A Mouthful of Poison
"No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."
- James 3:8
The average adult says around 16,000 words each day. Those 16,000 words represent a lot of subjects, verbs, and adjectives - and an ENORMOUS number of opportunities to do serious harm to those around us.
How many disagreements between husbands and wives turn into shouting matches? How often has a correction from a parent to a child taken the form of verbal bullying? How many times has a friend muttered an uncharitable judgment to another? How many attempts at humor have exploited someone's weakness? How many moments of honest anger have crossed the border into fits of rage?
I suspect you can identify with those scenarios. I know I do. I cringe with remorse and grief to think of how many times I've used my voice, and my carefully selected words, as a weapon of manipulation and intimidation against my children. Or moments when my desire to "win the argument" with my wife have led me to craft statements aimed to dismantle her opinions or discredit her feelings. My head hangs in shame to hear James' words: "Brothers, these things ought not to be so" (3:10).
And none of this takes into account our use of social media, and how we employ our words in the public eye!
As our men journey together through the book of Colossians, we recently encountered Paul's instructions to husbands and fathers. Here's how he exhorts the men in the church: "Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them (3:19)... Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (3:21). There's surely more to "harshness" and "provoking" than merely speech, but I am quite certain there is not less. When a husband is verbally harsh toward his wife, he bullies her into submission instead of giving her the opportunity to gladly submit of her own volition. When a father provokes his children with loud voice and strong language, he crushes something in his young soul, leading to his discouragement. Similar results are achieved in the lives of anyone toward whom we aim the poisonous darts of our well-aimed, wickedly-intentioned words.
"How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!" - James 3:5
Here's a hard truth: We can't fix it. James says it bluntly: "No human being can tame the tongue" (3:8). Not on our own. Our words hold such great potential for damage and destruction, and our hearts are so prone to fuel their fire with pride and bitterness, that we are in constant danger of tearing down fellow image-bearers. The only real hope for change in our pattern of speech is not merely a disciplined mouth, but a transformed heart.
And that is precisely the point where the gospel swoops in to save the day. What we need is heart-change, and through the righteousness of Jesus Christ applied to sinners by simple faith, heart-change is precisely what God provides. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Of course this transformation isn't likely to instantaneously change the way we speak. Our relationship with God places on a lifelong pathway of discipleship, by which our minds are tutored by his word, our hearts are trained to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the righteousness of Jesus increasingly flows through our lives - including our mouths.
Jesus himself said, "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34). So if we want to limit the damage we cause with our destructive speech - and indeed turn our speech into gracious, salt-seasoned blessing (Col. 4:6) - we need to admit our inability to effect change in ourselves, plead with God to shape our hearts after that of his Son, and yield ourselves to his leadership as we gradually learn to reflect the grace of Christ in our speech.
Perhaps then our 16,000 daily words will be transformed from landmines of potential harm, into opportunities to impart life and blessing to everyone who hears us.