“I Wish I’d Never Said That!”
Author Gordon MacDonald tells how a rebuke from a friend saved him—thousands of times over—from hurting others and making a fool of himself. He was in Japan on (ironically) a speaking tour with a close friend of his, a man several years his senior. As he and his friend were walking down a street in Yokohama, the name of one of their mutual friends came up. And Gordon said something unkind about the person: “It was sarcastic. It was cynical. It was a put–down,” he recalls.
His friend stopped immediately and put his face right in front of Gordon’s and said, “Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not say a thing like that about a friend.” In the midst of a speaking tour about God, he had used ungodly words to belittle another person.
“My friend could have put a knife into my ribs, and the pain would not have been any less,” Gordon wrote later. “But you know something? There have been ten thousand times in the last twenty years that I have been saved from making a jerk of myself. When I’ve been tempted to say something unkind about a brother or sister, I hear my friend’s voice say, ‘Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not speak in such a way about a friend.’”1
Think what would have happened to Gordon MacDonald’s relationship with the person he spoke ill of if Gordon’s unkind words had made it back to the person! Gordon’s reputation and credibility would have suffered as well. Now, consider your own experience. Have someone else’s comments hurt you? How have you been guilty of speaking hurtful words about others?
Let us not be desensitized and careless about the words we speak—especially when the emotion of anger wells up from within. It is no wonder that the apostle James combined “slow to speak” and “slow to wrath” in the same verse (James 1:19).
Portraying the Tongue
Scripture has a lot to say about the power of words, and James 3:1–12 contains one of the best summaries we can find.
The more words we speak, the greater the likelihood that some of them will be regrettable.
Accountability. James warns teachers to be careful what they say because God will judge them more strictly (James 3:1). But that doesn’t mean everyone else gets a free pass. Jesus said we would be held accountable for “every idle word” we speak (Matthew 12:36). This includes the words we speak without thinking and gossip. The most casual, thoughtless words can sometimes cause the most harm. Proverbs 10:19 says, “He who restrains his lips is wise” because “in the multitude of words sin is not lacking.” It is a simple matter of math: the more words we speak, the greater the likelihood that some of them will be regrettable.
Disproportionality. That’s a big word to express a simple idea: The size of the tongue, or the size of a few simple words, stands in stark contrast to the size of the trouble caused (James 3:3–6). In the same way a small bit guides a horse or a rudder turns a giant ship, a seemingly insignificant word can shape the course of a person’s life. How often do we hear reports of a politician or celebrity being caught off guard near a “hot mic”? After delivering an inspiring speech, they make a flippant remark that is picked up by a mic they thought had been turned off. The microphone captures their offensive comment, and someone broadcasts it to the whole world via the Internet. A few unguarded words unravel all the good accomplished in the preceding speech. But there is a positive side of disproportionality too. Just as a single unkind or unguarded word can hurt, a single kind or complimentary word can heal. Disproportionality works both ways.
Wildness. If we imagine our tongue as an animal, we should not picture the pets that greet us when we walk through the door. It is more like a saber–tooth tiger or a ravenous wolf (James 3:7–8). Humanity has succeeded in taming some of the wildest creatures on earth, but we have miserably failed when it comes to taming our speech. For evidence, I submit to you every time you have thought, “I wish I’d never said that!” Our tongue can be savage. Unless we keep it on a short leash, it will tear people apart.
Consistency. Not only can our words injury those around us, but they can also harm our witness for the Lord. Remember what Gordon MacDonald’s friend said to him? “A man who says he loves God would not say a thing like that about a friend.” For a Christian to speak in an ungodly way is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. James says that blessings and curses should not come from the same mouth any more than salt water and fresh water can come from the same spring (James 3:9–12).
Our words reflect our heart and our relationship to Jesus Christ.
In John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Each time we open our mouth to speak, we have the power to bless others as representatives of Jesus Christ. But if we are not careful, we may sin by insulting someone God made in His own image. Our words reflect our heart and our relationship to Jesus Christ.
Protecting the Tongue
There is only one way to protect your tongue: Protect your heart. Proverbs 4:23 calls the heart the “wellspring of life” (NIV 1984). And according to Jesus, the things that defile us spring from our heart (Mark 7:20–23). We can polish our appearance all we want, but eventually, our heart will reveal our true character. That was the problem with the Pharisees. They looked holy on the outside, but Jesus described them as “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
The mouth speaks what the heart gives it to say. If you are tempted—especially in emotional or angry moments—to speak words that you will later regret, ask the Lord for help. One way to do this is to create a prayer based on Scripture.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Amen. (Psalm 19:14; 139:23–24, NLT)
Our words say a lot about us, and they have the power to shape the future. According to Proverbs 18:21, “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences” (NLT). So choose them carefully and choose them consistently. Let your words bear testimony to the grace and peace that is ours in Christ Jesus.
1Gordon MacDonald, “Feeling As God Feels,” Preaching Today #196.
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