The Power of the Tongue

The Power of the Tongue

Using Our Words for Good and Not Harm

by Leslie Ludy | December 1, 2018

Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
Proverbs 18:21a

The church sanctuary glowed with candlelight as Eric and I stood hand-in-hand, surrounded by the most important people in our lives.  Our much-awaited wedding day had finally arrived, and each moment seemed to sparkle with significant meaning.  One of the most powerful aspects of the ceremony was when our parents and spiritual leaders stood and spoke words of exhortation and encouragement over us as we sealed our new life together. 

Though it took place over twenty years ago, I can still vividly remember the words that were spoken that day.  Some spoke words about our future family.  Others talked about the spiritual fire that God wanted to kindle even brighter within us.  And some even spoke about a ministry we would one day have, praying that God would give us opportunities to share our testimony around the world.  Even now, as I think back to the statements that were made that day, I am truly amazed at how spot-on they were and how they have continued to impact us all these years later.  Those who spoke those words had absolutely no idea what God had in store for our future.  But they yielded their tongues to Him, and He communicated His heart and vision for our marriage through the life-giving words they spoke.

The Bible says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).  Just as our leaders’ words gave strength and hope to Eric and I on our wedding day, there have been other times when the words of others have done the opposite.

I still remember the harsh, discouraging words that were spoken to Eric and I when we turned a manuscript over to an editor we’d been assigned to work with on a book project.  Though we had labored for months in prayer and thoughtful effort in building the book’s message, the editor told us – rather rudely – that we should scrap it.  He didn’t agree with our message and insisted the book was doomed to fail. We were fairly new to Christian ministry at that time and were taken off-guard when we encountered such a demeaning attitude from a fellow believer.  His words seemed to drain the life out of us.  After we hung up the phone we sat dejectedly on our couch, too discouraged to even speak with our minds in a confused fog.  It was an uphill spiritual and emotional battle to crawl out of that dismal state – all because of someone’s thoughtless, insensitive words.

Words have power.  And that power can be used either for good or for harm.  Many of us can still remember cruel words that were spoken to us as children.  Even if they were merely the taunts of an obnoxious little kid on the playground, the impact of those words often last a lifetime.  (I was in my twenties before I felt comfortable around middle-school-aged boys, for that very reason.)

On the flip-side, maybe you remember words of hope and encouragement that were spoken to you at key times in your life.  I once heard a young woman share the story of grappling with an unwanted pregnancy in her teen years.  Amid the shock and panic she felt upon learning she was pregnant, one word completely changed her perspective. She called a Christian pregnancy center, told the woman on the phone that she was unexpectedly pregnant, and the woman warmly responded, “Congratulations!” Because of that one life-filled word, the girl suddenly realized that she had a precious gift to be treasured, instead of a stressful problem to be solved.  And it changed the course of her life – and her unborn child’s future.

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God has a lot to say about the importance of words.  In fact, some of the strongest statements in the Bible have to do with the words we speak.  In the book of James we are told, “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (Jms. 3:2).  As Christians seeking to live set apart, God-honoring lives, we often focus on our outward decisions while overlooking the words that come out of our mouths on a daily basis.  Yet this verse reveals that if we do not stumble in our words, we will not stumble in the other areas of our lives.  This begs the question: Are we weighing our words in light of eternity?  Are we treating them with the same importance that God does?

Perhaps one of the most startling and convicting statements Jesus made was this: “But I say to you that every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.  For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt.12:36-37 emphasis added).  How often do we think of the idle, thoughtless words that we casually speak (or post online) as being among the things that will be examined before the God of the universe on Judgment Day?

Speaking God-honoring, life-giving, truth-filled words should not merely be an afterthought in our Christian walk, but an intentional focus, by the grace of God.  If death and life are in the power of the tongue, then let’s choose to use our tongue for life.

Let’s look at three key ways we can begin proactively  speaking life in accordance with God's pattern:

1. Speak God's Reality

In our culture it is normal to proclaim misery and failure over our lives without thinking about it.  Projecting pessimism over our circumstances has become a mindless habit for many of us. Sarcastic statements like, “With my luck, the car will break down before I get halfway there,” or “Just watch – I’ll fall flat on my face and make a fool of myself,” or “This day is going downhill fast!” are just a few common examples.  Words like these may seem harmless or even funny at times, but they do not align with God’s reality or His promises.  The Bible is clear on what should occupy our thoughts: “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).

When we speak words that are not noble, lovely, or of good report, we cannot meditate on the things God has called us to mediate on. Speaking negative words causes us to focus only on our frustrations and complaints. And predicting negative things that might happen is the equivalent of stating that we don’t believe God is going before us or faithfully caring for us as He has promised in His Word.

