A former colleague of mine (who is since retired) used to refer to powerful tools as a “sharp knife”. They were effective at cutting through problems, but they came with the risk of injury to the user. (The veteran user of a blade also knows that a dull knife can be even more dangerous, as it takes more force to cut things, increasing the possibility of wounding users even worse if they lose control of it.)
As we bring a new driver up to speed (no pun intended) in our family, I am reminded of this point, too. While my son is shaping up to be both careful and skilled behind the wheel, riding with him brings home the realization that there is a lot of power under those pedals, and a lot of momentum that must be kept under control.
In the same way, James the brother of Jesus, writes the following about another force that we wield – one that can do much good or much harm:
People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison.
James 3:7-8 NLT
Like driving a vehicle that could hurt someone if we aren’t careful, or using a sharp knife to cut up food for dinner, the tongue comes with responsibilities. (Insert obligatory quote from Spider-Man’s uncle Ben, here.) The spoken word can comfort, heal, reconcile, train, and even show people the way to eternal salvation (out of the mess that our sins have gotten us into). However, what we say can also hurt, destroy, embarrass, and crush other people.
So, how do we make use of this powerful – but dangerous – instrument that we have been entrusted with? Well, I’m still learning to keep my words under control myself, but let’s take a look at some parallels, to give us something to ponder and practice today.
Whether we are using a knife, driving a vehicle, or using any one of countless other “dangerous but useful” implements, training is a key part of applying them safely. Children and chefs are taught how to use a knife carefully, cutting away from oneself, keeping the rest of our fingers away from the blade, and ensuring that others are not in harm’s way if the knife gets away from the user. Getting a driver’s license (at least in my state) requires study, testing, supervision, and practice. Not following the rules of the road may result in that license being revoked, as well.
How do we train our tongue, though? For one thing, we should study to learn how to use it well. The Bible offers us lots of advice on this one:
- Matthew 15:18-19 – Jesus taught us that what is in our heart is what is going to overflow into our words. So, filling up with good things in our heart is going to improve our words. (I respect that changing our words can reduce our chances of offending others, as seems to be the premise of “political correctness”. However, our choice of words doesn’t change our hearts nearly as effectively as Jesus’ plan: changing our hearts so that our words become kinder and more considerate of other’s struggles.) So, consider what you are doing to make sure that your heart is in good shape.
- Philippians 4:8 – If we need a list of what to fill our hearts with, here’s a great verse to memorize. (If you haven’t memorized scripture in a while – maybe not since you were a kid, or maybe not ever – this might be a good one to start with.)
- Galatians 5:22-23 – The fruit of the Spirit also shows us what our lives should look like. As we spend more time soaking in the message that God gave us in the Bible, while also listening for what the Holy Spirit speaks directly to us, we should expect our lives to reflect that perfect Spirit. Look for was to fill up on God’s messages to you this week.
- We can also emulate good examples. When we spend time listening to those whose words do not honor God (see 1 Corinthians 15:33), we should expect these bad examples to rub off on us. When we listen to those whose words are full of grace and truth most of the time, we should expect our hearts and our words to start to match that, accordingly. These are choices we make every day, where we get the ability to select the radio, TV, and YouTube channels that we take in, or even the conversations that we participate in.
- And, for good measure, Colossians 4:6 also reminds us how to speak with others. When we have experienced God’s grace, how can our words not reflect that? If you – like me – sometimes feel like your words aren’t “salted” with grace, maybe it’s time to pause and reflect on how much grace we have been given.
May we take responsibility for what we say, but not only when we mis-speak. Let us take responsibility for what we will say in the future as well, by making sure that we are qualified to wield the power to speak (or type) words and messages into the hearts of those around us. We may need some training, some practice, and some discipline, but just as a knife in the hands of a master craftsman (or a high-performance vehicle under the control of a skilled driver) can achieve amazing things, the right words spoken in in Jesus’ name can change lives – or even the world – for the better.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.