We may not live in the Wild West but sometimes we sure do act like it. We become gunslingers, looking to take down our enemy at high noon.
Instead of six-shooters, though, we use words. Words have power. With our words we can cut people down. With our words we can cripple another. With our words we can destroy a reputation or even cripple a business.
Words have power. You may have found yourself on the wrong end of someone’s words—what they say to you or about you is terrible and difficult, like looking down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. Perhaps you’ve already faced the destruction that comes from someone’s harsh and hurtful words and now you’re trying to recover as best you can. Words have power. Choose them wisely.
Too many fail to see how powerful their words are. The tongue can be an ugly thing.
We throw around terms and phrases without thinking about the consequences of those power weapons. In the Army every war-fighter has to qualify with their rifle. When we go to the range to shoot, the instructors are clear to remind soldiers that they have the responsibility to know where their targets are and what lies beyond. Every time a bullet comes out of the rifle the soldier is responsible for what happens on the other end.
What would happen if we started treating our words in a similar fashion? Stop speaking so quickly and think about your intended target and what happens beyond. Where do the words go? Who might the words hit? Human speech has an enormous capacity for harm or for good. Words have power. Choose them wisely. James writes in 1:19-27:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
James isn’t giving us some abstract thoughts here—he’s giving us concrete steps on what we can do to gain control of our mouths, to stop tearing people down, and to start building people up. It’s not difficult at all–just a couple things to remember:
- Listen up, shut up, and calm down (let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God).
- We often “listen” while we’re really thinking of our next response. So when it IS our turn to answer a friend, we often say what we want to say without fully addressing what he said.
- Words have power. Racist words. Sexist words. Slander and gossip. Manipulation. Every day we see examples of powerful words used to hurt and destroy others. Sometimes it’s done in ignorance. Other times, it’s done with the full knowledge of what is being said.
- Human anger may bring about vengeance or payback but it does not bring about divine justice. It doesn’t reflect the character of God nor does it accomplish that which God would regard as true righteousness. I’m always reminded of Cheri Oteri’s SNL character who told people to “Simma Down Na!”
- No more in one ear out the other (But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves).
- It’s not enough to talk about the power of words—it’s time to start changing how we speak. When we internalize God’s message He starts to transform us and our mouths.
- James notes that an untamed tongue is a sign of junk religion—a steaming pile of poo. That’s what I get every time I see a Christian use her mouth to tear down other people.
- Psalm 34:13 says:
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.
It’s hard even to imagine our world filled with people who are listen first, take their time to respond, and stay calm. But it will never happen if we don’t start to imagine it. Imagine a world where people actually lived out what they say they believe. This means we use our words to build up and not tear down. This means we actively look to help and support those in need. Christianity is more than about believing the right things. It includes doing the right things. Do right by God. Do right by each other.
Watch your mouth.