Words have a profound impact on our lives, and also a power in and of themselves. Consider that in the beginning (if we look back at the book of Genesis in the Bible), God literally spoke things into existence. God said, “Let there be light” or “Let there be an expanse between the waters”, and it would actually come to pass. This is an enormous power to possess, and of course God used it wisely. But what about you and I?
The Bible also tells us that the tongue is untamable by our own accord. In other words, we cannot conquer it on our own. Have you ever tried to go an entire week without engaging in gossip of any kind at work? Or try to go a month without inadvertently annoying your spouse by saying the wrong thing. If you cannot do either one of these things, then don’t feel bad – neither can I!
So, to frame the problem thus far, I think it is safe to say that we have something within us that has its own power, is disproportionately influential, and is untamable on our own. This is a true problem, and one that I think is self-evident. We can perceive this by simply looking around and listening to some of the things that people say to each other in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the office, or even in our own homes.
Indeed the Bible says that the tongue also “makes great boasts”. In other words, it often writes checks that our body can’t cash. It gets us into more trouble than we would like to admit, and it often allows us to admit only that which gets us into trouble publically. Think how much more we run our mouths in private, never getting caught!
In a famous piece of Scripture from the New Testament (James 3:6), it is said that the tongue can often corrupt the whole of a person. And earlier in Matthew 15:11, we are told that “what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” What is coming out of your mouth? What is coming out of mine? How does the church communicate with the outside world, and with each other? Are we sometimes starting more trouble than not?
Trying to get a handle on mastering what we say matters quite a bit. It doesn’t have to be a hopeless endeavor. Society may often claim that we should just do the best we can, and if people get offended, then that is their problem. This is what our culture often says I think. The loudest talker gets the most attention. But I think it goes deeper than this. James also writes this in verse 9 of his letter to the church (and this is the real clincher): “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?”
So, here is what we are given to ponder. We cannot be a spring yielding both fresh and salt water at the same time, it isn’t possible. And when we really stop to think about it, that duality doesn’t make sense. We must choose to act (and speak) either for God or against Him.
There is a story I heard once about a man who visited a pastor and asked for forgiveness after speaking harshly to his wife. The pastor offered him solace, as well as an option to repent from what he had done. There was only one catch. The man was instructed to walk out into the town square and cut a small hole on the end of a feather pillow. As he did this, he watched as the small feathers spread out all over the town – carried one way or the other by the wind. He thought little of it, and went home and apologized to his wife, thinking the whole thing a bit odd.
The next day he visited with the pastor again and told him what he had done. The pastor smiled, and then said all that remained for him to do was walk around town and retrieve each one of those small feathers, hence acting as a symbolic way to retract each of his negative words. The man immediately knew the preacher’s meaning. It would be impossible to track each one down and then put them back into the pillow. Once those words were out into the public sphere, they were out for good! Forgiveness was offered, repentance was accomplished, but the damage had already been done.
So if we are imperfect beings (and surely we are), and if we cannot hope to master our tongue on our own (and the Bible says we cannot), then what is the solution? How do we keep our own feather pillow from tearing open and spreading all over town? How do we manage to stop hurting the ones we love with the things we say?
The answer is to bring our entire being into line, by working on controlling the mouth first. Because you see, when we act to govern the things we say with God’s help (when we are slow to speak) … it is a mark of spiritual maturity. We become walking and talking testimonies to a good and Holy God; and people around us will notice. I once heard it described that you and I may be the only Bible that some people read. In other words, their only interaction with God’s Word may come through watching what we do and what we say in public. How about that for some pressure?
The only way to become a spring that produces fresh water on a consistent basis, is to submit to the renewal of the heart that only Jesus can provide. Because if Jesus saves us, then He saves us completely – our speech included.
Now don’t mistake me here, this doesn’t mean that we will never screw up again, or that we never say the wrong thing at the wrong time. But it means as we grow in the spiritual grace that God has given us, the cruelty of our language begins to lessen. We begin to crave gossip less and less. We begin to favor the Word of God, instead of everyone else’s words.
We become, in effect, bearers of light in a sometimes dark and dreary world. As sure as a spark can ignite a forest fire, so can words motivated by love, ignite the spirit.
So what does a renewed and redeemed voice sound like? What does this “fresh water” look like? When considering what to say, think about these things. Are your words timely? Do they come at the right time, when someone needs them? Are they Spirit driven? Were you listening to the prompts of God when you said them, or were you listening to your own will to fight back or get even?
How about encouraging and loving? Do your words uplift people? If you see a church leader do you help to build them up verbally, or do you remind them of the few small errors they may have spoken during the sermon last weekend?
The apostle Paul says that if we have not love, then we are merely banging gongs and crashing symbols. The world has plenty of crashing symbols, be a bearer of light instead. Choose your words wisely.
Finally, the Biblical account of James also says this, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” When we listen well we are emulating Jesus. Jesus saw clear through to a person’s heart the minute he met them. Though we may not always be able to do the same thing, at least by listening more than we talk, we are demonstrating the same type of spiritual maturity and humility. We are actively working to preserve our own feather pillow.
Be slow to speak, quick to listen. And sometimes, honestly, maybe things are simply better left unsaid. I pray that this holds true for everyone reading this article, and that we operate from a renewed heart and a fresh water spring. Not a judgmental nature or a proud heart. Always easier to keep a feather pillow intact, than to drive around town gathering up feathers I suspect.