Have you ever said something that you regretted? Do you struggle with speaking in anger? Do you use cutting words to wound? Are you skilled at winning any and all arguments? Do you avoid awkward silence by filling them with witty phrases, random conversation starters, or jokes? Or how about this: what does your inner voice sound like? Is it harsh, critical, and unforgiving? Is it judgmental?
If you answered 'yes' to any of those questions, you are not alone. In my past, the way I wielded my words have cost me relationships. I have witnessed how biting tongues have the potential to break up families. I have seen up close how "rash words are like sword thrusts" (Proverbs 12:18). I better understand why the Word of God calls believers to use words to build others up (Ephesians 4:29) because I have seen how they can deeply abuse people. I would venture to say the majority of us have felt the painful sting of a harsh word at some point in our lives. Maybe it was in the form of gossip or slander. Maybe it was more direct from a trusted friend or family member. Words are powerful weapons that can easily be used carelessly to the detriment of self and others. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21a).
Why is that?
It was God's design to make words powerful and important. James 1:18 says, "Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of Truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures". Did you get that? Our salvation is brought forth by the Word of Truth! This echoes Romans 10:17 that says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ". These verses completely dismantle the popular quote "Preach the gospel at all times – use words if necessary" (which is incorrectly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, by the way). You see, when it comes to proclaiming the gospel, real words are always necessary. Sure, our lives should align with the words, but silent actions are inadequate replacements for the Word of God and the message of the gospel. This is also why we treasure our holy text – it is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12), which means it brings comfort and conviction, nourishment and growth, and judgment to the unredeemed. As we study His Word, the Spirit renews our minds and transforms us more and more into Christlikeness (Romans 12:2). That's powerful!
The words that come out of our mouths are powerful and important, too. Scripture attributes a lot to our words; in fact, the entire third chapter of James uses the tongue as the primary representation for the whole of human depravity! This is because words are reliable indicators of the condition of one's heart. Jesus said in Matthew 12:34b, "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks". When we consider the words that come out of our mouths and the mouths of those around us (even our children!), we can clearly see that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The sin of speech is a universal problem – James 3:8 says, "No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."
I think of all the incredible advancements made possible by human intellect:
- Mankind has ventured to the moon;
- Mankind has developed techniques to allow men and women to choose the gender of their babies with no genetic abnormalities prior to implantation in the womb.
- Mankind has invented a machine (the ECMO) that can mimic a human lung and sustain life – a machine that has the ability to add oxygen to blood while removing carbon dioxide!
Yet, not a single man or woman can tame his or her own tongue. No matter what grand accomplishments mankind is tempted to boast in, the tongue serves as an effective reminder of our need for a Redeemer. What grace! When our quick tongue lends us to feel hopelessly enslaved to the whims of our flesh, we can go to the Word (John 1:1-5). Our inner and outer dialogues remind us that we cannot eradicate our sin; we are indeed powerless and in need of the gospel. When we are dead in our sins, we are unable to speak life-giving words. Words reflect the heart.
One of the greatest transformative marks of the gospel in my own life was in my speech. As my spiritual eyes were opened to the totality and beauty of the gospel, the Spirit changed my heart and it was evidenced by the way I used words. I knew very quickly how powerless I was to perfectly tame my tongue. I knew immediately that I needed God's power to change my speech! And He did – as He led me to repentance and uprooted the sin in my heart, my words changed. This is God's gracious design – that our lips would testify to the truth and power of the gospel! By His power alone, my tendency to use cutting words to wound others was replaced with self-control.
Now, I don't do this perfectly. My tongue still reminds me of my need for Christ. Even after my moment of conversion, I have had to go to my husband, my kids, and my friends and ask for forgiveness over a careless word that caused pain. Years into this ongoing process of sanctification, I still struggle with my inner voice that naturally wants to berate, judge, or engage in self-pity. But as I study God's Word and grow in my knowledge and love for Him, He is faithful to change my heart and mind, which in turn, changes my words. And as I move along this trajectory of holiness, I experience the joys of my salvation more fully.
Jesus said in Matthew 12:36, "I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak" (italics mine). Words are powerful and important, even the words that stream through our minds and are directed at ourselves. What do your words, spoken and unspoken, say about your heart? Allow your thoughts and words to lead you to the cross and to the gospel. Jesus is the Word (John 1:1), and He has the power to redeem you and your words. Let your tongue, which is "a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8), lead you to the cross every day.