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January 18, 2023

A Good Word Goes a Long Way

In the first blog post of the Bible Psychiatrist we started discussing the vital importance of speech and referenced Proverbs 18:21 which mentions that “the tongue” contains the power of life and death. Proverbs has at over 70 references to “words”, “speech”, and “the tongue” so we will have plenty of opportunities to delve into all aspects of this important aspect of human behavior. In today’s post I would like to explore the aspect of the tongue which supports life. In future posts we’ll address other aspects of speech such as “rebuke” an interesting and common theme In Proverbs as well as the adverse impact of improper, destructive speech.

But lets start with supportive, life affirming speech. When people seek out a psychiatrist or any mental health provider, they are usually hurting in some way and are looking for relief, comfort, guidance, insight, knowledge—in a word: they seek support and they expect that much of this support will come in the form of a verbal response. Even those seeking medication will initially want information and guidance about the best medication options and also hope and expect that this information will be transmitted to them in a therapeutic fashion. In short, mental health professionals, including psychiatrists need to be “therapeutic” in their speech.

When I started reading Proverbs on a daily basis over 20 years ago, I had no plans to write a book or blog on Bible Psychiatry. This changed when I came upon a short but powerful phrase from Proverbs which addresses one of the most common reasons people seek mental health care: anxiety. Besides depression, anxiety is pervasive worldwide but particularly high in Western societies. Here is the passage (Proverbs 12:25) that jumped out at me and inspired me to start becoming a “Bible Psychiatrist”:

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down,
But a good word makes it glad”.

There several key points which I think make this a particularly interesting and important passage:
The heart being “weighed down” seems to refer to the “emotional heart”—chronic anxiety is very stressful: it prevents us from doing things we want to do or going to places we want to go. Eventually this becomes emotionally exhausting and often leads to depression especially, when no relief is in sight. Given the potential seriousness of this condition, it is remarkable that “a good word” can bring not only relief but actually “makes the heart glad”. What words to say and how to say them is the stuff of training in psychotherapy but many non-mental health professionals have an intuitive gift for lifting up others by their speech. Somehow, we need to convey empathy or understanding of the distress the person is experiencing while also conveying a “remedy”, if only temporary, in the form of words.

Proverbs also recognizes that anxiety has physiological correlates; it’s not just a mental symptom but also “weighs down” the heart. Anxiety and worry are often associated with shortness of breath or a sense of racing heart or “palpitations” as if the heart is skipping a beat or is “pounding”. Sometimes there is chest pain which must be differentiated from cardiac problems and in fact when anxiety increases to a “panic” level, the individual may fear that they are going to have a heart attack and often go to an emergency room for help. When this happens, in the vast majority of cases, a cardiac origin or other specific medical condition is ruled out and this in itself reduces further tendencies to panic. But even if a treatable condition (other than panic disorder) such as cardiac or respiratory illness is found this also can be reassuring because now we know that the cause was not just “in our head”. Well, it turns out even if the only diagnosis is panic or anxiety disorder, this is also not just psychological: there is also “physiology” of anxious states and this can be successfully addressed in various ways we can explore later.

Most people reading Proverbs 12.25 understand that the reference to “a word” does not mean just one word, rather a series of empathic, supportive and often informative statements. But “a word” also suggests that many words or long counseling sessions may not be necessary in order to provide some relief, at least temporarily. This brings in another element of verbal interchange, namely listening as well as the art of “not speaking”, the value of remaining silent. The Bible makes over 350 references to listening and silence and Proverbs has about 20. I guess it’s a bit ironic to point out that the Bible has a lot to say about not talking!

I hope you look forward as I do, to learn more about the art of listening, speaking and remaining silent as you study on your own and follow this blog page. Meanwhile, as we close out today’s blog, I’d like to leave you to ponder another favorite verse of mine from Proverbs. In addition to thinking about how it may apply our observations of others, consider how we might apply it to ourselves as we are about to speak In today’s post I would like to explore the aspect of the tongue which supports life. Consider whether remaining silent, at least initially may end up being the better option. And keep in mind that one important goal of our journey of study and reflection is to grow in wisdom:

“Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise” (Proverbs 17:28).


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