Words carry more power than we often realize. Our tongues, when used rightly, can bring joy, comfort, and encouragement. When used flippantly they can become weapons of destruction. Here are some guidelines for using our words to speak life into those around us.
Why should you care how your words affect others?
The truth is, people will misinterpret, twist, or be offended by your words no matter how you try to accommodate them. Why should we then try to change the way we talk? It might seem inauthentic to alter the way we talk, but it is out of respect and consideration for others, not out of self-consciousness about how we are perceived. When we make the extra effort not to say things that we know are likely offensive or hurtful, we demonstrate Christ’s love for others. On the other hand, we reveal our selfish attitudes when we fail to filter ourselves out of consideration for someone else.
The tongue = power
The Bible plainly speaks of the power of the tongue. Matthew 12:36 warns us that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” This should be enough to silence even the most chatty Cathy. When we stand before God, excuses won’t matter, and our true intentions will be laid out in front of Him.
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble. (Proverbs 21:23)
Our tongues often seem to have minds of their own. Truth and lies slip out, sometimes unintentionally. The Freudian slip was a term coined to give name to those uncomfortable moments when a detail intended to be secret slips out involuntarily. Conversely, it is estimated that sixty percent of people lie at least once during 10-minute conversations, according to researchers at University of Massachusetts. It may seem that the words we use are not much more than reflex, but our tongues are not completely out of our control. Let’s look at these five tips for taming your tongue.
- Lay off the profanity.
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col 3:8)
I will be the first to admit I’ve let some choice words slip on occasion. Profanity is a widely accepted part of our culture today. While the Bible doesn’t give us a list of expletives we are to keep out of our mouths, it does give us clear principles for determining what is wholesome talk.
While you might feel free in Christ to swear or cuss, your brother or sister may not, and by doing so you could offend them or make them stumble. You words, though they might not stick out to the culture that is desensitized to profanity, may do a poor job of reflecting your relationship with Christ. Profanity is intended to be used in a negative context – like when you’re hurt or angry – and doesn’t reflect the peace that Christ offers in every circumstance.
That being said, profanity is honestly the least troublesome tongue-twister on this list. While perhaps not ideal for a believer to use profanity, the intent of the speaker’s heart is of more importance than whether it is a “bad” word. There are worse ways to cause exponentially more damage with the tongue than to express something through a cuss word. Swearing often loses its intended effect if used profusely. It simply isn’t a necessary addition to our vocabularies, and isn’t very becoming of Christians who desire to emulate Jesus in their speech.
- Cut the criticism.
For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Mat 12:37)
Those with a propensity for finding superficial flaws in others seem to always have a criticism for someone or something on their lips. The people they spend time with might even agree with them, but feel uneasy inside. A critical spirit is unattractive, and fails to show grace to others. Harsh judgment and condemnation flow easily from their mouth, and their friends sometimes wonder if they become targets of this criticism when they aren’t around.
If you are the type of person that always has something negative to say about someone or something, people will start to notice. This reflects worse on you than on those about whom you speak.
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body. (Proverbs 16:24)
If you’re in the habit of making negative comments, it can be difficult to break the pattern. Start off small. When you catch yourself about to make a negative dig at something or someone, stop yourself. Ask yourself, “Would this sound mean if I said that to their face?” Instead, try to find something positive and comment on it instead.
There is a time and place for constructive criticism, but you have to discern the difference. Constructive criticism is negative feedback thrown in the positive light of hope for improvement. Destructive criticism and judgment tear a person down and eat away at hope for positive change.
- Derail gossip.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
Gossip, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” Not always are these details unconfirmed, and not always is gossip a bad thing. You might here two friends discuss the details of a friend’s wedding, or mention a co-worker’s recent promotion. This can be done in a positive light, sharing light-hearted memories made at the wedding, or privately discussing the diligent effort put forth by their co-worker. But this can be a dangerous line to walk, as it can easily leave room for jealousy, judgment, or criticism to slip in and darken the conversation.
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
What we discuss is a reflection of what we think about. Idle gossip, positive or negative, should not be the thing on which our hearts meditate. If we are consumed with the lives of other people and their personal affairs, what does that say about us?
