The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near. Proverbs 10:14
The “Unheld” Tongue
The other day I had the great misfortune of hearing one of Miley Cyrus’ new songs, entitled Can’t Stop. One line in particular caught my attention. In the midst of all sorts of objectionable statements, Miley declared, “It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to.” In a culture consumed with a “my mouth, my mind, my body, my life” mindset, Miley’s statement is all but accepted as true. There are two levels, however, on which her statement is false. First, there is the legal level. There are some things that are actually illegal to do with your mouth (like screaming “Fire” in a crowded theater when there isn’t one). The other is moral. This is where many would declare things get subjective. And for the majority of the world, I suppose it is pretty relative to where you are. After all, if there is no God or no overarching moral code for living, then “everyone does what is right in the sight of their own eyes.”
But what about believers? What about those in the church? Do we also cultivate this, “It’s my mouth, I can say what I want to” mentality? Are we free to speak whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want? Of course, most Christians would answer a resounding “No” on all counts. The problem, however, usually isn’t with right knowledge; it is with right practice. The fool, very often, knows what he ought to do or not do. What makes him a fool is that he knows the difference between right and wrong, but doesn’t really seem to care. I am concerned, at least in my own life, that this is especially true among Christians in the use of their tongues.
The Highly Flammable Tongue
Scripture warns that the tongue is an incredibly dangerous thing. James declares, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:5?10). Jesus discusses the tongue with even greater severity: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33?37).
So, what makes the tongue so dangerous? First, the human use of it is a reflection of the image of God. In Genesis 1-2, God spoke the world into existence and gave names to various part of creation (light, darkness, day, night, etc.). In this creation narrative, God gives man care over the world that has been made, and gave man the responsibility of naming the animals. Adam also named his wife Eve. There is a sort of divine prerogative in human speech. God spoke through the Law and the Prophets. God spoke through Jesus, his eternally divine, yet fully human Son. God speaks to the world through the church by the Spirit and the gospel. Humanity reflects something of the image of God in speech – it is a gracious gift that reminds us that we are made in His image. To use the tongue for godless means is to violate an essential part of the human reflection of the divine image.
Second, the tongue is dangerous because it is powerful. While man’s tongue is in no way as mighty as God’s (try speaking everything out of nothing if you don’t believe me), yet, man’s tongue has been endowed with power. As we saw in James, it can be an uncontrolled fire. It has the power to motivate nations to war. It has the power to build up or tear down character. It has the power to move the emotional center of a person to unparalleled joy or unspeakable sorrow. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” just isn’t true. Ask so many people what some of the greatest or most horrible experiences in life have been for them. You will often find these experiences revolve around the power of words. “I do”, declared on a wedding day; “Dada,” uttered by a toddler learning to speak; “It’s cancer,” by the doctor who just read the diagnosis; “He’s not coming home”, to the mother of a young soldier who died on a battlefield. All of these, and many others, are powerful, life-changing words.
Third, misuse of the tongue is dangerous because it is to be an agent of life. God has given to us the gospel in verbal form. Jesus Himself is called the Word of God (John 1:1-4). If the human use of the tongue represents the divine image and the tongue is endowed with power, these two truths find no greater convergence than in the gospel itself. And the gospel is predominantly a verbal reality. It is a life-giving message. Yet, what happens if such a message is distorted, confused, or intentionally misrepresented? Or worse, what happens if such a message is abused to the point that it is no longer recognizable? Where there should have been the presentation of life, there is now the proclamation of death. That is quite dangerous indeed.
Taming The Tongue
So, what grace-filled course of action should the believer take to not be foolish with the tongue? James has declared that no man can tame it. Yet, by grace and mercy, the Spirit of God can. The Lord has not left us in the dark about the steps to take toward being wise with our tongues.
First, we can speak less. James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Generally, if we are honest, we talk too much. We don’t quiet down, listen, and enjoy the calm (see this blog about calm and contemplation). The Proverbs note, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:27-28). Many times, I find myself speaking just to get away from the “silence.” Yet, there is a great deal of value and worth to be found in quiet.
Second, we should speak truth. Paul encourages, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25). As Christians, we should not be liars. Now, having said that, there is a manner in which we should speak the truth. We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:14-16). The truth should be given to all and it should be clear; yet, the truth doesn’t have to cause everyone who tastes it to choke on its flavor (Proverbs 16:21-24).
Finally then, when we do speak, we should speak with grace. Paul challenges us, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Are we speaking life? Are we speaking gospel? Are we speaking with redemption in mind, even in those times when a rebuke is necessary? Are we extending with our tongues the same grace that has touched our very beings? As we saw with God, words can be creative. It is not by accident or coincidence that Paul claims we should use our tongues for the “building up” of each other. We continue in the image of God with our speech. Let us do so with Christ-like grace.
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