“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” Proverbs 18:21
When I was in Bible College back in the mid-seventies, there was an old time evangelist who frequently preached in the church the students attended. This particular speaker would always work a little humor into his sermons, and it seemed that he often liked to get a laugh by telling jokes about women. I distinctly remember one of his humorous stories even though I heard him tell it more than forty years ago. He related that on one occasion after he had preached on the tongue, a lady came to the front of the church and wanted to speak with him. She said that God had convicted her about the way she consistently criticized and gossiped and she wanted to “lay her tongue on the altar”. The witty preacher said he looked at her and replied, “Lady, there isn’t an altar long enough for that.” While I don’t think in reality this exchange ever took place, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that we women are often known for a lack of self-control when it comes to the use of words. After all, many times the thing that makes a joke funny is the element of truth found in it.
Our tongues are such small members of our bodies, and we don’t normally give them a lot of attention like we do other parts of our body. I mean we spend a lot of time on our faces; cleansing them, moisturizing them, and putting cosmetics on them. Think of all the time we spend on our hair in a year’s time. We shampoo, condition, brush, color, cut, and style our hair. We exercise to flatten our tummies and strengthen other parts of the body. But we just don’t give much thought to our tongues. Perhaps we should endeavor to be more aware of this little organ, especially when we consider how much irreparable damage it has caused in untold churches, as well as, families, friendships, work places, and every other type of human relationship! The Apostle James personifies the tongue as the representative of human depravity. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire by hell. (James 3:6) He also tells us in the third chapter of the book he authored that … we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body…But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:2; 3:8) Boy, can I testify to the truth of that statement. I do struggle in many areas of my life, but I don’t find myself confessing and repenting of any sin more than transgressions of the tongue. Without a doubt there is no sphere where we are more likely to offend than in word.
To be clear, I am not talking about proclaiming the truth of Scripture, even when it offends. The truth about our sin and depravity “hurts”, but if we respond to that pain in repentance and faith in Christ, our “hurt” will only make us more grateful for His mercy. There is a spreading ideology that teaches anything you say that makes me feel bad about myself or look bad in the eyes of others is “hate speech”. I’ll have to save my thoughts on that issue for another day since this post is about real “hate speech”. I’m referring to words that injure others in a sinful way; harsh, hurtful, malicious words said to or about others.
Immediately after telling us that the tongue is full of deadly poison, James illustrated that truth for us. He wrote, With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10) He exposed the shameful hypocrisy of blessing God and cursing men with the same tongue. It grieves the heart of God when we praise Him with our lips, but speak evil of people created in His own image. When we slander those His precious Son shed His blood to redeem, in a very real sense we malign God, their Creator. And the Apostle says this ought not to be done.
He not only exposes the gross two-facedness of this, but also gives an alarming warning to those who make this their normal practice. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. (James 3:11-12) As we continue to read in James 3 we find that the root of the bitter water springing forth from our lips is bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in the heart. He tells us that this wisdom is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic, but the wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, and full of mercy. This is why any professing Christian who finds unkind, bitter, cutting, and caustic words consistently coming out of their mouth should be very alarmed about the state of their soul. When a person is genuinely born again he is, spiritually speaking, given a new heart, and that new heart is evidenced in his new speech. James basically says a good indicator of our true spirituality is how well we can control our tongues.
The scribes and Pharisees were so proud of their outward obedience to the commandments, but the Lord Jesus boldly called them hypocrites. This is what He had to say about them in Matthew 15:8, These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. He went on to say that their words were an indication of their true problem, which was their hearts. …those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. (Matthew 15:18) There is an old adage that says whatever is in the well will come up in the bucket, and it is a biblical truth. Whatever is in our hearts will eventually be uttered from our lips; although many times not until external pressure is put upon us. Far too often, it is during the stressful moments of life that what is deep down in the well comes pouring out. I love Amy Carmichael’s words, “A cup brimful of sweetness cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, no matter how suddenly jarred.”
While the word of God clearly exposes the great destruction that can be brought about with our words, it also teaches us that we can use our words for great good. It is encouraging to realize that we can edify others and bring glory to God with our speech. In the book of Proverbs we not only find many ways that we sin with our tongues, but also the blessing of using our tongues for the glory of God. We can be used of the Lord to impart wisdom and knowledge to others. The lips of the righteous feed many… (Prov. 10:21a) We can also strengthen and cheer those around us with our words. Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul, and health to the bones. (Prov. 16:24) …the tongue of the wise promotes health. (Prov. 12:18b) I really like the beautiful word picture found in Proverbs 25:11, A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. And in the very last chapter of Proverbs we find that a virtuous woman …opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness. (Prov. 31:26)
Proverbs 18:21 declares that Death and life are in the power of the tongue… In other words, the greatest good, as well as, the greatest harm can be done with the tongue. We have the ability to tear down and destroy or to build up and heal with our words. We can use our tongues to destroy our homes, hurt our families, divide our churches, or tarnish the reputation of others, and offend God in the process. Or we can use our words to mend relationships, encourage our family members, edify our brothers and sisters in Christ, and most importantly, glorify God.
I want to resolve as Jonathan Edwards did to “…let there be something of kindness in all I speak.” I desire to use my tongue as an instrument to encourage, build up, heal, exhort, and most importantly bring glory to my heavenly Father. Would you join me in making the prayer of the Psalmist your daily prayer, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer?
Soli Deo Gloria