At our Wednesday night children’s ministry there are girls who enjoy sitting together to eat and play the Telephone Game. One person whispers a sentence to the girl sitting beside her and each one does this as they pass the words around the circle. Finally, the last person says out loud what she heard. Usually there is some distortion of what was originally said. Sometimes information is lost but at other times words are added.
This game illustrates something about life. The information we receive via word of mouth is not always accurate. On any given evening we can switch between news channels to hear variety in the accounts of what some national figure said. Even professional journalists who listen to interviews or speeches hear the same words in different ways. We each bring our own filters based on our backgrounds and experiences. Despite our best intentions for accuracy we are subjective. This is an inescapable human fact.
It is extremely difficult not to read into what someone is saying. The odds are great that each of us has misquoted another person and that we have been misquoted. When relaying a conversation we should try to be as accurate and objective as possible. If someone chooses to tell us something negative that they believe another person said about us, it is best to take it with a grain of salt. Allowing a rumor to bother us, while difficult to avoid, is not beneficial. If we hear something that concerns us it is often best to go directly and privately to the source. The tendency to impugn motives of those with whom we disagree must be avoided.
Of course there are times when difficult or unpleasant words must be relayed for decision-making in our families, businesses, towns or churches. Jesus spoke hard truths with grace and love. Before repeating what we heard we should ask ourselves a few questions. Is it true? Is it necessary? It is helpful?
The Old Testament book of Proverbs offers reasonable advice about how we should speak. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” (Proverbs 15:1-2) “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4) “Understanding is a fountain of life to those who have it, but folly brings punishment to fools. A wise person’s heart guides his/her mouth, and his/her lips promote instruction. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:22-24) “A person of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a person of understanding is even-tempered.” (Proverbs 17:27)