Additionally, because the nature of gossip is to base itself on unconfirmed rumors and assumptions, gossip has a huge potential to create a train wreck of misinformation. This can be quite troublesome for the subject of your gossip, and potentially embarrassing if it is revealed that you were the source of the misinformation.
Typically these types of rumors start when someone goes around asking people about another person’s business. Questions like “Is she mad at me?”, “Is there something going on between them?”, and “Is he having trouble at work?” all have the power to reach far beyond the person you’re asking. The question may have been asked in all innocence, but you may have also aroused the curiosity of the other person who is likely to ask similar questions. Rumors aren’t always statements; they can take the form of questions to which the asker already assumes a particular answer.
Before talking about someone to anyone else, ask yourself these questions:
- “Why am I speaking about this person to someone else?”
- “If they were here, would they be offended or hurt by what I’m saying?”
- “Am I making assumptions about this person that could potentially be spread around as rumor and gossip?”
If you have a burning question about someone’s personal life, the best thing you can do is to go to them directly. People will appreciate your openness and honesty. If the idea of approaching someone with a personal question makes you uncomfortable, or you think the other person would be uncomfortable, then the information you want is most likely none of your business. If it’s an off-limits topic for you and that person, it is most definitely off limits for you and anyone else to discuss.
- Silence the slander.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. (Proverbs 18:21)
Slander is the worst offender on this list. It is essentially false statements made about someone that damages their reputation. I would also classify slander as potentially true, but damaging statements made about someone. Slander is intentional and malicious, though gossip and rumors can easily become defamatory in nature without intending to.
The tongue is capable of murder. The damage you can do to someone’s heart and reputation with your words is unspeakable. It is not easily, if ever, fully reparable, and you can’t take back such incriminating statements.
But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. (Mat 15:18)
Malice towards someone expressed verbally is merely a reflection of hate stored up for them in your heart. It isn’t the act of slander that condemns us, but the sin of hate. By doing so we break the greatest commandment (Mat 22:34-40).
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15)
This passage goes so far as to say that those who hate cannot possibly have eternal life, because hate is the polar opposite of love, which is produced naturally when we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
If you have something against someone and are tempted to spread that anger around, either confront them directly and with all loving kindness, or let the matter go if it’s not worth addressing the issue with them.
Check your words before you open your mouth. If your hope is to debase someone’s opinion of the person about whom you are speaking, your intent is to slander them. Even if they truly are a terrible person or have done a great injustice, it’s not your job to inform the world about their indiscretions. It does not reflect well on you, and ultimately is not as effective as sitting back and letting their actions testify to their true character.
Take the high road. People aren’t good listeners, but they love to observe. Carry yourself with grace and love. If you find yourself itching to tarnish someone’s reputation by revealing defamatory information about them (whether true or false), stop and examine your motives. Other than activities which violate the law or serious moral and ethical standards – which should be reported to the proper authorities – there is nothing anyone could do to deserve slander against them. Don’t degrade yourself by using your tongue for malicious or vindictive purposes.
- When in doubt, close your mouth.
Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Proverbs 13:3)
This is by no means an exhaustive list. The tongue can be misused in a number of different ways. A general principle to follow is that you can never say too little, but you can say too much. If something you want to say falls into a gray area, or doesn’t seem like wholesome, uplifting, or edifying conversation, it probably doesn’t need to be said.
I was reminded of this short poem:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
It can be difficult sometimes to cut ourselves off when we want to share, especially for naturally talkative people. But there are advantages to being quiet. People will notice how you try to speak positively under different circumstances, and will respect your discretion in not talking about the private or delicate details of others’ lives. Your peers may see you as more trustworthy, and open up to you in ways they wouldn’t if they felt they would be the next subject of your gossip or criticism. And when you do speak, your words will have a bigger impact than if they were lost in the din of chatter.
Remember that your tongue isn’t simply a deadly weapon to be forever sheathed. It wields the power to expose the truth, to inspire, and to encourage. Most importantly, our tongues can express love. Of all of these, love is the most powerful thing for bringing about positive change, and is the only eternal thing to which we can hold. So why not speak love?
Go forth and speak responsibly.