There are lists in the Bible, lists of things that make ladies with very styled hair clutch their pearls and thank the sweet Lord that they don’t do those things on those lists. What an imagination the New Testament writers must have had, because such depravity would never cross their minds. Maybe it would cross their lips, while they lean in to speak in those dropped voices referencing those people who would find themselves in those sort of deviant situations. It all wraps up nicely with a promise to pray for that person, but as the week slips by, so does the promise to pray, and by the time Sunday rolls around there is only this lingering sense that there had been a promise to say something to God about someone truly wicked, but what was that? And the prayers go up for health and happiness for themselves and their family, the hurt that drove the subject to the brokenness that landed them in that list gone from anyone’s mind, except that poor soul’s own mind.
Now going into this, I want to be transparent. While some people pound the pulpits and cry out against the very obvious ills of the world, it is not often that I hear a sermon telling me to watch my mouth, and truly, truly, I need to hear that more than I need to be told not to drink or fight or cheat or steal. The moment I take my focus of God, I know it because I can hear it in my speech. I am harsh and hateful, and I am 9 times out of 10 pointing out the flaws in others as my language gets nastier and nastier.
There is this sense that words are just words and that vulgarity is just sort of something that humanity assigns in an attempt to separate us from them. In high school, I learned from my theatre teacher in a lesson on language and story telling that many of the words we consider to be vulgar came about because they were simply words used by other rougher cultures and so those guttural sounding words, associated with those barbarians, were labeled as vile. Not because the words themselves were evil, but because they were associated with the enemy.
Yes, that is a part of the development of language, but it isn’t the whole picture. We live in this space between words are just words and the very real truth that words have value and weight. If words are just words, then why would we dive deeply into a fictional word able to see the tiniest detail in that land of one book, but in another we read a few paragraphs and nap it shut. Why do people put words and not simply images on protest signs? Why do we repeat seemingly sacred groupings of words at important life events, like weddings or graduations? Why would it matter if your parent called you their sweet baby, light of their life or if they called you that brat who won’t shut up?
It’s easy to recognize that words are not just words. They are representations of what we think and what we feel, what we hold as truth and what we hold as valuable. They make change and they mark change. You see, if words were just words, they would start in your mouth. But words aren’t just words, they begin in your heart. We turn them over in our minds, arrange them in an order, put them out in the world and hope for the best, because there is no taking them back, not really.
One of the hardest lessons of my life I’ve had to learn is that I can’t weigh out other people’s words on my own scale. The level of anger and hatred it would take for me to say some of the nastiest things I can think of is not the same level it would take for someone else.
When a child is mad at their parent and screams “I hate you!” a parent doesn’t scream that back at their child, because they understand that the child doesn’t mean it and that the weight of the parent saying that to a child would be devastating blow, but the weight of a child saying it to the parent is a tiny flick, something that can be ignored.
I had a friend who saved “I love you” in its romantic use for when she got engaged. Did she not feel love before that? Of course not. But she held those words to a higher weight than most, because she recognized the impact on her heart if she used them lightly.
The Bible has spoken few words so true to my life as the message “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” I have been brought back time and time again to this concept over the past 2 decades, and while I believe that God perfects us and gives us the power of the Spirit to overcome our struggles, I have the sense that I will be reminded of this for many years to come.
I have been made keenly aware in the past few weeks just how many verses there are in the Bible warning against using words carelessly. In fact, in many of those lists of actions the Bible warns against that make those ladies faint end with a warning about gossiping or slander, about lying or stirring up trouble. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And watch your mouth.
I was back and forth for years speaking and apologizing, or talking and justifying before it finally became clear to me. I can’t get my tongue in line. It’s just not possible. If I am a sailboat, I will never be able to control that sail and that can be a terrible thing because it directs my route. The only thing I can do is to tether the line to the Word and let Him hold it.
God gives us His Spirit and along with that His power, but over and over, more times than I can count, when The Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, the very first evidence of His presence is a change in speech. The spirit comes and the people praise. They speak about God. They rejoice. They spread His message. And if they are doing that, they aren’t gossiping, fighting, lying, or any of the rest of it. It are almost always the first result of being filled by His Spirit.
Because I see that so clearly, it has shown in my life that when I lose control of my speech, the first thing I need to do is re-tether that line. If this is something that you see as a struggle for you, if you have an interest in seeing if there is something to this, if there is even the slightest needling in your mind that maybe you need to evaluate the weight of your words, then let me challenge you to take these steps and put them into practice over the next week.
1. Open your Bible. Put your mind on Him. If you think you don’t have the time, think about your commute. That’s plenty of time to listen in. You can use the internet to play sermons or read books or to just read straight scripture.
2. When someone asks for prayer, stop everything. Don’t say “PRAYERS!” and stick a little hand emoji and move on with life. That is not praying. Stop and pray for that person right then and there. Better yet, ask someone how you can pray for them. It will occupy your mind and it will use your words for something positive.
3. Just be quiet. If your words aren’t ripe, don’t pick them. If you need time to respond to someone, just say that. . A wise saying is “Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” It’s better to wait and say the right thing than say something you have to do damage control over later.
4. Ask God to prepare you conversations in advance and to help you listen for His voice throughout your day.
In fact, as I close this, I want to share a prayer that I pray which helps me refocus. Feel free to take it and form it to your language and give it as your own.
God, give me the conversations You want me to have today. Help me hear what You have to say to me. Use our words to encourage each other and to glorify you. It’s in Your name I pray. Amen.