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But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the Day of Judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. - Matt. 12:36-37
For many of us, fear arises when we hear these words because we are aware of the frequent carelessness of our speech. To some, this passage is a warning to not use explicit language. Others, with a little deeper contemplation, have realized these verses are challenging us to more than simply avoiding a list of unacceptable words.
These verses often set the precedent for how we show kindness in speaking to others, or why we abstain from inappropriate humor. Regardless of how the above statements have been historically understood, Jesus proclaimed a critical truth about the effects of our speech that we all have to wrestle with at some point in our life.
If we survey the Bible, there are actually a surprising amount of instances where the biblical authors offer some insight into the nature of our speech.
The Book of James reveals the danger of the tongue by comparing it to a series of short metaphors. Although the tongue is a small part of the body, like a rudder on a ship, it steers the direction of the whole body. How can such a small part of the body boast of such great things?
James also compares the tongue to a small flame that set an entire forest ablaze. It is clear that this small organ has great power, and is worthy of a considerable amount of our attention. The sad reality though is our tongue is the most overused muscle on our body, yet we treat it with the most passive carelessness. If the imagery of these metaphors isn’t helpful for you, James states one of the most peculiar statements I’ve ever read in the Bible.
For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
How could he say this? How is it possible that perfect speech produces a perfect person?
In order to understand this passage, we must go back to the statements of Jesus that we discussed earlier. Just before Jesus warns us of the effects of our speech, He tells us of the source of our words. He offers arguably one of the most profound statements that I’ve ever heard: “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” A good man out of the good treasure within him can only produce that which is good. And the evil man brings forth that which is evil.
The words we release are fundamentally born out of the nature of our hearts. To quote Ben Stuart, “What we set out minds on, that’s where our hearts’ affections will be, and where our hearts’ affections are, that’s what will come out of us.”
It doesn’t make sense for the evil treasure to produce good words, nor vice versa. For this reason, James can get away with saying that perfect speech is evidence of a perfect man. Thankfully, Jesus intercedes for our sin when we fail in this regard, but my hope is that we orient our hearts towards the purity of Christ. If we do, I’m convinced our words will be drastically transformed. If there is frequent evidence of filthy speech or unkind language towards people, there is noticeable indication of unchecked corruption in the heart.
One of the most critical moments in my own walk with Christ is when I was first introduced to one of Paul’s statements in Ephesians 4. Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word that is good for edification in the need of every moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear you.
My friends and I had a history of inappropriate humor that we thought was harmless. What we didn’t understand though is this was negatively affecting our relationship with Christ. Not only that, but it hindered the way people were seeing the purity of Jesus in our witness. I didn’t realize how inundated my speech was with clever remarks that could rise an uncomfortable chuckle from my friends.
God dramatically broke my pride with this verse, but there was something even more special about this experience. I didn’t feel a crushing weight of guilt that caused me to alter my behavior. I realized that God was calling me to something far more beautiful that he had designed me for: to use my speech for edification. The Gospel doesn’t simply charge us to drop our bad habits, but for the purpose of people experiencing the love of Jesus, it charges us to seek new behavior.
Following Christ is not about abstaining from culturally unacceptable behavior, it’s about turning from our corrupt nature towards the purity of the Lover of our souls. Our actions are replaced with the words and deeds of the kingdom of God. What an amazing beauty to be called into – to bless people’s lives. And what better way to do that, than to use our tongues as an instrument of righteousness.
Ultimately, we have little time here on this globe, and we have a short window to bring God glory and the love of Jesus Christ to the lives of the world around us.
A Proverb that seems to never leave the tablet of my heart is Proverb 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” On any given day, in any given moment, the way we use our speech has the power to usher in life and peace, or withhold it. The tongue has both the power of life and death, so we are constantly faced with the decision of how we want to use our words.
My hope for us is that when we see these Bible passages concerning the tongue, we won’t simply see it as a precedent to avoid explicit and inappropriate language, but we would see it as a call to live with other’s souls in mind. I pray that we would always live with eternity in mind.
And if nothing else, I pray that we would understand that Jesus, the Son of God who offered up Himself for us, is worthy of our purity and devotion. Don’t just avoid things today, but passionately pursue something better, and live with the mission of Christ in mind.