The Power of the Tongue

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(Originally published 3/16/11)

We all remember the adage growing up, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Our parents taught us to say that to the kids who were making fun out of us by calling us names.  

As a kid I tried using that tip several times as a defense against the mean words that some directed at me, but I have to be honest it really didn’t stop the pain of those hurtful words. As I got older and reflected on that saying a little I came to realize that, although our parents meant well, the reason their advice didn’t help to stop the pain of unkind words is because that saying isn’t true.  Sticks and stones can inflict physical pain and may even break a bone or two—but those wounds usually heal without any lasting effects.

But an unkind word spoken carelessly or in a moment of anger can wound for a lifetime.

That’s why the psalmist prayed:
“Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the rebellion of the workers of iniquity, Who sharpen their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows–bitter words…” (Psalm 64:2-3)

I hope you realize that bitter, hateful words are like arrows that once set to flight cannot be recalled, and once lodged in the heart of another can continue to cause pain for many years to come.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)

You realize that the tongue is the only member of our body that comes with its own cage! That’s because the spoken word is a powerful thing. Author Warren Wiersbe put it this way,

“A judge speaks some words and a guilty prisoner is taken to a cell on death row. A gossip makes a phone call and a reputation is blemished or perhaps ruined. A cynical professor makes a snide remark in a lecture and a student’s faith is destroyed. Never underestimate the power of words. For every word in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, 125 people died in World War II. Solomon was right: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). No wonder James compared the tongue to a destroying fire, a dangerous beast, and a deadly poison (James 3:5–8). Speech is a matter of life or death.”

When James likened the tongue to a “destroying fire, a dangerous beast, and a deadly poison” he wasn’t implying that the tongue acts alone in its destructive dirty work.

As we study other passages of Scripture we discover that the tongue is really only one member in a trio that work together in verbally hurting or destroying another.

Let’s use a gun to illustrate the destruction caused by the tongue.

When we’re talking about a gun, it isn’t the gun that does the killing–the bullet does the actual killing. The gun is what fires the bullet and the hand of the gunman is what pulls the trigger on the gun. Each plays a vital role in the injury and or death of another. Without any one of which the victim would not be hurt, all three have to be working together to cause harm. The same is true with the injury done to another through our words. The words actually do the harm. The tongue is what fires off the words and the heart is what pulls the trigger on the tongue.

However, the heart not only pulls the trigger on the tongue, but it also supplies the ammunition in the form of words that come from a heart of hatred, bitterness, unforgiveness and revenge.

Jesus said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

When we go to a doctor for a physical, one of the first things he or she often says is, “Stick out your tongue and say ahhh.” By doing this a doctor can often spot certain symptoms that reveal what is going on inside the body that may indicate the presence of infection or disease.

In essence the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, is applying this principle spiritually. He is telling us that the tongue will reveal what’s going on inside the heart and therefore what condition the heart is in.  If the words coming out of your mouth are often critical, unloving and judgmental towards others it indicates that there’s a problem with the condition of your heart.

The first thing you need to do is to acknowledge your sin, confess it to God and repent (turn from it). As John the apostle assures us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Next you need to do as David did in Psalm 51 as he repented for his sin with Bathsheba he prayed—”Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm51:10)

And don’t forget the wisdom of Proverbs 10:19, “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

Therefore it is a good idea to pray everyday—”Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm141:3)

Finally, we all need to understand as Christians that guarding what comes out of our mouths is not optional it is something we are commanded in Scripture to do.

Listen to what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

All of this is especially important in marriage and is one of the main reasons so many marriages are crumbling. It’s as someone has said,

“Many marriages are like the mighty oaks which line the ridges of the Rockies. They withstand winter and summer storms year after year only to be felled by an attack of little beetles.”

There are a lot of marriages that have survived a long time and have withstood many storms in life—only to be finally brought down by years of careless and unkind words.

With many marriages it isn’t any one sin that finally brings them down, it’s “death by a thousand cuts” and those ‘cuts’ come from hurtful words.

“There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” (Proverbs 12:18)

Let’s all purpose in our hearts, through God’s grace and strength, to use our tongues to honor God and build up others—and let’s purpose to start in our homes.

“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)

May the Lord richly bless you as you walk with Him day by day.

Pastor Phil