The Power of the Tongue

Life and Death in the Power of the Tongue

The tongue is the most powerful part of the human body. It’s also the most dangerous weapon. A sword can cut the body but a tongue can wound the soul. The tongue has power to incite hatred and start wars more than any other weapon on the planet. That’s why it is said:

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Samurai warriors devote years of intensive training to gain mastery and control of their weapon. But no one talks about how to gain mastery and control over our tongues. Not at school, and probably not at home either. Our words have the power to humiliate to hurt, to cut, and destroy lives.- Much more than physical blows knives or weapons. Physical wounds can heal but words can do lasting damage to the soul. On the other hand, words can be used to encourage, comfort, and build and to give hope to others. Think about it: we can’t really say “I’m so clever and creative!” but when someone else says it you can really appreciate it and take it seriously.

Words have tremendous power. It is no coincidence that in Genesis God creates the world through speech:

“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) 

Since we’re made in God’s image who made the universe through words we also have power to create realities in the lives of others. Imagine the future of a kid whose parents – even if they provided for him physically – would constantly say he was no good, that he was useless, worthless, that he’d never amount to anything, that he was nothing, annoying, stupid… What effect would these words have?

Today we throw words and promises into the air without thinking twice and worse than that, curses, insults and hateful language without really understanding the effects they have on others. In the past, people used to think it’s better to use fewer words and to think more before using them.

Wisdom from the Bible

In ancient times, when people said, “I give you my word” it had real meaning. Promises were like covenants they had real weight. It wasn’t for nothing that Jacob tried to buy the blessing of their father from Esau. Why did words have such importance? First, because people knew that what was spoken reflects what’s in the heart. Our speech is like a window to the heart.

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

Second, they knew that words have power so they thought twice before speaking.

“Be not rash with your mouth” (Ecc 5:2)

To be rash is to rush in without thinking In other words, don’t be quick to speak. Think and weigh it up first. Like a guard with a gun, we need to stay calm, and not too quick on the trigger. It’s not good to say everything that goes on in your head.

People used to understand well what we seem to have forgotten today: that there’s great power in our words not just in the impact on others but also upon their own lives. Indeed, the words that come out of our mouths can shape us. They become our self image and also the way others see us. So, they understood that sometimes it’s just wiser to stay quiet. Even if it’s just to seem wise!

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (Prov 17:28)

Thirdly, they believed that one day they’d have to give an account for every word they said.

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” (Mt 12:36)

Do you remember what happened to Miriam, sister of Moses? When she used rude, racist words to the African wife of Moses? God punished her with leprosy. Since God takes our words so seriously how much more should we. The problem is that so many of us today don’t understand this. Instead of controlling their tongues their tongues control them. And so, they find themselves stuck unable to get anywhere and just get themselves into  all kinds of trouble. 

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” (Prov 21:23)

Those who can control their tongues avoid a lot of trouble. Those who can’t are just inviting it. King David understood this principle

“Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” (Ps 34:13)

David was at times hasty to speak and even asked God to guard his mouth but not to prevent him biting others.

“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth keep watch over the door of my lips! Do not let my heart incline to any evil.” (Psalm 141:3-4)

Our society is obsessed with diets and what goes into our mouths but maybe it’s time to consider what is coming out of our mouths?

Cynicism, sarcasm, pride, gossip, arguing and just putting others down for fun… These things don’t just hold us back but they sabotage relationships and keep people away. No one enjoys that sort of person.

We often see young people cursing but we rarely hear it from wise elders. Our ability to control our tongue shows our level of maturity. The influence of our tongue may not only be hurting ourselves when we don’t control our tongue it hurts others. The Apostle Paul wrote:

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4:29) 

In other words, Paul’s saying what you say affects the hearers so use discretion about what comes out of your mouth. Filter your thoughts and choose to say only the words that with power to build up and have a positive effect when you say them. Scorn, obscenity and profanity make us look shallow and mean and denigrates others. 

Remind them: “to speak evil of no one to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” (Titus 3:2)

People of God must guard their mouths not swearing, mocking, gossiping or complaining.

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)

The implications of negative talk

When the people of Israel were on their way to the Promised Land what prevented them entering in? Their lack of faith. This lack of faith was expressed in constant complaining.

“And the people grumbled against Moses.” (Ex 15:24)

“And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” (Ex 16:2)

“Therefore the people quarrelled with Moses.” (Ex 17:2)

“And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord.” (Num 11:1)

“And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat!” (Num 11:4)

“And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (Num 14:2)

You know those people who always have a sour expression and moan all the time? They’re super fun to be with!

Hard day at work? Your team lost again? Idiots on the road? Don’t react impulsively. Stop, take a deep breath, and think about the consequences of your words before they come out of your mouth because the moment they’ve left your mouth, it’s impossible to un-say them. 

