Summary: We should seek to harness the tongue because: (1) It has great power to do good and evil (2) Our speech reveals our heart (3) It glorifies God.
In last week’s message, I gave four reasons why it can be a spiritually beneficial practice for us to make and keep resolutions. They stimulate us to think about what it means to be godly; what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ. They express our faith in God’s promises to transform us.
At the same time, they remind us that change and growth don’t happen automatically; but require intentional, sustained effort. And finally, as we realize that our own power isn’t sufficient, that we need God’s power to change, the process of making and keeping resolutions drives us to prayer and drives us to God. And so, once again, I encourage you to identify at least one area in which you sense God calling you to change, and make a resolution to do so.
That was last week’s message. This week, as a kind of case study, I’d like to examine an area in which we all might consider making a resolution to change. And that’s our speech; our words; our conversation. If you looked over the resolutions of Jonathan Edwards that I handed out last week, and if you weren’t completely overwhelmed by them, you may have noticed that several had to do with speech. Such as:
Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor . . .
Resolved, in narrations [that is, when relating a story] never to speak anything but the pure and simple [truth] . . .
Let there be something of benevolence, in all that I speak.
But of the many things we might want to change in our lives, why focus on the use of the tongue? After all, it’s just words we’re talking about. Sounds we make with our mouths, vibrations of the air that last for a fraction of a second and then disappear. What significance do they really have? As the saying goes, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Is this really an area that deserves our time and attention? My answer is a very emphatic "yes". Because according to the Scriptures, there is far more power in our words than we realize. In fact, words can be much more destructive than sticks, or stones, or fists, or knives. Listen to what Proverbs tells us:
"The tongue has the power of life and death . . . " – Proverbs 18:21, NIV
"The power of life and death". That may sound a bit extreme to you; a bit exaggerated. How could mere words kill anyone? But consider this. You’re probably familiar with Karen Carpenter, the popular singer from the seventies who died in 1983 of heart failure. Most people know that her heart attack was caused by anorexia. Basically, she starved herself to death. But what started it all? According to a 1988 CBS television movie, the "Karen Carpenter Story," her "fatal obsession with weight" began when a reviewer called her Richard’s "chubby sister". [see illus. 1] That little phrase was all it took to start her on a tragic journey of self-destruction. Now, obviously, she was a troubled woman to begin with. The author of that article didn’t cause her underlying psychological problems; he almost certainly had no intention of causing her harm. Nevertheless, those few words had a profound affect on her life. As Proverbs 12:18 tells us,
"Reckless words pierce like a sword . . . " – Proverbs 12:18, NIV
Words don’t just bounce off, even if we’d like to pretend they do. Instead, they pierce like a dagger; they go deep; they embed themselves in our mind and heart. And they can do some incredible damage. Listen to what James writes, concerning the destructive power of the tongue:
"We can make a large horse turn around and go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And 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. A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is full of wickedness that can ruin your whole life. It can turn the entire course of your life into a blazing flame of destruction, for it is set on fire by hell itself." – James 3:3-6, NLT
Isn’t it amazing, remarks James, that such a small part of the body can cause such devastation? That’s why he likens it to a fire. A single match or cigarette, thrown carelessly on the ground, can kindle a forest fire that consumes millions of acres of trees. In the same way, one careless word; or one malicious word; or one harsh, critical word; or one arrogant word, can set off a chain of events that brings great trouble and sorrow, both to the speaker and to many others.