It had happened again. To get a laugh, I told an entertaining story — at someone else’s expense. I was standing with a few close friends at a woman’s retreat. And just as I blurted the punch line, I turned and saw the subject of my tale walking by. She offered a wry smile, showing me she’d overheard.
Ugh. I was ashamed. This was the third time in a matter of weeks that this had happened. I knew my behavior was more befitting of a high school student than a grown woman. So why, at my age and spiritual maturity, did I have such a difficult time keeping my tongue in check?
Bless Her Heart
I heard a comedy routine once, in which the comedian pointed out that when we say, “Bless her heart,” we really mean “What an idiot.” The crowd laughed knowingly.
The comedian made a good point. As Christians, we can get pretty good at disguising sinful speech. We use terms like “venting” and “safe space” to justify complaining and slander. We mask gossip as “prayer requests” or justify cussing and course joking as “being real” or embracing “freedom in Christ.”
But when we examine these behaviors with a truthful eye, we’ll see that what we’re really doing is letting the sludge in our hearts — pride, bitterness, envy — ooze out in a more acceptable form. The words may be prettier, but the substance is just as toxic.
What Words Can Do
The Bible has a lot to say about words. Perhaps this is because Jesus Christ is the Word. In the first verse of John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
God created us to be people of language and communication — people of the word. He chose for His truth to come through the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, and the written Word, the Scriptures. Words are among our greatest tools in proclaiming the story of redemption. Entire cultures and civilizations have been transformed through words.
Consider the power of words as expressed in Proverbs:
“An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (12:25)
“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply — and how good is a timely word!” (15:23)
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” (25:11)
Words used well wield great power to communicate truth, expose the heart of a matter and change lives. Like me, you may still remember something someone said to you long ago that has altered the course of your life of profoundly shaped who you are.
Just two years ago, a shuttle driver uttered words that changed my perception of how God viewed me. This man, whom I barely knew, prayed: “You, Lord, have set her aside for a purpose. She is a vessel of honor.” To say it was an aptly spoken word would be an understatement. Those words changed my life and inspired me to press on.
Perhaps it is because of what words can do, that the Bible offers such direct instructions on how Christ-followers should talk. Ephesians offers the most comprehensive advice on how to use our words:
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. (4:29)
Talk that doesn’t make the cut? Gossip, slander, quarreling, complaining, filthy language, obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking (2 Corinthians 12:20, Ephesians 5:4, Philippians 2:14). I have been guilty of all of those.
The well-known passage in James warns us of the dangers of letting our words run wild:
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man 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 men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? (3:7-11)
And that is what is at stake. When I let the sludge ooze out of my mouth, I severely hinder the work of Christ in my speech.
Taming the Tongue
So how can a loose-tongued woman like me reclaim her speech for Christ? One strategy is the classic “think before you speak.” Proverbs 10:19 makes a practical observation: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”
Maybe you are a person who likes to “speak his piece” or “put in her two cents.” This is not always a beneficial practice. I have a friend who, when he is confronted with an idea he dislikes or one that raises his ire, will say, “Let me think about that, and we can discuss it later.” I admire his discipline in not blurting out an emotion-driven opinion but rather measuring his words and considering how they may affect others.
I’m going to go off on a slight tangent here for a moment and talk about online forms of communication, such as blogging and social networking. For some reason, it seems as if the biblical ban on “unwholesome talk” flies out the window when it comes to communicating on the Web.
A person may feel emboldened to say something nasty that they would never utter were they standing face to face with the person they are tearing to shreds.
Blogger Carolyn McCulley says:
Christian blogging is often characterized by gracelessness. As we write we should not be above the commands of Proverbs 31 to open our mouths with kindness and love, instruction and the law of wisdom on our tongues.
Whether you are engaging in face-to-face conversation or online dialogue, the same rules apply. Quarreling, complaining and slander have no place. Christians are still under the command to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
One of the most stunning Scriptures having to do with words is found in Luke:
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (6:45)
This is a humbling truth. What comes out of my mouth is direct evidence of what is going on in my heart. When I notice my words getting the best of me, I must consider the health of my relationship with Jesus. Am I allowing Him to root out ungodly attitudes of bitterness, pride and cruelty and replace them with wisdom, humility and kindness? If not, my words will surely show it.
I have noticed that believers who consistently offer words of wisdom, kindness, encouragement and love are those who feast on the Word of God and receive daily nourishment from their relationship with Him. Their speech is simply an overflow of the good things in their hearts. Their mouths, like their lives, imitate Jesus Christ.
And, like Proverbs says, their words are “a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (16:24). May my words be as sweet.
Copyright 2010 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.