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (James 1:19)

Think of all the times you said something and regretted it but it was too late. You don’t have to respond to everything or argue about everything. You don’t have to win every argument. Some things take give seconds to say but five years to repair and recover from. Our words can cause others to feel inferior, insecure, and insignificant. Even if we feel frustrated with someone or something we don’t have to say so. If someone says something rude stupid or hurtful we don’t have to return the favor. Maybe they just had some bad news? Maybe they had a hard day. Maybe they didn’t really understand what they were saying. Instead of descending to their level grace steps up and overcomes it because no one’s perfect, including us.

According to King Solomon, honor is not in winning the argument  but in resolving it and finding a solution. That’s where true honor lies.

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife.”  (Prov 20:3)

You can either continue to fight to satisfy your pride or you can give God room to fight on your behalf. You don’t always have to be right or to have the last word.

The wisdom of Jesus

When we’re under pressure that’s when we need to be most careful about what we’re saying. Under stress, we don’t always manage to filter our words so well and can say all sorts of things in the heat of the moment. In those situations, it’s better to say as little as possible. Jesus understood this, and just before his crucifixion, he said to his disciples

“I will no longer talk much with you.” (John 14:30)

As a result, he didn’t complain when they betrayed him. He didn’t argue with the soldiers or rise up against his accusers. He just kept very quiet.

“He was oppressed and afflicted yet he opened not his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

If even Jesus chose not to talk when under pressure, in crisis and trouble, how much more should we learn how to watch our tongues when dealing with stress. This is especially true when we’re around people with whom we can normally talk very openly and honestly. Our words have great power particularly for those who are closest to us, like family and good friends. When people are close to us we can, without really meaning to, bring them down and hurt them when we respond out of stress. Even when we want to bring correction we can do it either with anger and meanness, or with grace and compassion in order to build them up. The lives of our loved ones are hard enough without us bringing them down. On the other hand, when we say to our children that we’re proud of them and that we believe in them, these are not just nice words, but seeds we are sowing in their hearts. Seeds that grow into confidence.

In the New Testament, James dedicates an entire passage to the subject of the tongue. James was the brother of Jesus but much like the eleven brothers of Joseph, James wasn’t so enthusiastic to accept his brother at first. James was killed for his faith in 62 AD and wrote this epistle in about 50 AD. His audience? The Jewish believers out in the diaspora.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds they’re guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” (James 3:1-12)

Breaking down the text

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)

James was talking first of all to pastors, teachers, and leaders who had authority and influence over their congregations. But his words are relevant to us all.

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” (James 3:2)

We all mess up, without exception, and it comes out in our speech. Indeed, what comes out of our mouths represents our thoughts and beliefs. Someone who has never blundered in what they say is a perfect person… and I have yet to meet one of those.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.” (James 3:3-4)

James gives two examples of something very small that can control something enormous. With a small bit and bridle, a rider can control the movements of a strong horse. With a small rudder you can control a large ship, even in strong winds, and steer it to safety. The smallest move of the rudder can affect the lives of all the people on board. Similarly, a tongue that teaches falsehood can affect all those who hear it.

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-6)

Like a little rudder on a big ship, that’s how great the influence our tongue has on our own lives. It can say great things – that is to say it can build up and encourage, but it can also set whole forests ablaze in other words, cause great destruction. When a forest fire is started with a match it quickly gets out of control it rapidly spreads – like wildfire. That’s how one unhelpful word, a rumor for example, can quickly spread and destroy lives. Or false teaching, which can cause great damage in the lives of many. Think of all the various sects and cults and how the leaders influence their members.

“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)

James says, allegorically speaking, that while mankind has managed to tame all kinds of wild animals the tongue, like a poisonous snake, runs wild and wreaks havoc. Humanity still hasn’t succeeded in taming it.

“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:9-10)

James calls us out the hypocrisy that is in each one of us. With our tongue, one minute we can appear to be praising God and the next, cursing people he made.

“Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” (James 3:11-12)

Nature shows how ridiculous the human tongue can be. Fig trees and vines just produce one sort of fruit. In the same way, our tongues should produce only one kind of fruit: Blessing.

To sum up, every soldier knows that with a dangerous weapon there comes great responsibility. They can be used effectively to defend and can also destroy and kill. The tongue is a serious weapon.

One word can start a huge fire and one word can a breath of life.
One word can cause great trouble and one word can bring great blessing.
One word can be crushing and one word can inspire motivation.
One word can destroy and one word can build up.
The tongue can be a sword that cuts people into pieces or it can lift people up high, like a crane. 

How will you use your tongue? The decision is in your hands. Remember, the words that come out of our mouths reflect what’s in our hearts. So in order to control our tongue we must first learn to control our thoughts. And that’s the subject of another video…

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