Stopping Nasty Speech at its Source
May has been a month of Words for me. I mean, I've always used lots of words, no matter what month it is. :) But this month has been one of listening to many messages about the power of our words and sins of the tongue. I think the Lord has really been hammering this home to me. I must have really needed it. ;)
I've been seeing tons of messages on watching our words lately! I love it when the Lord uses completely unrelated people and ministries to reinterate a specific message in my life.
(Here are the ministers He has used so far:
- April Showers Bring May Flowers by Taylor Phillips was an excellent deep dive into specific tongue-related sins.
A Facebook Bible study group, Artists and Writers Grow Through God's Word by Jan Cox, has been focusing on verses about thanksgiving every week
My Sunday School teacher, Greg Davis, has been working verse-by-verse through Mark. This week we talked about Mark 7:14-23 , where Jesus tells us that it's not what goes into a person that defiles him but what he does with it in his heart
I've been working on writing a review of a critcal book which led me to wonder whether a Christian can speak life graciously and still call out false teachers—blog post to come.)
Unfortunately, I wasn't listening as well as I thought I was. I had even shared one of these messages with my social media friends and added, “Okay, Lord, I get it already!” But I must not really have. Because I failed. And I failed royally.
Without going into the details, I will just share that I got upset with my husband and used a resentful, irritating tone. I was able to bite my lip a little and not say the super-nasty things I was thinking, but my self-control didn't go quite far enough. My tone was ugly and my words, though refraining from offensively tearing down, didn't build up either. Instead I defensively justified myself. I refrained from the worst option of attacking him; but I also refrained from edifying him, choosing instead to take the middle ground of selfish excusing.
This situation reinforced my idea for this post—which I was in the middle of writing—that merely stopping nasty, death-giving words from coming out of my mouth is not enough. It's a place to start, but it won't really work in the long run, because ugly words are just a symptom of a much deeper disease.
As I was reading a devotional about putting a “force stop” on our mouths (Karen Ehman at FaithGateway.com), I realized that we often hear of surface bandaid “solutions.”*
“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, NASB).
While we, yes, need to watch what comes out of our mouths, that's just the symptom. This verse in Psalms is David's cry to the LORD to guard his mouth for him. He knew it was too difficult to do himself. Although we may need to manage the symptom until we get the disease under control, the ultimate goal is to cure the disease.
While we can start with the sympoms, we should not stop there. If we don't want to spend our lives only soothing the symptoms, we need to diagnose the root cause. The root of foul, nasty, ugly speech is a foul, nasty, ugly heart.
“A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45, NIV).
I know I have problems with this, some weeks more than others. I have learned the habit of restraining my thoughts from escaping through my mouth, for the most part. But that doesn't mean I don't still have those ugly thoughts seeping out of my ugly heart.
Are you a stuffer or a spewer (as defined by Lysa TerKeurst in a book I highly recommend called Unglued)? Spewers value honesty; stuffers value tact. But even categorizing reactions this way, helpful as it is, still only focuses on how the words come out of our mouths and when. It still doesn't get to the root.
I'm a stuffer. I don't usually say what I'm thinking, especially if I know it will hurt my loved ones. But the waters rise and rise with every word held back. Eventually some small irritation will be the last drop, and the fragile dam of my lips will finally be breached by the overflow of nasty ugliness.
"The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences" (Proverbs 18:21, ESV).
There are some pretty simple things we can do to manage the symptoms, to prevent us from spewing out every single negative, death-bringing thought. I'm not saying they are easy but at least simple.
Pause before we speak.
Pray before we speak.
Imagine the consequences of our words.
Prevent the bad words from coming out. Bite our tongues. Literally, if need be.
Turn a negative statement into a positive one.
Have you been practising these? They will help patch up the symptom. But what are some practical ways to cure the disease? How do we stop it at its source? That's quite a bit tougher.
When we focus on our hearts, our words will automatically follow. You'll be able to speak life easier when your heart is full of life. Here are three ways you can begin changing your heart: Check your heart, speak truth in your heart, and give your heart some grace. It won't be an overnight task that you can check off and then reap the immediate result of a life-filled heart and life-overflowing lips.
