push the Bible on people too much. Well, what better do you have to say than that? We need to listen, but our goal is to deliver the perfect words of the Bible, which give encouragement and admonishment and hope and comfort. The best possible words to help in every possible situation are found in the Scriptures. You have, the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. Then on you go. So that’s our privilege. That’s why we want to be biblical counselors, because even common grace wisdom that may not be awful is nothing compared to the perfect wisdom of the Word of God, which is life-transforming. So the best way we can build people up is to not even just say Scriptural things, which is good, but what is best is to bring the Word of God to people.
Dale Johnson: What wise words, Jim. I hope that we can take those things to heart. We have a stewardship. We can tear down, as the Bible says, or we can build up and that really is the intention. Now, I want to go back to something that I think you gave some wise context for, and even really in terms of warning. You talked about social media. It has changed the way that we think. I mean, it has changed the way that we talk. It changes the way that we address one another. Talk a little bit about how, in the world, social media really impacts our speech in the way that we talk.
Jim Newheiser: One thing that I think about, even in terms of social media, is where there’s a Proverb that talks about how the words of a gossiper are like dainty morsels. Sometimes I think we can be attracted to social media or following people who will give us these dainty morsels that may actually cause bad indigestion or worse. We can be influenced. There’s language in the Proverbs about how if you’re with someone with angry speech, you may be tempted to imitate them. So it’s not just what we say, but to whom we listen. Sometimes, because of our sinfulness, we like especially when people who are in our tribe are shooting arrows at some other tribe we don’t like as much, even if they do so in an unkind way or twist the truth. As long as they’re landing blows for our side, we can read that, like it—whatever way you do it in your social media. Then, back to the slow to speech part, there’s so many things that just aren’t my calling to address on social media. I mean, I’m old enough where, before social media, even on email I would find that somebody would send you an e-mail you didn’t like and in five minutes I can tell him exactly why he was wrong and what I think of him. I should never do that. Do not press send. That’s the slow to speech part. We have to be just careful with our speech, using Ephesians 4:29 as a filter. Let nothing unwholesome come out of your mouth, but only what is good for building up, appropriate for the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear. That filter would reduce the number of our words, as well as the content would be changed.
Dale Johnson: What’s important about this, I think, is that this changes the value of our words, right? Now the way in which we speak, it raises the stakes in what we’re doing. I mean, even what you talked about on social media, much of that is speaking for ourselves. We’re speaking to defend ourselves, promote ourselves, build our self up, but the kind of words that you’re talking about—the beautiful theology of words when we think biblically and wisely from the Proverbs about speech—now this is a stewardship. It’s a way in which we raise the value of the words that come out of our mouth in a way that’s consistent with what God intended, which is to edify, to grow, to build others up. That speech that’s selfless, that speech that’s focused on the good of another, it radically transforms the way that we talk and the value of it. Now, we want to talk about that transition because the gospel—as much as we struggle and words are difficult and sometimes we use words harmfully to defend ourselves—the gospel changes not just a little piece of us. It changes everything about us. Praise be to God that the gospel changes us in such a way that it enables us to change the way that we talk. So I want you to give some expression to that. What are we talking about there? How does the gospel change or enable us to speak better?
Jim Newheiser: Well, as you know, the Scripture says that when we become believers, we become a new creation. So we who were speaking on behalf of the evil one all the time are now given the ability to speak in an edifying way in the image of God. When I was studying James years ago, in chapter 3, he’s bemoaning how the tongue destroys and he talks about how we’ve tamed all these animals, but we can’t tame the tongue. It’s interesting, there’s a fairly obscure Greek word that’s not used that often, but it comes up in one of Jesus miracles when you had an untamable demoniac and shackles and everything else couldn’t hold him. That’s an illustration of our tongues where, I mean, we say, I can’t believe I said that. I can’t stop myself. For some people, lying is their native language. Well what can happen? Well at the end of the passage, when this man encountered Jesus, the untamable man became a man who was in his right mind, which also terrified the people more than his craziness did. But it’s an encounter with Jesus which can take us from being out of control in our speech to enable us to be in our right mind, to go from speaking for our own kingdom, or the kingdom of this world, and to speak for the kingdom of God. It’s only His transforming power that can do that. So I think the dilemma that James bemoans is really solved as we’re united with Him, given a new birth, as James talks about in Chapter 1, and given a new nature, which enables us beautifully to fulfill the purpose for which God created us, which is to glorify Him with our speech.
Dale Johnson: I don’t know about you as a listener, but when I hear what Dr. Newheiser is describing, it’s a wave of just comfort and hope that God has given us through the gospel to change what we know often is so difficult about ourselves, and he’s giving us a new person, a new heart. He’s made us a new creation where we can think and speak differently for the good of others.
Now, I want to definitely talk about this topic, but you’ve got another resource that has contributed in this particular area of wise words or wise speech. In fact, this lady needs no introduction to our crowd at ACBC. Miss Caroline Newheiser, your wife, has recently written a book, I think co-authored a book, called When Words Matter Most and she talks about this subject I think quite a bit. So introduce us to that book, Jim.
Jim Newheiser: First of all, the wisest person I’ve ever known with speech is my wife. She humbles me with how gracious, affirming, and yet now she’s also learned to admonish me. She’s the best Galatians 6:1 person I’ve ever known for gently encouraging me when I’m wrong. She and our dear friend Cheryl Marshall wrote together this book. It’s mainly for women, but men can profit as well by just applying principles of Scripture to help others with their words, even in terms for those who are fearful or worried or suffering or falling into sin. It has been said for many years in our movement, everybody’s a counselor, it’s just whether you’re any good or not. It’s encouraging women, especially, to use their words biblically to build each other up as they have Titus 2 kinds of conversations with one another.
So yes, thank you. They’ve done a great job and I’m very proud of her, and I think it will help many to use their words well.
War of Words by Paul Tripp
When Words Matter Most by Caroline Newheiser and Cheryl Marshall