Most of us remember the old schoolyard rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Cute, but not quite true. This oft-quoted saying, while trying to make the claim that physical attacks can be injurious but verbal attacks are not if one is indifferent to them, is fantasy. It does not square with real life. Sadly, in reality, all of us have experienced that words can and do injure us. Sometimes very deeply. The truth is words are all too frequently horrifically painful and destructive. I dare say each of us has either been the source or recipient of painful, destructive words! A more accurate rending of this rhyme would be, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can deeply hurt me.” On a personal level, words can wound, destroy, and cause life–long injury. More broadly, words can ruin friendships, marriages, businesses, societies, international relationships and yes, even churches.
Perhaps the single most shocking expose´ highlighting the power-source and destructiveness of our words is found in James 3:6…
The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
Ouch!! This verse says our tongues are like flame-throwers ruining us and everything in its wake and its power source is hell itself!
The Lord Jesus tells us our tongues are directly connected to our hearts and reveal what’s in them:
Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) …For out of the heart come evil thoughts,murders,adulteries,fornications,thefts,false witness,slanders.These are the things that defile the man…(Matthew 15:19-20a)
Scripture repeatedly states that the pattern of our speech as well as the words you use represent the thoughts and intents of the heart: the inner you (Jeremiah 17:9-10; James 3:1-12; Proverbs 4:23). They demonstrate our fallen, depraved humanness. They reflect both righteous or unrighteous thoughts, love or hatefulness, encouragement or condescension, pride or humility. James 3:9 says our hearts are at their core duplicitous, double-minded…”.with it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). It has been said the way we speak is a reliable measure of our spiritual temperature at any given time. Recognizing the fallen, corrupt state of our hearts and the words that proceed from it James tells us …” we all stumble (sin) in many ways” (James 3:2).
And He goes on to say “if anyone does not stumble in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” The word “perfect” (Greek, teleios) in this verse refers to one who is ”mature” or “fully developed.” So, one indicator of our level of spiritual maturity is whether or not we display a pattern of “tongue control”! James goes so far as to say “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Wow!!
Truly this is something we all need to be reminded of frequently. Why? First off, to help us grow as followers of Christ and, secondly, (and in my mind most importantly), to honor Christ and His gospel. Beloved, because we live in a lost, fallen and hostile world, our witness for Christ is of the utmost importance. Why is that, you say? Because the very gospel is at stake. Our words and our ways must communicate the reality of God’s transforming grace! We live in such a way as to put Christ’s saving grace on display! Having an uncontrolled tongue makes that harder to do!
Listed below is a helpful “tongue tester” we all would do well to review and apply to our lives regularly:
- Gossip Meter: How often do you say …”I am telling you this so you can pray for…” Keep this to yourself but”… “I heard from an un-named source that Peter was”… “did you hear what Mary did to John?” Ask yourself, “Am I a sly, sophisticated gossip?”
- Pride Barometer: How many times a day do you use the personal pronoun “I” or ‘me” in normal conversation? How often do you talk about yourself, your kid’s accomplishments or church’s “superior” way of doing things to others? Do you often “put down” people who do not hold to the same doctrinal positions that you do?
- Critical-Spirit Sensor: Are you constantly critiquing other brothers’ and sisters’ walk with Christ? Do you regularly point out and share people’s faults with your spouse, friends, etc.? Do you make a personal conviction or preference (like abstinence or smoking or moderate alcohol use) binding biblical commands when they are not and openly slander people for not agreeing with you?
- Integrity Indicator: Do you often shade the truth? Are you a “people pleaser” and say yes when you mean no? How often do you promise to do something and fail to do it? Do you use flattery to manipulate?
So how do did you do? If you’re like me, you need work!! Here are some simple biblical helps as you seek to make your “words matter” for Christ:
- With all your heart seek God’s heart and ask Him to cauterize your lips each day… crying out as Isaiah did in Isaiah 6: 5, “Woe to me! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Remember “that if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)
- Moment by moment submit to and depend upon God’s Spirit dwelling inside you and “be quick to listen… slow to speak” (James 1:19). Be aware of and sensitive to your inner thoughts and feelings. Don’t let your tongue run free…but rather “let no un-wholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
- Every day fill your heart and head with Scripture…”let the word of Christ dwell within you richly” (Colossians 3:16). Remember “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Memorizing one verse a week about the tongue from Proverbs is doable and will help transform your speech. Try it!!
Beloved, our words matter for time and eternity! Let’s use them to honor the One who spoke and the universe leapt into existence!
 The 1899 Boxer Rebellion in China – Disciplines of a Godly Man. Kent Hughes, Crossway, 1991, pg.135.