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What Does Your Tongue Say About You?

Words have power. Our tongues have the power to bless or to curse those around us—to encourage and build up, or to hurt and destroy.


Take a moment and do a personal inventory of yourself, and how well you use your tongue.

On the positive side, are you quick to encourage the people around you and express your appreciation to them? Are you thoughtful in what you say, so that others gain from your insight? Have you developed a manner that shows you are a good listener?

On the negative side, do you find yourself withholding words that might encourage or inform the people around you? Do you speak so often and so fast and so loudly that others do not have the opportunity to express themselves much when you are around? Do you use words that subtly seek to build yourself up and tear others down? Have you perfected the art of verbal barbs or of gossip, so that people around you are injured by your words?

The third chapter of James compels us to make a decision—will we use the words that come out of our mouths to be a source of blessing and encouragement to people around us or will they be the source of pain and dread for those who hear the sound of our voices?

One of the central metaphors James uses is to compare the tongue to the rudder of a ship. As the New Living Translation puts it: " … a tiny rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot wants it to go, even though the winds are strong. So also, the tongue is a small thing but what enormous damage it can do."

In other words, with our words we can either keep people on course or we can drive them off course. Our words of encouragement and praise and appreciation sail people toward their desired destination of becoming people of character, people who excel in faith and hope and love.

But our cutting, gossiping, depreciating, competitive, hurtful words have their impact was well; they can blow into other people's lives and cause untold damage, like a raging storm on the sea that blows a ship off course or runs it aground or sinks it to the bottom of the ocean. Such is the destructive power of critical words.

"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." That's what kids say to cover up the childish insults and hurtful putdowns their peers heap upon them. But it's not true. Words do hurt and sometimes a lot deeper than sticks or stones and certainly with deeper, more long-lasting consequences.

And what's true for kids on the playground is just as true for you and me in our homes and workplaces. Words—both spoken and written—have enormous power.

Most people are far more sensitive to words than we've ever understood. And when we are honest we all know that we are more sensitive to words than we would like to admit. And we live in a world that is filled with words that hook us into anxiety and self-doubt and painful memories. A single word or a phrase spoken to us in anger or ridicule or teasing can set a painful process into motion.

What are the phrases for you? What words set you on edge? What can be said to you that makes you totally insecure? If you are married, your spouse probably knows because he or she may have used them on you a time or two.

And the words that hurt the most are often the ones that were spoken to us long, long ago. Maybe back in the school yard when we were young, about how we could not sing or our nose looked funny or we were too fat or too skinny or too … whatever.

You see, our brains have an immense memory capacity. Have you ever been sitting quietly and suddenly into your mind you can rehear some painful words someone said to you months or years or even decades ago? That shows the power of words. That's what James is talking about here.

In Matthew chapter 15, verse 18, Jesus said: "The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these are what defile a person." You see, our words are a window into what is really going on inside us. Our words, for better or worse, reveal the true state of our hearts.

Kevin Livingston is the senior pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto.

Originally published in Business.Life, Spring 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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