Timeless: Wise Words with Peter Shenk

At Gateway Church in Austin, we continued our series called “Timeless.”

Things aren’t always as simple as black and white. So how do we navigate the gray? In our series Timeless, we explore wisdom in a nuanced world. Drawing inspiration from popular sayings and proverbs worldwide, each message aligns them with Biblical wisdom. Maneuvering life’s complexities, we want to bridge the gap between human insight and the guidance that God’s Word and His Spirit offers us.

“Words once spoken cannot be taken back; like an arrow released, they find their mark.” – Modern Proverb

Digging Deeper:

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Discussion Questions

Message Video:

Message Audio:

Message Notes:

At 5:29 and 45 sec am on the morning of of July 16, 1945 the definition of power forever changed. It happened as the sun had not yet risen but the skies of New Mexico blew up. Starting with the flash of yellows, then bright orange, and deep reds. The atomic fireball at a rate of 360 ft per second. What we now call the mushroom cloud developed and appeared afterwards at about a 30,000 foot level. All that was left at the blas site because of the intense heat was simply green radioactive glass. The heat had burned the sand and silica and formed it.

21 days later that same power was harnassed in a bomb they simply called “Little Boy” and flown toward Japan. It was put in an American B29 Super-Fortress Bombers and dropped on Hiroshima. And Robert Louis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay simply said, “What have we just done?” And the cockpit flew on in silence.

6 years later the sky of Arco, Idaho lit up, this time there was no mushroom cloud. This time there was no explosion that rumbled, no heat that turned the sand to glass. This time it was done in a small strand of lightbulbs. Nuclear energy, electricity, came from the exact same reactors, the exact same chemical process, the exact same uranium a little different enrichment, and today about 1/5 of our electricity comes from nuclear power.

The exact same nuclear energy and uranium can instantly devastate a city and bring death or light it up and bring life. It can bring sorrow and death to those witnessed to it. Or light to power homes and hospitals. And the same is true of the words you and I use. 

The modern proverb we are looking at is this one. “Words once spoken cannot be taken back; like an arrow released, they find their mark.” We all have heard some version of this in our culture and family of origin. Maybe you’ve passed on the analogy to your kids or others you lead- that words are like toothpaste squeezed out of the bottle, once they’re out there’s no putting them back.

With our words we can bring healing and life, or we can traumatize and destroy. We can build up, or we can tear down. Did you know we utter on average, 16,000 words a day?! If you’re a parent, double that lol. I almost named this message “The Nuclear Tongue” but so much of the impact of our words in 2024 comes from these 2 thumbs. 

We now generate a tremendous amount of data we create with our digital speech. 

  • Every minute, approximately…
    • 16 million text messages sent
    • 694,000 reels sent on IG or DM
    • 241,000,000 emails sent
    • There are 510,000 comments posted and 293,000 statuses updated
    • 456,000 tweets are sent on Twitter
    • In 2021- 16,322 videos posted on TikTok per minute

What does this show us? Our words not only impact individuals in proximity to us, but now there is no limit to the potential reach and influence of our words. 

Here is what we are saying this week as we continue talking about living out wisdom. We are wise when we consider the power of our words. And I know practically all of us are going “Yea, ok that’s basic. That’s preschool.” Yea but why is the most basic thing the hardest for us to master? Controlling our words, reactions, and comments seem to be harder than nuclear physics. Especially when we live in a day and age of global access and social media, we believe this subtle lie that everything needs reacting to and everyone should hear your opinion. 

[Cultural Antithesis]: Rather than practicing wisdom, our subtly and not so subtly Culture Says- “Give your 2 cents, no matter what it costs you!” Ponder that for a second and think of the ramifications of that kind of worldview. Essentially it’s this- No matter what bridges you burn or people you hurt, speak your truth.

And social media provides so many avenues where we can say things that we wouldn’t normally say in person. A lot of it in the name of speaking our truth, I know I’ve succumbed to it, sometimes for good and sometimes divisively. Social media promotes a duality of identity. We can be one way on the internet and another way in person. Have you ever run into someone that you had a heated argument on facebook with and that person acted like nothing ever happened? What is this doing to us?

I bet I’m not the only person in this room who’s had a facebook memory pop up from a decade ago, and cringed a little at something I posted or commented on… Likely a statement sent out to my friends, followers, and anyone else interested in hearing it…  trying to weigh in on a hot topic or cultural tension… but written without much thought as to the validity of what was being said and the impact my words could have on others. And even though I can go back and “delete the post”, the reality is my words have already done their damage to my relationships and to people’s understanding of who I am and who I am trying to become…

But back to speaking our truth. Please understand that we are not saying be silent on things of justice, righteousness, etc. You should use your voice to uplift, unite, bring dignity, and compassion. 

