Words are powerful – more powerful than we can imagine. Words, like ideas, have consequences. The words we speak into the air reflect who and what we are. They expose our inner qualities – or the lack of them. Jesus taught, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45 KJV).
The words we speak reflect our spiritual condition. If our hearts are full of goodness, the words we speak and the deeds we do will be good. They will produce excellent fruit in the world.
The antonym for abundance is scarcity. If our hearts are spiritually impoverished, our words and deeds will reflect that reality too.
The words we speak are symptoms. They indicate our condition – whether spiritual or carnal.
Wise King Solomon understood that our words reflect our hearts. In his proverbs he included the following, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (Proverbs 4:23-24 NIV). The words “perversity” and “corrupt talk” are expressed as a parallelism in verse 24. One equals the other. If we speak perverse and corrupt words, those words reflect what’s in our heart.
Another account of the same story we read in Luke warns us of judgment for our careless words: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36 NIV).
It is less the words than the heart that produces them. What our hearts produce in our lives renders us either “clean” or “unclean” in God’s sight. Jesus taught, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’” (Marks 7:20-23 NIV).
If our words reflect the list above, it indicates the possibility that our hearts themselves may be unclean or spiritually impoverished.
The Perils of Preaching
Those of us who are privileged to preach must weigh our words carefully. Did not James write, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1)? Sometimes we only open our mouths long enough to change feet. Teaching and preaching are dangerous work. James elaborates: “The tongue…is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
A single word can ignite a war (“Fire!”), curse a life, welcome demons, or permanently damage another’s psyche. The words spoken to us, and over us, can affect the course of our lives, scripting us forever. When I was a young father, I learned the difference between saying to one of my sons when he had disobeyed, “You did a bad thing” rather than “You are a bad boy.” If you repeatedly tell a child that he or she is bad, the child will live up to it. If you tell your child that he is fundamentally a good boy, but that in this instance he stepped out of character and did a bad thing, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.
The names we call each other, even affectionately, can affect the other’s self-image. If you tell a person repeatedly – even in jest — that he is no good, stupid, ugly, or inferior, he will unconsciously internalize those ideas and live up, or down, to them. Brothers and sisters are especially notorious for calling each other names that are actually putdowns. This can have a devastating subliminal effect.
Follow Jesus’ Example
An easy way for a Christian, led by the Holy Spirit, to understand what names he should and should not call others is to ask, “Would Jesus use this name to describe one of his intimate havarim – his friends?” Would Jesus refer to one of his disciples by the kind of monikers you lay on your wife, husband, siblings or friends?
The way we communicate with those we love, or come in contact with, is a reflection of what kind of Christian we are. It indicates how fully we have permitted the Holy Spirit to produce the love of God in our hearts. The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian congregation: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up others according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
Here is something concrete! Paul said any unwholesome talk! Do our words build others up, or tear them down? Are they wholesome words, or otherwise? Do our words reflect sensitivity to the needs of others? Is it appropriate to put down an already discouraged person? Is it right to encourage a person in his or her evil?
The words we traffic in are an indicator of our level of spiritual maturity. If our words are full of anger and resentment, then our hearts are full of the same. If our words are endlessly critical, then perhaps a critical spirit has bitten us. If our language is bitter and unforgiving, perhaps that reflects the root of bitterness that we have allowed to spring up in our heart. In the context of his admonishment about speech, Paul also wrote, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
At the same time we should exorcise from our language words that reflect “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31).
It is more than a matter of changing our vocabulary; it is an issue of the heart. Whatever is in our hearts will inevitably come out of our mouths. A loving person speaks loving words. An angry person speaks angry words. A hateful person spews hatred from his lips.
Words Fitly Spoken
The words we speak should be appropriate to the situation into which we speak them. There is an appropriate time to rebuke in love. As we learn from Proverbs, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). In another proverb we read, “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue” (Proverbs 28:23).
Many mistake encouragement for flattery. They are two different things. Christians should not be put-down artists, nor should they be flatterers. Gushing and buttering someone up to gain advantage is an ignoble use of words. Encouragement is quite another thing. Encouragement edifies, motivates, and inspires. We all need that. Many of us are reluctant to compliment another person, even when they deserve it. We mistakenly believe that we will be flattering them. Not so. Most of us do not spend enough time encouraging and building up those we love. To appropriately compliment someone is not to “build up his ego” – it is to give credit where it is due.
The thing about words is to know when it’s appropriate to speak them. Scripture tells us, “A word aptly [or fitly] spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Timing is everything. Appropriate words spoken at an inappropriate time are, well, inappropriate.
Blathering in Prayer
Even in prayer it is possible to sin with our mouths. When we speak to the King of the Universe, it is important that we think about what we are saying to Him. As we read in Proverbs 10:19 (KJV): “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven and thou upon the earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 KJV).
When we pray, God takes our words seriously. He longs to hear what his children have to say to him. However, it is best to ask God to send his Holy Spirit into our hearts to help us to pray prayers that God will honor. As did his disciples, we should all ask the Lord, “Teach us to pray.”
Jesus taught his talmidim (rabbinic students or disciples), “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like the pagans [ethnikoi = nations or gentiles], for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you have need of before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8 NIV). It isn’t the quantity of our words that count with God; it’s the quality of them.
Someone once said to me, “Why did God give us two ears and only one mouth?” The answer: because he wants us to listen twice as much as we speak. I’m not sure that’s the real reason, but its good advice. So long as we are talking we’re not listening. When you ask God for something, it’s a good idea to spend some time listening for his answer.
Sometimes its great just to be silent in the presence of God. Such silences can indeed be spiritually profitable. In them we may hear the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit.
Words can be weapons or blessings – it depends upon how we use them. They can hurt or heal, edify or tear down, encourage or discourage. Once they are spoken, we can never retract them. They will reverberate forever in the ethers of time and space. They will become our verbal legacy.
If in the past we have misused the power of words, perhaps its time to go before the Throne and seek forgiveness. If our words have hurt someone, and we know it, it may be appropriate to go to that person and apologize for any damage we may have done. We can replace our old damaging words with new ones that encourage and edify.
What we think is what we speak. What we speak has power. To correct what we say, we must first correct what we think. Paul tells us what to think: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true…noble…right…pure…lovely…admirable…excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). The more we think about such things, the sooner our words will catch up with our thoughts.