The Magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America
Part 3

By Karen Hodge

Death and Life Are in the Power of the Tongue

There are no neutral words

By Karen Hodge

Published March 18, 2021 / First published in byFaith Magazine Q1 2021

This past Labor Day weekend, an expectant California couple ventured outside to answer a common question: boy or girl? They hosted a gender reveal party where they used a smoke-generating pyrotechnic device that malfunctioned and caught fire. They tried to contain the fire, but they were unsuccessful, and it spread out of control. A well-intentioned celebration went awry. It took only a spark to become what is now referred to as the El Dorado Fire. During 23 days, the fire consumed more than 22,000 acres. A firefighter died, and there were multiple injuries. Families were displaced, and homes were burned. As this family wondered about the gender of their child, how could they have anticipated the collateral damage of one single spark?

Compare that single act to the innumerable actions of our lips. Some say that on any given day, men speak 7,000 words, while women use 20,000 words. Solomon describes the sobering power found in the sheer volume of our words. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). Words can be life-giving and build others up. Encouraging, loving, and gracious speech enables others to flourish. Words can also be life-taking, wounding, or tearing others down. Gossip, slander, criticism, and condemnation destroy relationships. Just as fire spreads, so do spoken words. There are no neutral words. Our speech has a trajectory. What we choose to say today is ultimately a matter of life or death.

Compare that single act to the innumerable actions of our lips. Some say that on any given day, men speak 7,000 words, while women use 20,000 words. Solomon describes the sobering power found in the sheer volume of our words. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21). Words can be life-giving and build others up. Encouraging, loving, and gracious speech enables others to flourish. Words can also be life-taking, wounding, or tearing others down. Gossip, slander, criticism, and condemnation destroy relationships. Just as fire spreads, so do spoken words. There are no neutral words. Our speech has a trajectory. What we choose to say today is ultimately a matter of life or death.

Words Belong to God

TO UNDERSTAND HOW our words go off course, we have to go back to the beginning. Creation began with words. "And God said, let there be light, and there was light" (Genesis 1:3). Words are from God. He created them for His purposes. Our words have value because they have the potential within them to reflect His glory. Speech is one of the many things that set us apart from the rest of creation. We were created to bear His image in our words and deeds. God's first word to humanity is framed with a life-giving mandate, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Genesis 1:28). That is why we need to remember words belong to God. Are our words spreading His fame or ours? When we forget God's good intention for words and seek to glorify ourselves using them for our own purposes - well, that is when trouble begins.


Words As Weapons

THE FALL ALSO BEGAN with words. Death now infects every person and everything. The life-taker enters by asking the woman, "Did God actually say …?" (Genesis 3:1). Satan kills with his tongue. His weapon wielded against the woman is his words. The life-taker promises benefits, but instead he delivers burdens. His chief strategy is to distort the truth of God's Word. After the Fall, God confronted Adam and the woman with their sin. What did they do? They opened their mouths and began blaming God and one another. Just as with our first parents, all our words are rooted in either truth or lies. Our words' orientation will determine whether we are imaging our Heavenly Father or the father of lies. We also can be tempted to blame our speech problems on someone else. The sin struggle is real. We need the Creator of words, the Word Himself, to change our most profound issue: our heart. The overflow of our hearts will highlight the fundamental difference between life-giving and life-taking speech.


Words Are Powerful

WHEN WE GO TO the doctor for a checkup, one of the first things he or she asks us to do is stick out our tongue. As strange as it seems, it is a pretty reliable indicator of our overall health. A pale tongue can indicate an iron deficiency. A dry tongue points to dehydration. And a swollen red tongue can point to an infection in the body. Our tongue can also underscore our spiritual health and maturity. The book of James serves as a diagnostic tool to show how words reveal our heart's health.

Words are powerful. They shape our relationships, define our plans, and convey our innermost thoughts and emotions. Words also reveal who we are to a watching world. James uses three pictures: a bit, a rudder, and a flame. While they may seem small, the significance of each is impactful. Consider how they all direct or control something larger than themselves:

"If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: Though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

"How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell" (James 3:3-6).

These ordinary pieces of equipment highlight who is in control, God or us. Horses and ships possess great power but to be useful, they need to be controlled. Volatile natures or unpredictable waves can lead them off course. They need to be directed or steered by a power outside themselves. A bit masters a wild horse. Our tongue is like the bit in our mouth. We need a greater power outside of us to control our tongues. The fruit of the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us is self-control. Controlled tongues lead to controlled actions.

A boat captain keeps a firm hand on the rudder to steer his ship. This lever can bring stability amid a storm. The direction of the rudder determines the ship's course and ultimate destination. Think about how one weighty conversation can direct the trajectory of relationships and lives.

And remember the story of the couple and the gender-reveal fiasco? A tiny spark ignited an uncontrollable blaze. Just as fire consumes, so do the words I speak with my untamed tongue. Fire will destroy anything combustible that lies within its path. When I am judgmental and critical, my words are like oxygen that fuels a fire. When I slander another person, the damage spreads extensively. Sometimes I say nothing, but I am willing to listen to destructive words about others, failing to extinguish the fire.

