Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, has lectured throughout the 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 large number call out, “no!”
Telushkin responds: “Those who can’t answer ‘yes’ must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go 24 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue.”
The problem, according to the book of James, is that “[o]ut of the same mouth come praising and cursing” (James 3:10). Much like when people wonder, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?!” it can be, as James points out, like “a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body” that “corrupts the whole person” (James 3:6-7). Yeouch!
Like the rudder on a ship, James says, even though it is small, our tongues can steer our whole lives in a helpful or a hurtful direction.
So it is crucial for the Christian that we learn to control our tongues. Our witness to the reality of God, as individuals and as a church, depends on it!
So, how can we aim our “rudders” in the direction of helping? Might I suggest we practice. Captains of ships don’t just instantly become captains and take over the wheel their first time out. They have to learn. Likewise, using our words to help and to heal isn’t natural for most of us. It takes discipline and practice… not just empty prayers that ask the Holy Spirit to magically become the “Great Navigator” of our tongues while we idly wait for a miracle from on high. That was the error many committed when they marveled at Jesus’ powers as an easy fix that didn’t require them to change. Since when did exhibiting Godly behavior not take real work or effort? It’s why Jesus said in Matthew 26:41 that the “spirit is willing, but the body is weak” and Paul admonishes us to discipline our bodies.
So, how ‘bout this? Let’s try, as a body of believers, even if for only 24 hours, to go without saying any unkind words about, or to another person. Make a conscious decision and effort to do that one simple thing. And, over time, as we increasingly give ourselves to Godly patterns of behavior by using our speech as a bandage rather than a bludgeon, God will be glorified in our church.
Then, we won’t have people questioning out of sneering surprise, “You praise God and follow Jesus?” But they’ll declare out of genuine admiration and wonder, “You praise God and follow Jesus!”