Often, we are not intentionally speaking words that dishonor God.  We do it mindlessly, without really stopping to think about the words that are coming out of our mouths. But we must remember that even our casually spoken words matter to God.

Speaking negative things sets us up for a negative reality. When we declare that we are going to fail at something, we usually will. When we declare that our day is going to be a disaster, it usually is.  I once knew a family who sarcastically referred to their young child as “Susie-the-Hurricane” because of her tendency toward wild, chaotic behavior.  That little girl heard those words spoken over her life so frequently that it eventually became her reality even as she grew older.

The words we speak reveal where we are putting our faith. With our words, we either choose to agree with God’s promises or accept the enemy’s lies. And when we accept the enemy’s lies, we give him legal right to harass and hinder our lives. That’s why declaring doom and failure over our lives (or the lives of our children) is setting the stage for it to happen. But on the flip-side, declaring God’s reality sets the stage for His power and faithfulness to be experienced.

Speaking God’s reality has nothing to do with the “name it, claim it” or “positive affirmation” trends that are often promoted by the culture and even within the church.  Those messages usually have selfishness and/or human willpower at the root. (i.e. “If I want something, it’s my right to claim it for myself.”)  Rather, speaking God’s reality is a way of honoring our faithful Father by accepting His Word as true.  It’s looking beyond our circumstances and our fears and declaring that we believe He is exactly who He says He is, and that He cares about the smallest details of our lives.  That is when we begin to see miracles unfold in our daily lives – both big and small.

If you have developed a habit of speaking negative things instead of those things that are noble, lovely, and of good report, I encourage you to look for specific promises in God’s Word and declare that reality instead.

For example, when you are tempted to say, “I know I’m going to fail,” instead proclaim God’s reality that, “The Lord is my helper, I will not fear” (Heb.13:6).

When you are tempted to say, “I can’t handle this; it’s too much for me,” instead proclaim God’s reality that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”  (Phil. 4:13).

When you are tempted to say, “This day is falling apart,” instead proclaim God’s reality that, “This is the day that the Lord has made; [I] will rejoice and be glad in it”  (Ps. 118:24).

Instead of saying (or thinking), “I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” instead proclaim God’s reality that, “I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; For You alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).

And so on.

Speaking God’s reality can have a tremendous impact upon your perspective and can infuse joy and strength into your spiritual walk – not to mention uplift those around you!

2. Speak to Edify

Crude and/or frivolous conversations are the norm in our culture, even among Christians.  When we are casually bantering with friends or family members, it’s all too easy to let down our guard and speak words that reflect the dishonorable attitudes of the world instead of the life-giving nature of Christ.

Ephesians 4:29 provides God’s clear directive for what kinds of conversations we should engage in, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

“Edification” in this verse means: to build up another in their faith. In other words, we are to speak things that point others to Christ and not the corrupt patterns of this world. To “impart grace” means to speak things which lead to “joy, sweetness, thankfulness, and virtue” in the hearers. What a far cry this is from most of our dinner table conversations!

The next time you are in a casual conversation with friends, co-workers, or family members, stop and ask yourself this important question:

Is this conversation truly edifying? (Hint: If the conversation is dishonoring to others, crude and rude, or pointless and frivolous, the answer to that question is no.)

If you find that you are engaged in a conversation that is not edifying, here are few ways to redirect it:

Ask the people around you thought-provoking questions, such as: “What has God been teaching you lately?” (if they are believers). Or, “Where is the most beautiful place you’ve traveled to?” etc.  Showing a genuine interest in others is a wonderful way to edify and build them up, and to reflect the love and attitude of Christ.

Encourage those around you and tell them things that you appreciate about them.  This is especially beneficial in family settings.  It’s so easy to assume that those closest to us know that we love and appreciate them, but never actually speak those life-giving words to them.

Don’t approach the conversation selfishly.  If you are trying to be the center of attention or impress others with your wit and personality, your focus will not be on “imparting grace to your hearers.”  Instead of pointing others toward Christ, you’ll be pointing them toward yourself.  Remember that even a casual dinner table discussion can be an opportunity to love others as Christ has loved you – with a selfless, sacrificial love.  Look for ways to serve others in your conversations, rather than looking for ways others can serve you.

If all else fails, quietly excuse yourself. There is no reason to participate in a dishonorable conversation because of social obligation. This doesn’t mean you need to go away in a huff or storm out of the room in disgust.  Be respectful and gracious toward those around you by quietly and discreetly stepping away from a discussion that is not God-honoring.

