Out of Hot Water

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Throughout July we’re taking an in-depth look at Proverbs, the Bible’s one-of-a-kind book about our never-ending need for wisdom.

Drop a frog into hot water and it will immediately jump out.

But drop a frog into cool water and heat it gradually, and the frog will slowly but surely boil to death.


The Frog-in-the-Kettle parable can be traced to a man with the splendidly interesting name of Edward Wheeler Scripture, who in an 1897 article in The New Psychology claimed to provide experimental evidence that frogs can be dispatched via incremental temperature increases over a period of two hours.

The only problem with the would-be scientist’s experiment is that no one else has been able to replicate it – to the immense relief of frogs the world over. 

There’s not a lot of mystery here.  As herpetologist Victor Hutchinson of the University of Oklahoma points out, any frog with two good legs will hop out of a pot of water – if only because of sheer boredom – long before two hours have come and gone.

The “science” of the frog parable may be bunk, but the truth it illustrates in sermons and leadership seminars has deep roots in reality.

Some of life’s most important changes happen slowly, and it may be a long while before we notice them.

Take despair, for instance.  Despair is a particular kind of fear – the fear that there is no hope.  Most people who struggle with hopelessness can’t point to a single, crushing moment in which they stopped believing in a better future. Hopelessness gradually overtakes us, moment by moment and loss by loss.  One day we realize that the blanket of despair has settled over everything.  And it’s hard to remember when we used to feel hope.

Cynicism is incremental, too.  So is whining.  And disengagement from the needs and interests of other people.  It gradually dawns on us that our hearts have become flat-lined.  We’ve whined so often that we’ve become whiners.  And we honestly didn’t see it happen when it happened.

The Bible distinguishes between two conditions that at first seem to be synonymous: groaning and grumbling.  Throughout Scripture, groaners groan at God – from Moses to Job to Jeremiah to many of the psalmists.  Grumbling is different.  Grumblers grumble about God – from the ungrateful children of Israel in the Sinai wilderness to would-be followers of Jesus disappointed that he refuses to conjure up more miraculous meals. 

God welcomes groaning.  It is an authentic expression of personal suffering.  But grumbling is condemned.  It is a spiritual disease that erodes human hearts.

What do grumbling, whining, cynicism, and pessimism have in common?  They are all contagious.  And they all make their presence known in the most frequently addressed subject in the book of Proverbs: speech.  Our mouths reveal the condition of our hearts, which is why Solomon and the other authors of this book so frequently urge us to exercise caution, restraint, and (when all else fails) silence.  Check out these examples:

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (17:22).  “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles” (21:23).  “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends” (16:28).

No one enters a long-term love relationship hoping that it will degenerate into grumbling:  “It is better to live in a desert than with a contentious and vexing woman.” (21:19)  But it happens, one negative comment at a time, until spouses can’t even remember when they didn’t dwell somewhere in the Relational Dark Side.  And just to be clear: There are plenty of contentious and vexing men out there, too.

The upside and downside of the words we speak are clearly contrasted in Proverbs 12:18:  “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

And that points the way back. 

Just as we can incrementally descend into debilitating habits of the heart, we can also incrementally – one comment at a time – begin to cultivate lifelong habits of healing.  Our words can provide the precious gifts of forgiveness, assurance, and encouragement: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (16:24)

To whom can you offer such a simple gift today?

It may not seem like much. 

But it will definitely begin to change the temperature.