Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

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How to Tame the Tongue

Do some damage control. We might have to start by doing some damage control. Some of the best words we can ever say are “I’m sorry.” Proverbs says in chapter 12 verse 15 that “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes…” Since we all in what we say, saying “I’m sorry” a lot is an absolute necessity for a relationship to remain close. If you’re in a marriage or a close friendship or if you’re a parent and these words aren’t on your lips a lot then something is probably very wrong. Taming the tongue means doing some damage control.

Listen and think. We should listen and think before we respond. Prov. 18:13: “He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him.” Also, Prov. 15:28: “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil things.” Both of these verses suggest that we listen before we respond and we think through what we say before we say it. Often times as we do that we’ll have some doubts about what we intended at first to say. A good rule of thumb is, if in doubt, don’t say it. There is a sense here that we should slow down in our speech. Sometimes we’re impressed with the one who has a quick response, but usually that’s a recipe for disaster, especially when emotions are out of control.

Deal with the source. Proverbs also suggests that we go to the source of our words. The source of what comes out of our mouths is what lies beneath the surface. The real issue is our heart. Prov. 4:23-24: “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you a deceitful mouth, And put devious lips far from you.” It would be a mistake if you somehow got the idea that the way to respond to this is to go out and try really hard to control your tongue. The real problem is not with our tongue but with our heart. Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” When I shake a salt shaker, what comes out? Salt. Why does salt come out and not something else? Because there’s salt inside. What else could possibly come out of the shaker than what’s in it? You see, whatever is in your heart comes out of you—especially when people shake you. When I give in to the temptation to say something harsh or cruel, I realize that the problem isn’t with my vocal chords—the problem is with my heart. I see who I am by the words I speak. It’s the same for all of us. Your words reveal who you really are.

In order to change our words, we must change our hearts. But how do we do that? When my dad had a heart attack years ago, his doctor told him he needed bypass surgery. Obviously, my dad couldn’t perform the operation on himself, but neither could the doctor if my dad didn’t cooperate. He had to submit himself to the surgeon so the surgeon could do his job. In the same way, if you want a changed heart, you have to submit yourself to God so he can change you. In the Psalms, David wrote, “Create in me a pure heart, O God.” (Ps 51:10). That’s where you start. To change your heart, give it to God. Submit it to him. The key to taming the tongue is to keep our heart yielded to the Lord. That’s impossible unless you have Jesus dwelling in your heart, but when we invite Christ to come into our lives he comes in and he begins a process of transformation from the inside out. From that point on we have a choice to yield to the Spirit or yield to the flesh. Going to the source means yielding to the Spirit; it means repenting of my bitterness, jealousy, selfishness and lack of faith which gave rise to harsh words in the first place.

As I think about the powerful impact that our words have on our relationships I’m reminded that one of the great themes of Scripture is the idea that God himself has spoken to us. Our God is a God who speaks. But, how does he speak to us?  Hebrews 1:1-2a says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days he has spoken to us through His Son…” You see, the preeminent way that God has spoken to us is through the One who is called the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is the “Word made flesh.” He’s the communication of God to us. He’s the one who expresses to us the heart of the Father. And what a word that is! Sometimes we question how important our words really are. We say, “Oh, mere words, what can they do?” But if anything should convince us of the importance of words in our relationships it is this fact that when God chose to speak to us he chose to speak in one word—his Son. This wasn’t a careless word, was it? This was communication at its best.

As God’s beloved children who have his Spirit dwelling within, we have the privilege of imitating his gracious speech. No one can tame the tongue; you can’t, I can’t. But there is One who can. Will you come to him and ask him to heal your tongue?

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The Life-Giving Tongue

If death and life are in the power of the tongue, how do I bring life with the things I say to others? Let me suggest a few things, all from the book of Proverbs. 

Good words are few. The Lord’s Prayer is only 56 words long, but the Department of Agriculture needed 15,629 words to discuss the pricing of cabbage. It’s not using many words that makes a difference; it’s using the right words. Proverbs 10:19 says, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who retrains his lips is wise.” The more we talk, the more we sin. It could be misleading information, thoughtless advice, sarcasm, or expressions of pride. The wise person will use words sparingly. The Quakers used to put it this way, “Never break the silence, unless you can improve upon it.” Another proverb makes the same point with irony. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is counted prudent.” Strong, silent types are NOT always wise, but we usually think they’re wise, especially compared to those who are constantly spouting off. Words are like dollars. As we print more dollars, they become inflated and the value of those dollars goes down.

Good words are true. Proverbs 12:22 says, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, But those who deal faithfully are his delight.” The contrast here is between those who lie and those who deal faithfully. To lie is to deal unfaithfully with those around us. Think how our society depends on truth. What would it be like if we couldn’t believe what we read in our newspapers?  At the heart of journalism is a commitment to tell the truth. How would you feel about that over—the—counter medicine if you couldn’t trust what’s on the label? What about sports? We know how important it is not to cheat. Play by the rules or the whole thing falls apart. In relationships there is no community or friendship apart from truth. Where there is no truth there is no trust and where there is no trust there is no real community.