3. Speak with Purpose

With the social media craze in full swing, it’s easy to take the bait of idle chit-chat in our daily conversations, whether in-person or online. Frivolous, idle chit-chat may seem like a necessary part of daily life, but the Bible says otherwise. “Idle chatter leads only to poverty” is what Proverbs 14:23 says, and 2 Timothy 2:16 exhorts us to “shun … idle babblings.” 

“Idle babblings” means: discussion of vain and useless matters. What a perfect description of much of our communication, especially our digital conversations. Social media is a breeding ground for idle chatter, emotional ramblings, the showing off of wit and personality, and exalting our own thoughts and opinions. This kind of “idle babbling” is the opposite of the godly, fruitful, eternally-focused communication that we are called to as Christians.  

Here is a great rule of thumb:  If you don’t have something truly purposeful and God-honoring to say, then don’t say (or post) it at all.  A great way to figure out whether the words you are speaking, posting, tweeting, blogging, or texting have eternal value is to ask these key questions: 

Do these words point people to Jesus Christ and reflect His nature? 

Do they serve any higher purpose other than idle chatter? 

Do they honor God, or do they esteem the shallow things of this world? 

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it is best to keep silent.  

We live in a very noisy, chattering world. “Holding our tongue” is not normal or comfortable for most of us, but Proverbs 10:19 gives us a wonderful reminder: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

As we evaluate the words we speak (or post) every day, we must remember that this world is not our home. Each moment we have on this earth is a gift from Heaven, a beautiful opportunity to live out the sacred, set apart calling Christ has placed upon our lives. May we not waste this precious time that God has given us!  Let us ask Him for the grace to turn our attention away from distractions and onto the things that matter most to Him. May we live lives that proclaim, “Nothing else matters to me but what is eternal!”

4. Speak to Honor

Amy Carmichael wrote, “If I can easily discuss the shortcomings and the sins of any other … if I can in any way slight another in conversation, or even in thought, then I know nothing of Calvary love.”

What convicting and challenging words! The principle of honoring others is extremely important to God, and is clearly communicated in James 3:8-10:  “…[the tongue] is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 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.”

I have written previous articles about the dangers of gossip, but it’s such an important part of honorable speech that it is worth revisiting.  As women, we often fall into the pitfall of dishonoring others with our words under the banner of “just being honest” or showing “loving concern.”  But the Bible makes it clear that if we are in any way slighting another person in conversation, we are not walking in the nature of Christ.

When it comes to something as harmful and destructive as gossip, our answer must always be no without any qualifiers or excuses. In other words, the very moment we become aware of the temptation to speak ill of another person, we must call upon the grace of God to say no to that bait and to keep our mouth shut, even when the temptation to speak words against someone else is extremely strong.  Just because we have strong feelings (i.e. hurt or frustration toward someone) does not mean we need to act upon those feelings.  Elisabeth Elliot said, “Obedience to God is always possible. It is a deadly error to fall into the notion that when feelings are extremely strong we can do nothing but act on them.”  God is ready and willing to enable us with every bit of strength and self-control we need, if we call upon Him.

The same is true for listening to gossip in any form.  The moment we are aware that someone is attempting to place even the tiniest morsel of gossip in front of us, we must call upon the grace of God to say an immediate and decisive no, even if it causes social awkwardness.  Taking a stand against gossip does not mean waiting politely until you’ve heard all the “dirt” they have to share, and then attempting to sheepishly tell them you don’t want to continue the conversation.  Rather, it means cutting them off and boldly saying, “I’m sorry but I don’t want to hear this, please stop right now” before the person even has a chance to get started.  It means literally walking away if they refuse to stop gossiping.  And it means withdrawing from friendships that are pulling you into gossip.  Yes, this may seem hard to do.  But don’t forget, gossip and slander are things that God hates.  If you truly call upon Him for help in every temptation to gossip you face, He is ready to supply you with all the strength you need to follow His pattern.

For more on this topic please see the article Guarding Against Gossip, available at setapartgirl.com.

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In Luke 6:45 Jesus tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks."  And Psalm 19:14 says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord…”  Obviously, the way that we think and the words that we speak go hand-in-hand.  If we are not cultivating truth in our inner lives, we will not be able to speak truth-filled, life-giving words.  But as we build our lives around Jesus Christ and His reality, our words will naturally reflect His truth and nature. 

If you have never done so, take some time to purposefully consecrate your tongue to Jesus Christ.  Ask Him to use your tongue for His glory.  Ask Him to fill your mouth with His truth and to place the “law of kindness” on your tongue just as the Proverbs 31 woman's speech is described.  This is only possible by His enabling grace.  Human willpower will surely fall short, but with God nothing is impossible.  And it all starts with a heart attitude that says:  "Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee."