James 1:26 says, ‘If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.’
According to Prov 18:21, ‘The tongue has the power of life and death.’ It was said in time of war that ‘careless talk costs lives’.
In a courtroom situation, the spoken verdict of the judge can spell the difference between conviction or acquittal, punishment or freedom, sometimes even death or life.
And spiritual life and death depend in large measure on the words of those who week to witness to Christ. Paul, in Rom 10:14, asks, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’
You say what you feel, Lk 6:45; cf. Mt 15:11
Satan wants to use your tongue, Jas 3:2-8.
No wonder, then, that James 3:2-8 declares: ‘ We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 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.’
1. In what ways do we misuse our tongues?
Firstly, by untruthful speech. This is a offence against the 9th commandment (‘You shall not bear false witness’). You lie – to save yourself by deceiving others. But ‘God is not mocked’, Gal 6:7. You exaggerate – to boost your pride. But Jesus is listening, Mt 28:20. You slander – to hurt your enemies. But we are commanded to love our enemies, Mt 5:44.
It is abhorrent to God. The Holy Spirit is identified as ‘the Spirit of Truth’. Satan, on the other hand, is ‘the Father of Lies’. Prov 12:22 says, ‘ The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.’
It is damaging to others. It has been said that ‘no physician can heal the wounds of the tongue’. We damage others by our gossiping, meddling, rumour-mongering, and unfair criticism. Children will attempt to put on a brave face, and say, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ But the truth is far otherwise: ‘stick and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart.’
It is harmful to ourselves. According to Prov 12:13, ‘An evil man is trapped by his sinful talk, but a righteous man escapes trouble.’ From the woman who ‘adjusts’ her age, to the businessman who says to his secretary, “Say that I’m not in”, we are in danger of building up such a tissue of lies that we lose our integrity, our self-respect, any semblance of good conscience.
Secondly, by abusive speech. Our Lord says, in Mt 5:22, ‘I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ This link abusive speech with a murderous attitude. Such speech becomes a weapon, a verbal knife, with which we attack others.
Thirdly, by unwholesome speech. Paul writes, in Eph 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.’ Such ‘unwholesome talk’ is putrid, rotten, corrupt. And the apostle warns, in Eph 5:4, against ‘obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place.’
2. What is the right use of the tongue?
Briefly, we may draw attention to speech which is,
Truthful, not deceitful. Eph 4:15 – ‘speaking the truth in love.’ 9th commandment. Untruthfulness is (a) abhorrent to God, Prov 12:22: the Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’; Satan is ‘the Father of lies’. It is (b) damaging to others: ‘no physician can heal the wounds of the tongue. Damage done by gossiping, meddling, rumours, criticism. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can (what?) – break my heart.’ Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies’. Cf. Prov 15:4. It is (c) harmful to ourselves, Prov 12:13; 25:23. It is possible to build up such a tissue of lies that our whole lives become guilt-ridden pretences. See Eph 4:15; Col 3:9.
Loving, not hurtful. Mt 5:22 – linked with murder. A ‘verbal knife’, use in anger or sarcasm. Abuse of the disadvantaged. Gossip, Lev 19:16; Prov 18:8. Cf Mt 12:36. See Psa 57:4; Prov 15:1; Jer 9:8; Jas 3:6.
Responsible, not careless. 1 Pet 4:11 – ‘If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.’
Wholesome, not foul. Eph 4:29; 5:5 – putrid, rotten, corrupt. Influence of the mass media. See also Col 3:8.
Useful, not idle, bearing in mind our Lord’s solemn declaration that ‘men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken,’ (Mt 12:36).
3. How may we construct a reign for the tongue?
Get a right heart. This is basic to everything else. Lk 6:45 – ‘for out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.’
Be vigilant. The Psalmist’s prayer in Psa 141:3 is, ‘Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.’ Such sentries could test what we are about to say: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it loving?
Pray. Whenever we are about to open our mouths to speak, we might offer the prayer of Psa 19:14 – ‘May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.’