Oprah Winfrey- “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we have.”

  • To clarify, speaking your truth is appropriate when it really is the truth. In the case of Oprah’s quote, it was in reference to women speaking out about abuse. Yes, we must speak our truth when it sheds light on a truth that needs exposing in order to bring change, accountability, healing, etc..
  • But, there is a common understanding to “speaking your truth” that is damaging. 

This is expressive individualism:

“The notion that, being true to oneself, constantly actualizing one’s inner desires, perspectives and feelings, is the epitome of the good life.”

— Samuel D. James, Digital Liturgies

Is this not the worldview of modern Western culture? It’s why sayings like: “You do you, Boo”, “Be true to yourself” , and “Find yourself” are so commonly embraced.

See the notion of adding your adding your 2 cents to every issue is frankly cheap. And we need to use Godly wisdom to maximize the effectiveness of our words and minimize the damage.

Living by God’s wisdom acknowledges that THE TRUTH is found outside of ourselves…

It’s discovered in who God is, how he created the world to operate, and how He designed us (created in His image) to live in it! Living by God’s wisdom acknowledges that ultimate TRUTH is found in the person of Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that he would be leaving them soon, to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house (heaven). His disciple Thomas was concerned at what would happen if Jesus wasn’t physically around anymore, and so he asked: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Look at how Jesus responds:

John 14:6 (NIV) – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

You see, our individual beliefs in what is true can’t change the reality of what is true and the source of all truth. We live in a world that has confused opinion with truth! And this notion of expressing your opinion with every issue is cheap!

I love what fictional food critic, (Anton Ego picture) Anton Ego says in his epiphone at the end of the Disney Pixar film, Ratatouille: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

YES, Mr. Ego. To spout criticism is cheap and easy, sometimes entertaining, and mostly just junk.

First, we must understand that- 

Our words have power to do great good or great harm to others. 

Proverbs 18:21: The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 16:24: Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Remember the whole saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”? What idiot came up with that?! (I probably shouldn’t call them an idiot in a message about words but they’re probably long gone by now). 

What about the really damaging words that have been spoken over you? Or the loving words that you NEVER heard? The impact is so deep and so long-lasting and for some of you today I believe God wants to begin to undo some of the lies you’ve believed that have shaped your identity.

  • The body shaming you experienced in 3rd grade that creeps into your identity today
  • The “I’m so proud of you” that you never heard that fuels your need to prove yourself 

Our words are SO powerful. And James warns us of the hypocrisy of our words and the absurdity of praise and cursing coming from the same source. Do you consider how your words impact your worship? 

James 3:7-12 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Do you know why I do that? Because I know everyday as my babies step into the world the world is going to want to tear them down and define their identity with false words, half-truths, and lies. So everyday we speak who God says they are over them. 

I want them to know tho they are not just for them, but so they can speak love, life, and beauty into this world. 

It’s a significant motivation for my passion for Student ministry: A desire to help our young adults understand that while people (and the culture) are broken and flawed, they often speak their opinions over us… BUT we can find the identity and purpose and love that our souls desire in the TRUTH that’s only found in Jesus!

It’s why we are making some big changes soon, like moving our weekly Student group from Wednesday nights to Sunday evenings, 5-7pm, to make this community more accessible for not just teens, but parents as well.

Because we need other’s speaking life and the truth of who God says we are into us and over us!! It’s why we’re always encouraging you to find a group.

  • Our speech is deeply connected to what’s in our hearts. What comes out of our mouths is the byproduct of what is in our hearts. 
  • Do you consider how you talk about others, even strangers you don’t know? It doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done, they are made in God’s likeness, and therefore they have intrinsic value. 

Jesus had a lot to say about people with high religion, low value of people. He condemns the pharisees for this very reason. There words were LOFTY but their love was LOWLY.

Matthew 12:33-34- 33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

We see here that our character is measured by our words

  • Anytime I see someone cutting someone down with their words and feel the need to be condescending…I know that’s their pain talking

Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

The biggest regrets I have been the words I’ve used, misused, or never said.

Colossians 4: 5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Do you consider how your words and conduct reflect on the church? Remember, if you bear the identity of Christ follower, you are representing Christ. 

To be wise with our words requires listening first. 

