“But no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:8-9)
I probably don’t have to do very much to convince you of the validity of what Scripture teaches about the power of the human tongue. In fact, I would imagine that every single one of us holds vivid memories concerning the ways in which we have been both utterly blessed and utterly crushed by other peoples’ words. Perhaps we also carry with us some vivid memories concerning the ways in which we have blessed and crushed others with the words that we have chosen to speak.
Do you remember a specific time in which you heard those three life-altering words, “I love you,” from someone who meant the world to you? Or have you ever had to deal with the pain of hearing the words, “I don’t love you anymore,” or even worse, “I hate you”? When was the last time that you were blessed by a heartfelt compliment or affirmation? When was the last time that your spirit was deflated by an unexpected insult, or by a criticism that was more mean-spirited than it was constructive?
Words are so powerful that it doesn’t take many of them to impact a soul, or at least to alter a mood or the direction of one’s day.
In the bleak totalitarian environment of George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984″, when the State wants to gain control of the people, one of the first things that it does is to create a new language called “newspeak.” The purpose of newspeak is to dictate the kind of conversation that the public has, thereby creating a controlled environment in which people’s words, and therefore people’s ideas, can be monitored and even governed by the State. In that novel, the State understands very clearly the power of words. What’s more, the State understands that, if it is to control the people, it must first control the people’s most potent resource: language.
Think about how our language is tampered with and modified in our current cultural environment. What is the difference, for example, between a “fetus” and an “unborn child?” (It has been suggested that we call it an “unborn child” when we intend to keep it and we call it a “fetus” when we don’t.) Or what about our nomenclature for death? We don’t tend to say that a loved one died. That’s far too clinical. We poeticize it. “He passed away.”
Individually and as a culture, we are tampering with words all the time, because, consciously or unconsciously, we are aware of the power that our words contain.
I suppose that the power of our words should come as no surprise to us. It is true, after all, that the entire narrative of Scripture bears witness to the power of language. How was it that God created in the Genesis account, for example? God created, not simply by waving a hand, but by SPEAKING: “Let there be light!” How was it that God communicated with the people of Israel? By SPEAKING through the prophets. In the fullness of time, how was it that God became incarnate? Scripture tells us that he became incarnate in and through Jesus Christ, whom the prologue to John’s gospel describes as “the Word made flesh.” Notice that it is not simply “God made flesh,” but the WORD of God made flesh. And two thousand years after that incarnational moment, we are quick to describe Scripture as the WORD of God for the people of God.
The entire biblical narrative, then, bears witness to the fact that our words are not merely communicational sounds and utterances. Rather, our words are powerful vessels of expression that have the capacity to build and to break, to bless and to curse, to create and to destroy, depending upon their content.
As someone who often speaks very quickly and sometimes very competitively, I find myself wondering if the discipline of allowing the Holy Spirit to tame our tongue demands of us that we speak more patiently than we would normally be inclined to speak. Think about that for a moment. Think about what it might mean to speak patiently.
So much of contemporary communication, it seems to me, is far more focused on the rapid and relentless expression of one’s own thoughts and ideas than it is on a heartfelt and patient listening to the thoughts and ideas of other people. Have you ever been in a conversation in which the other person wasn’t really listening to you? Have you ever sensed in a conversation that, when you weren’t speaking, the other person, instead of listening, was simply reloading for what he or she wanted to say next? It’s exhausting, isn’t it?
I frequently hear people congratulating themselves with this kind of proclamation: “I always speak my mind.” Who in the world wants to be around someone who speaks his mind all the time—especially if it’s not always a good mind?! Is it really all that noble an endeavor to speak one’s mind if the mind being spoken is not in a condition that produces well-constructed ideas?
I had a football coach who used to say that one of the most dangerous combinations in life is constipation of the brain and diarrhea of the mouth! That, I suppose, is a rather poetic expression of both the urgency of speaking patiently and the benefit of NOT always speaking our mind (if our mind is not in a particularly good condition).
Years ago, I received an e-mail from a disgruntled church member. In the e-mail, he criticized my ministry, he insulted the leadership of the church, he made accusations that were unfounded, and he outlined all of the things that were wrong with the church’s ministry. My first reaction was to e-mail a quick response. I sat down at the computer and created a pointed, detailed, exhaustive response to his e-mail, addressing all of his points, articulating all of my counterpoints, thereby successfully defending the church and its ministry. “I’ll show him.”
But before I sent the e-mail, something inside of me (let’s give the Holy Spirit credit) told me that it would be a good idea for me to seek out the counsel of another believer whose wisdom I trusted. When he read my response to the e-mail, which I had not yet sent, he said to me, “Eric, I’m not sure that it would be a good thing to send this.”
“What? Are you insane?! Re-read it. Pay attention to how good and clearly-worded my arguments are!”
“It has nothing to do with that,” he said. “It has to do with your motive.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well,” he said, “this e-mail sounds like it was written by somebody who is more interested in winning an argument than witnessing for Christ.”
I didn’t send the e-mail. I didn’t send it because a wise Christ-follower helped me to understand that my words in the e-mail were not helpful words. Rather, they were words designed to bury an opponent in what had become a meaningless and hurtful debate. That wise Christ-follower, in other words, alerted me to the urgency of speaking patiently.
How many of our relational conflicts would be different if we allowed the Holy Spirit to cultivate within us the capacity to speak patiently?
Dr. John Westerhoff, who was my professor of spiritual formation during my seminary years, once shared with the class that he is always very intentional about speaking slowly when he communicates with people who are difficult for him to like. Someone asked him why. “Two reasons,” was his response. “First, slower speech helps me to make sure that my words don’t get ahead of my thoughts. And second, slower speech enables me to fill the pauses between my sentences with split-second prayers.”
Someone interrupted. “Prayers? You mean you actually pray during conversations?”
“Are you kidding,” Dr. Westerhoff said. “If I weren’t offering those split-second prayers during some of my conversations, asking God to bless my words, who knows what nasty things I would say? Because those prayers are normally what remind me that God values the person to whom I am speaking differently than I do.”
These days, I find myself wanting to be the kind of disciple who pays more attention to his words and the prayer with which he saturates them.