Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I’m a very verbal person who tends to enter a room mouth first. So, thinking before speaking is, shall I say, an ongoing challenge for me. The Bible has so much wisdom to teach me and you about the words we speak and to be honest, in today’s digital age, these same principles must be understood to apply equally to those words we message, email, tweet, or post online.
I’ve become increasingly disheartened by the vitriol I read about and hear from others at times. Whether in comments on the pages of social media, views expressed by politicians and reported in nasty little sound bites, or coming from the mouths of Hollywood celebrities, sports stars, and late-night talk show hosts, our society has become more polarized and more divided than ever before. But the thing that upsets me isn’t the fact that we hold different views on things, because that’s to be expected, but it’s the WAY we talk to each other that’s so upsetting… especially the way we talk to those with whom we disagree.
It seems we’ve lost the fine art of the debate, where the issues and possible solutions are presented, heard, and discussed with respect for those who hold different viewpoints than we do. Instead of respectfully debating the issues and maybe learning something in the process, today we tend to demean and disrespect those who believe differently than we do. We use our words to judge their hearts, motives, and character as if we know everything. And I really wish this tendency was present only in our society at large but unfortunately this same pattern sometimes plays itself out in the church as well.
The Bible has so much to say about the tongue and the power it holds in our lives. We are challenged to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry in James 1:19. Ecclesiastes 10:12 warns us that words from the mouth of the wise are gracious but fools are consumed by the words of their own lips. We are commanded to speak words that are soft and gracious, not harsh words that only stir up anger in Proverbs 15:1, and Ephesians 4:29 directs us to speak those words that are wholesome, and helpful for building up others according to their needs, so that these words can benefit those who hear them. James, chapter 3, tells us no one can tame the tongue because it’s unruly and full of poison and although it’s very little, it can start a large fire that destroys others and defiles the one who speaks. James points out the hypocrisy we show when we use our tongue to curse others, then turn around and praise God with that same tongue. And Proverbs 18:21 draws a definite line in the sand by declaring succinctly that death and life are in the power of the tongue.
God has made it clear to us: whether we communicate directly to someone or we communicate about them to someone else, our words can speak life or they can speak death to others. They can encourage or they can demoralize. They can speak truth or they can speak lies. They can soothe angry responses or add gasoline to the fiery anger of others. They can help facilitate reconciliation or they can divide even the closest of friends. They can build others up or they can tear others down. According to Matthew 12:34-37 our words begin in the secret places of our hearts and whether they are used to help or to hurt is a choice we all make every day.
What about those times we feel hurt by other people, or when we believe the things they’ve done are wrong? Matthew 18 lays out a process for us to follow in situations like these. With much prayer we must be brutally honest with ourselves before we speak anything: we need to ask, is this anger of mine really being caused by this person or is it more a revealing of my own character flaws? We’re instructed to humbly go directly to that person and respectfully speak words designed to bring reconciliation. We are not to run and tell others about it, trying to garner sympathy. Nor are we to let that person have it, venting words to make ourselves feel better, leaving that person feeling run over, disrespected and wounded themselves. It’s truthfully one of the hardest things you and I will ever do; to go and respectfully tell another person how we feel and seek reconciliation because it involves risk and it involves humility. Our sinful hearts are committed to never feeling out of control or weak in any way but following the steps in Matthew 18 requires both from us. If that person doesn’t hear even our respectful words then we are to take another person or two with us and go and talk with them again. Then, as a last resort, after all honest steps have been taken, bring the situation before the leaders of the church. In all but this last step we can apply these basic principles to anyone with whom we have a problem, both inside and outside the church.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to lovingly confront another person who’s hurt me and I definitely know how painful it is to be on the receiving end of a conversation about how my sinful or careless words have hurt someone else but I’m telling you, these conversations are powerful opportunities to heal wounds and form the character of Jesus in us. Every time we take the easy way out and prefer instead to use our hurt or disagreement as an excuse to wield our words like swords that cut and pierce the hearts of others, we lose the opportunity to learn, to become more like Jesus.
God commands us to speak truth and to always do so in love, with the good of the other person in mind. And He, knowing how deceptive our hearts can be, gave us the Holy Spirit to guide us to personal awareness, to truth, to understanding, to repentance, and dependence on a moment by moment relationship of abiding in Him to live these things out. Since Jesus said in John 13:34-35 that we’ll be known by the love we have for each other and the way we respond to each other reveals Jesus Himself to the world, it is critically important that our words speak life and not death! If we’re willing to humble ourselves and obey the words of God laid out in the Bible we’ll greatly increase the odds that full reconciliation will take place, without causing unnecessary divisions in the church or in the world.
Bottom line: today I’m asking all of us to stop and think BEFORE we speak, type, tweet, or post. We need to ask ourselves: Is what I’m saying true and accurate? Is it respectful and kind? Is it really necessary for me to say? Is it more important to me that I “tell it like it is” than it is for me to communicate those words in love, more for the benefit of the person I’m speaking to than for myself?
Every day we have the opportunity to speak words that heal, encourage, and strengthen the hearts of those we come into contact with. We also have the opportunity to crush the spirits of those same people. An unknown person once said, “The most ferocious monster in the world has his den just behind the teeth”. Let’s not allow this monster to claim any more victims. Today, in God’s power, let you and I choose to speak life.