But these are three steps in the right direction to begin the journey.**
1. Check your Heart
Self-examination trumps blindness. Observing ourselves, taking stock of our motives and methods, is a painful but necessary first step. It's time to get honest with ourselves.
About self-examination before taking the Lord's Supper (Communion):
“Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28, ESV).
About self-examination of your spiritual state:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV)
Ignorance of ourselves is self-deception. We need to honestly look at our our own hearts to see if we have a problem that has been manifesting itself through our speech. Without diagnosis of a problem, we won't know to look for a cure.
While not even close to being comprehensive, here are a few questions to begin to honestly answer. Starting with the symptom, work backward to find a cause:
Is my speech peppered with put-downs, demeaning name-calling, or yelling? If yes, how am I comparing myself to that person? If I'm thinking of myself as better than them, do I have a problem with hypocrisy, a critical spirit, or pride? If I'm thinking of myself as lower than the other, do I have a problem with envy, jealousy, or resentment?
Is my speech often laced with complaints, whining, and “what ifs”? If yes, am I truly trusting God with both big and little things?
Am I known as an interrupter or a conversation hijacker? Am I known for being too blunt? If yes, am I putting myself above the other person? Am I concerned for their feelings, or am I being selfish?
2. Speak Truth in Our Hearts
Truth trumps lies. If the source of our words is our hearts, and the Bible tells us it is, then we need to focus on our hearts' conditions. In Bible times, the Greeks used the word for heart differently from how we use it today. We think of the heart as the source of our emotions, as opposed to the logical thinking of our minds.
But the Greeks thought of the heart as both. It encompassed the emotions, the mind, and the will. We know that we can control our thoughts, while controlling our emotions is harder. But the will is the central command for both. Therefore, let's start controlling what we can and work to begin controlling what we think we can't.
"O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue
and does no evil to his neighbor,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend..." (Psalm 15: 1-3, ESV).
How do we speak truth in our hearts? We tell ourselves what is true. We preach to ourselves what we know to be true: the Word of God. That means we saturate our minds with Scriptures. They will overflow into our heart, especially if we meditate on them and apply them.
I wrote an entire blog series on the importance of what goes into our minds. Eventually, it's what will come out of our mouths. Philippians 4:8 gives us a checklist of good traits to fill our minds with:
"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8, NLT).
Here are some questions you can ask to check if your heart is truthful:
Is what I'm dwelling on true and aligned with God's Word?
Is what I'm dwelling on life-building and edifying?
Is what I'm dwelling on pleasing to the Holy Spirit inside me?
If you answered no to any of these, it's time to push that thought out of your mind and replace it with something that is.
3. Give your Heart some Grace
Progress trumps perfectionism. This likely won't be an overnight, cold-turkey kind of change. It will most likely be a long process, a journey maybe even lasting a lifetime. The point is not to reach perfection or give up when we fail again. The point is to allow the Holy Spirit to continue to mold us more and more into the image of the Son by the slow, sometimes painful sculpting process.
“For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son...” (Romans 8:29, NLT).
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV).
Conclusion: Problems with our words are symptoms of our hearts. Let's step back and diagnose the disease so that we can focus on constructive cures. Let's honestly check our hearts, deliberately speak truth to our hearts, and wisely give our hearts grace as we go through this long process of becoming more like Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2, KJV).
For further reading on this study:
For a detailed study of several sins of the mouth, read April Showers Bring May Flowers by Taylor Phillips.
* I don't mean to say that Karen doesn't have some good things to say; her initial video in the study was great. Very easy to understand and full of vivid examples of what not to say and the consequences of unleashing the untameable tongue. It's a great introduction to James 3. But since the rest required a paid subscription, I haven't watched any others to find out if she goes deep into the disease.
** Just as a disclaimer, there is debate as to whether we have any ability to change our own hearts. The Holy Spirit is slowly changing us from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), sanctifying us and transforming us into the image of God's Son (Romans 8:29). But I personally believe we have the choice to allow that to happen. And not just to sit back in surrender and passively wait for Him to do His work. But we get to be a part of it, to actively seek that change and help in any way we can. This is a debate for another time. If you want me to blog about this in the future, please comment below.
What symptom would you like to dissect next?