Integrity is as much what we say as what we do.
We have tried, in our culture, to separate what we say from what we do. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a phrase I heard periodically growing up. But the fact is, we are what we say. Our words, in fact, are often predictors of our actions and are certainly revealers of our hearts.
Proverbs 19:1 NRSV
Better the poor walking in integrity
than one perverse of speech who is a fool.
This proverb compares two people, one who “walks in integrity” without wealth and one who is “perverse in speech” and a fool. The inference, of course, is that the one who is perverse in speech has more material wealth than the other. The writer tells us that it’s better to be poor and have integrity than to be wealthy and a fool. And what makes a fool? Someone whose speech is perverse.
To be perverse means to turn away from what’s good and right. Think about that. Are our words good? Do they glorify the Lord? Or are they hurtful… or mean… or simply degrading? What are perverse words anyway?
When I was a teenager, a friend gave me a sign for my room. It was a not-so-gentle reminder that I often spoke before I thought. It said: “Please engage brain before putting mouth into gear.” The fact is, we are so afraid of silence that we often speak without thinking about the consequences of what we say. We want to be right and think that overpowering others with our quantity of words will make us so.
James 1:19 NRSV admonishes us: You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak. Be quick to listen. Be slow to speak. But the fact is, we are very quick to speak and very slow to listen. And how often that our quickness of speak make our words perverse? In fact, if perversion is the opposite of what is right and good and if God commands us to be slow to speak, then more often than not, our words are perverse simply because they are against God’s command for us to stop speaking and listen instead.
Would our speaking change the course of human history? Often, no. Would it even change the mind of the person who is forced to listen to us? Again, probably no. Our integrity comes from obedience to God’s Word and God tells us that we need to learn to consider the other person by listening to them, rather than demanding that they listen to us.