Good words are fitting. It’s not just enough that words are true. It’s possible to say something that’s right and true but totally inappropriate. Good words are also fitting.  Words that are fitting are timely and appropriate. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word.” An apt answer and a timely word are easily recognized by the response that they invoke. They bring joy and delight to the hearer. To speak words that are fitting requires that we think as much about where and when we say something as what we say. Think back to words that have harmed you in the past. They might have been true, but chances are they came at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Good words are fitting words.

Good words are calming. Proverbs also says that good words are calming words. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” A gentle, soft and tender word calms a situation that’s about to get out of control while a harsh word just makes things worse. Here is a secret about how to deal with potentially explosive situations. Your spouse is angry at you because you got home late from work. You’re irritated because you did everything you could to get home early, but all you want to do is sit down and read the paper. In a slightly accusatory way she tells you she needs some help in the kitchen and why won’t you ever talk to her. You don’t feel like doing either. But how you respond may be the difference between a tense moment that blows over and World War III. Good words are words which by their tone and content defuse a situation.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured throughout this country on the powerful, and often negative impact of words. He often asks audiences if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. Invariably, a small number of listeners raise their hands, signifying “Yes.” Others laugh, and quite a few call out, “No!” Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you can’t go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you’re addicted to alcohol. If you can’t go 24 hours without smoking, you’re addicted to nicotine. So if you can’t go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you’ve lost control over your tongue.”

Most of us would have to admit, that’s me. So the real question is, how can we tame our tongue? Complete mastery of the tongue is impossible for any of us, but we can make progress. We don’t have to go through life tasting the bitter fruit of an out of control tongue. Proverbs says a number of things about this as well. I will write of that in my next post.


Words Matter

Words matter. If there’s anything the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin situation teaches us, it’s that. The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” is nonsense. Words do far more damage than sticks and stones. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but they can’t kill our spirit like words can.

The Bible talks a lot about the importance of our words. This past year, if someone paid you ten dollars for every kind and helpful word you spoke about others or to others, but also collected ten dollars from you for every unkind word you spoke about or to others, would you be rich or poor? If the New Testament is right, we might all be broke. James writes, All kinds of animals have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It’s a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

The words we say create most of the problems we face. Most problems at church or in the workplace are the result of words. Most divorces aren’t caused by adultery or desertion; they’re caused by words. Most conflicts between parents and children aren’t the result of some generation gap; they’re the result of words. Think about your own relationships for a moment. What has been said to you that has stung or crushed your spirit or just took the wind out of your sails for days? It might have been something said to you many years ago, but you remember, and it still hurts. Think about the things you’ve said that had the same impact on others. Once those words were out of your mouth they could never be retrieved. You really can’t take it back, can you? Our words become an enduring part of every relationship we have.

That’s why the Bible says so much about our words. It teaches us the words we speak will make or break the relationships we have. Learn to season your speech with grace and your relationships will grow in depth and in joy and in peace. Leave your tongue unbridled and it will poison your own life and those you love the most. No where is this more clearly stated than in Proverbs 18:20-21:

With the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach will be satisfied; he will be satisfied with the product of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

These verses speak of the power of the tongue to impact our lives and those around us. The tongue has the power to inflict both life and death. Because of its power, we’re encouraged to “love it,” which means to respect it and to use it with care. If we do so the product of our speech will bring satisfaction to our lives. We’ll “eat its fruit” and enjoy the blessing the wise use of our speech brings to our relationships.

The tongue can do great harm or it can do great good. When Daryl Green was being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, he reflected on the impact his father had on him. He said, “Everyone else told me I was too small. But my dad said, ‘You can run the ball.’ Everyone else said, ‘No,’ but my dad said, ‘Go.’” Green was reflecting on the difference words made in his life. Words contain the power of death: “You’re too small.” But they also contain the power of life: “You can run the ball.” What a difference words can make! With your words you can hurt or you can heal, you can build up or you can tear down.

In my next few posts, I’ll get more specific about the kind of words that bring life and the kind that bring death.

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A Legacy of Mercy

Is the legacy of Christianity merciful or merciless? Yesterday I preached on 1 John 3:11-24. The message was called, “Love Life” because at the heart of the message was the idea that those who claim to know God must love like God. I had intended to include a quote from historian Rodney Stark in which he argues that Christianity’s emphasis on mercy was the primary factor that captured the attention of the ancient world. Stark writes: “In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security. In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. Thus humans must learn to curb the impulse to show mercy. Showing mercy was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful.” My hope is that the church today might continue this legacy of mercy while still holding onto the truth of the Word of God.