If I were to ask you the most life-giving or life-taking words that were ever spoken to you, you would likely recall them in a minute - words such as "I am proud of you" and "I love you." Or, "You will never amount to anything because you are a quitter." These types of words have a lasting impact. They either breathe life into or suck the life out of a relationship. They indelibly imprint our lives. If we understand that the power of words holds a life-or-death consequence, why do we say the things we say? My default is to minimalize and rationalize my speech: "I just needed to get this off my chest." "I have a right to say what I think." "Somebody will always get the last word, so why can't it be me?" Sometimes we even surprise ourselves by saying, "I can't believe what just came out of my mouth."


Words Reveal Our Heart

WE HAVE FORKED TONGUES and divided hearts. James goes on to say, "From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?" (James 3:10-11). One minute I am telling my husband, "I love you, I am thankful for you, and I need you." The next minute, I am cutting him down with uncharitable and critical words from across the room. Our speech is consistently inconsistent. This realization often shocks us. When we are thirsty, we expect a fountain to be refreshingly consistent. How can fresh and polluted water spring from the same source? The problem is not with the outflow but the source.


When people don't do what we want, and we curse them, we don't have people problems. When we come to the end of ourselves during challenging trials and say a harsh word, we don't have circumstance problems. Our words only reveal a bigger problem. We have a heart problem. When our tongue is inconsistent (and when is it not?), something is radically wrong with the heart. This duplicity shocks us because we don't realize our heart is "deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus tells His disciples, "For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). So what comes out of our mouths second, comes out of our hearts first. We need the Great Physician to change our speech through heart surgery.


Words Reveal Our Allegiance

SUPPOSE YOU WERE to record all your words in a given day and then allow others to listen to the recording. Who would they conclude was controlling your words? The content of our conversations is an indicator of who reigns sovereign over our hearts. Words reveal our allegiance.

Will my communication serve self or my Savior? Do I think my opinions deserve to be heard? Do I demand my way, and when others do not serve me, I wound them with my words? The essential difference between life-giving and life-taking words is who is ruling and reigning over our heart. When the fear of man is enthroned, I will use whatever flattery is needed to be liked. When envy is set on high, I will cut you down but be quick to make myself seem more significant. When comfort and convenience are crowned, careless words spill out with little thought about impacting the hearer. When my self-righteousness rules, I rarely listen, am quick to speak, and race faster to anger. When bitterness and unforgiveness are deeply seated, you will get no grace from me.

Repentance and faith are the agents that dethrone these worthless regents. Paul encourages us to stop flirting with danger and put these corrosive things away. We need to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice (Ephesians 4:31). Why? Because we are forgiven people. We are to "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).

Words Are Contagious

WORDS DON'T JUST impact individuals; they also shape communities. Words are infectious and contagious. The words we speak each day may be the biggest determiner of the communities we are trying to cultivate. Words have the power to yield life-giving unity or life-taking division. As a pastor's wife for more than 25 years, I have seen the far-reaching impact of my words and the words of others over entire congregations.


Miriam was a leader in Israel. She was a prophetess, the sister of Moses and Aaron. Right at the pinnacle point in Israel's historical journey, her words would have repercussions for the people of God. Standing on the opposite shore of the Rea Sea after walking through on dry land, she grabbed her tambourine and had a song to sing. Miriam's song echoed the lyrics of Moses' song. "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea" (Exodus 15:21). Her life-giving words had influence; it is written that all the women followed her.


In the Numbers account, Miriam and Aaron - instead of speaking unifying words - speak divisive words against Moses. And Miriam is surprised by the collateral damage. Pride can be subtle, and we are all susceptible. "And they said, 'Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?' And the Lord heard it" (Numbers 12:2). God always hears what we say and knows what is in our hearts. Self-sufficient words brought disease and the threat of death. Miriam was struck with leprosy, and the consequence was being sent outside the camp for seven days. Her life-taking words affected the entire community. Her arrogance stalled God's people's pilgrimage. But there is hope for a hinderer. Moses, as her mediator, prays for her healing and restoration. God used his words to welcome her back into the community of faith.



The Word Redeems Our Words

OUR TONGUE DAILY REVEALS not only our utter sinfulness but also our complete inability to reform ourselves. We need a greater power outside ourselves to control, steer, and rescue us. We cannot speak words of life without being rescued by the Life-giver. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, 14). The Word came down and dwelt among us. His life-giving words nourished, healed, and glorified His Father. But on the cross, He was cruelly treated for our cruel and unkind words. He was judged in our place for our judgmental and critical conversations.

When we are saved, our potential changes from life-taker to life-giver because our status has changed: "Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1 John 5:12). His blood has redeemed our hearts, and thus our words. Jesus' blood speaks a better word over us (Hebrews 12:24). The gospel, which is more powerful than the fire in our mouths, is the only hope to tame our tongues. As His Word transforms us, our words should reflect the Word. They should be filled with grace and truth. In our daily speech struggles, we must not look inward but remember to look upward. Peter reminds us to look to Him. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

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