Several years ago, a cousin of mine was tragically killed in an automobile accident. “Laura” was a recent college graduate and was engaged to be married. Her death was a crushing blow to her many friends, family, and her fiancée. She had always been adored by her parents, certainly more than her younger brother had been.
At the funeral, her distraught and devastated father stated to his own son, Laura’s brother, that the “wrong child died.” At that instant, the already-strained relationship between the father and the son was permanently and irreparably destroyed. To this day, almost no relationship exists between the two. No apology would suffice or make up for the venom in that remark. A young man was forced to deal not only with the emotional devastation of losing his sister to such a tragic accident, but of knowing that his own parents would have actually preferred him being dead over his sister’s death.
The words we use do matter, whether it be in a private, one-on-one discussion we may have with another, or in a discussion between multiple people. Likewise, the words we use in public forums, such as Facebook, where literally hundreds of people may see what we say, do matter. Our “tongue” and the words that we use exert massive effect on those around us, for both good and bad results. We can encourage, uplift, and express Christ-like love to those near us through appropriate usage of words and speech. Likewise, relationships which have existed for years, and in some cases, even decades, can be destroyed in an instant by careless, hateful, acid-tongued speech.
Does your speech reflect biblical principles and Jesus Christ? Or does your speech align with societal norms which surround us today (i.e. cursing, tasteless jokes, mockery, etc.)? Is winning an argument or debate through insults worth the cost, even if it serves merely to sour your opponent so horribly and permanently that they want no part of the church or the Bible because of you?
The Bible has much to say about the dangers of the tongue and the speech we use. Jesus said, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man…But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man” (Matt. 15:11, 18). His brother James likewise warned of the dangers of the tongue (James 3:5-10). The apostle Paul commanded that “no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying” (Eph. 4:29), before connecting that corrupt communication with grieving the Holy Spirit and commanding that “all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (Eph. 4:30-31). Solomon likewise wrote, “Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? There is more hope of a fool than of him” (Prov. 29:20).
As noted by William Barclay, “Many a man speaks with perfect courtesy to strangers and even preaches love and gentleness, and yet snaps with impatient irritability at his own family. It has not been unknown for a man to speak with piety on Sunday and to curse a squad of workmen on Monday. It has not been unknown for a man to utter the most pious sentiments one day and to repeat the most questionable stories the next. It has not been unknown for a woman to speak with sweet graciousness at a religious meeting and then to go outside to murder someone’s reputation with a malicious tongue.” (William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, p. 104).
Matthew Henry wrote “Men’s language discovers what country they are of, likewise what manner of spirit they are of. The heart is the fountain, words are the streams. A troubled fountain, and a corrupt spring, must send forth muddy and unpleasant streams. Nothing but the salt of grace, cast into the spring, will heal the waters, season the speech, and purify the corrupt communication. An evil man has an evil treasure in his heart, and out of it brings forth evil things. Lusts and corruptions, dwelling and reigning in the heart, are an evil treasure, out of which the sinner brings forth bad words and actions, to dishonour God, and hurt others. Let us keep constant watch over ourselves, that we may speak words agreeable to the Christian character.” (Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew 12).
As noted in more contemporary times by Phil Ware: “Our Father will remember those ‘little careless’ words we utter and hold us accountable for them. (Matthew 12:36) After all, the words that come from our mouths actually reveal the kind of heart we have. (Matthew 15:18) Foul words cannot come from a clean heart anymore than foul water can come from a clean spring. (James 3:1-12 To use our words to harm, grieves the Spirit of God within us. (Ephesians 4:29-32 Even our little words are to be chosen to bless, encourage, and build up others. (Ephesians 4:29)” (“The Little Things” by Phil Ware, http://www.heartlight.org).
The tongue can likewise be used for great good, specifically when it comes to our ultimate responsibility as Christians in teaching the gospel to others (Matt. 28:19; 2 Tim. 4:2; Heb. 5:12; Tit. 2:1-4). Praising God in song is obviously an appropriate and beneficial use of the tongue (Heb. 13:15; Col. 3:16). Prayer is an appropriate use of our speech (1 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 4:6). Encouraging those who stumble in their Christian walk is also an appropriate use of the tongue (1 Thess. 5:14). Perhaps the greatest use one will ever make of their own speech is to confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Rom. 10:8-10; Acts 8:37-38).
Does controlling one’s tongue mean that we cannot take bold and firm doctrinal stances? Absolutely not. Does this mean that we must preach the gospel with timidity? Again, absolutely not. We are to preach boldly (Acts 28:31) and take the gospel to every corner of the globe (Mk. 16:15). However, we can do this without mocking others with vicious insults and derision.
I hope that all of us, myself included, will honestly examine the words we use with others, whether it be from the pulpit, on Facebook, in our one-on-one discussions with people, or any other avenue. Our words — the words we use and how we use them — will quite literally have an eternal effect. We must remember the unseen dozens who read our words and never again in their lifetimes set foot inside a church building as a direct result of each time we unload a torrent of insults and disparaging attacks on one another and feel satisfied that we have thoroughly demolished and humiliated someone who might differ from us on a topic.
Tim graduated from ACU in 1990. He preaches and teaches at various churches of Christ in West Texas, and is a member of the Oldham Lane Church of Christ in Abilene.