Remember, what Solomon asked for was a “listening heart” 

There’s two thing that could really help you in your communication:

  1. Listen to Understand
    1. Hear what the other is saying, don’t listen in defensiveness. But rather seek to hear their concern, fear, perspective, etc.
    2. Proverbs 15:28 The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.
    3. Prov. 18:2 Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions
  2. Speak to be Known
    1. Some of us struggle with oversharing but a lot of people struggle with people pleasing and actually never share some of their deepest needs, thoughts, and emotions in a healthy way.
    2. The result of undersharing is pent up resentment of expectations that were never met because they were never expressed. Or a stuffing of emotions that come out in unhealthy ways.

James 1:19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,

To be wise with our words requires great discernment

  • There is a right time to engage and a right time to refrain.
    • Ecclesiastes 3:7b a time to be silent and a time to speak. 
  • Remember, this world is messy. We are messy. What’s right to say in one situation may not be the right thing in another.
    • Proverbs 26:4-5: 4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.
  • This is the nuance of wisdom and why it is always contextual. Sometimes, a situation will only grow worse with your input, especially if the person is not in a place where they will listen. 
  • Sometimes, a situation necessitates you speaking up- you would be a fool not to. Do you ever hesitate to speak truth because you’re concerned about how it will make you look? 

It is only through God’s help that we can tame this nuclear weapon called our tongue.

So we want to share helpful questions to ask and helpful tools that will aid in doing this better. 

Immediate Application: Helpful questions to discern when, how, and what to speak:

  • Do I actually care about the person/people my words will impact? Or, am I more interested in putting my opinion out there? 
  • Will my words bear good fruit or bad fruit in this situation? 
  • Have I truly listened to all sides before speaking up?  
  • Did I pray about it first?

I believe these very practical tools are going to really help those of you who apply it at work, with your friends, spouse, kids, etc. This is not an exhaustive list, but seriously write these down or take a picture of the screen 

10 Tips for Taming the Tongue (and the thumbs):

  • Admit you need help
  • Pray about it daily
    • Psalm 141:3-4: Set a guard over my mouth, Lord;
          keep watch over the door of my lips.
      Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil
          so that I take part in wicked deeds
      along with those who are evildoers;
          do not let me eat their delicacies.
  • Confess it and move on
    • Don’t Excuse it!- Don’t just say “oh there I go again”… ”Well they needed to hear it”…Do you want to be right or do you want to build them up in love?
    • Go apologize
      • If you’re a parent be the first to apologize, lead in humility. They know you have a problem more than anyone in the world. Blow your kids’ minds with humility. 
      • Radically impact your employees with a “Hey I messed that up, I’m sorry.”
  • Seek accountability
  • Practice Speaking Life
    • Practice speaking Encouraging words to yourself in the mirror, and try to encourage one new person a day.
    • Now listen this is not “manifestation” so don’t come at it like this. But imagine- what If the words you spoke ACTUALLY came to life? Like a pixar movie. Would there be more beauty or more destruction in your life?
  • Don’t say through media, what you wouldn’t say in person
    • And if your first reaction is – “I would say it in person!” see all the bullets before this and run it through those filters
  • If you can’t read it in front of your spouse (or significant other), don’t send it and check your heart
    • This bullet is for those that are married or wanting to be- Did you know over 50% of all divorce filings have the words Facebook, Instagram or another social media involved? Because of an emotional connection/affair that started “harmless”
    • For those who are married. This might get me in trouble but I’ll count it as good trouble- if the two of you don’t have access to each other’s accounts thats a BIG problem.
  • If you can’t read it out loud in church, don’t text/post it
    • This one’s a little harder in a place that says “come as you are” because some of yall have no filter lol. 
    • But the general principle remains- As a Christ follower do these words represent Jesus well to those around me? Or if you’re exploring faith still– would a person of good character say this?
  • Words have both a when and a where
    • People should not have 24 hour access to you. Put the phone away. 
    • Take a social media break and have boundaries around texts and calls from work, friends, and dating partners
    • Only people that have that kind of access to you should be your immediate family, and even then there should be healthy boundaries.
  • Don’t drink and drive and don’t text angry
    • Don’t do conflict via a keyboard. Go to the person

We are wise when we consider the power of our words. 

Understand you will not be able to do this alone. You need the power of the Holy Spirit to correct you, curb you when you’re about to react innnappropriately. And He will. And when you get it wrong because we all do, He will lead you to use your words to make ammends. In fact I believe the most practical thing many of us can do immediately out of this message is call or text someone and simply say “I’m Sorry”.

We are called to use our words to heal and reconcile. Because when Christ hung on the Cross and said “It is finished.” those words forever changed the destinies of those who would say yes to his offer of abundant life. And He wants to use you to spread that abundant life into a dying world.

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