The Taming of the Tongue
April 23, 2017 / No. 3877
Dear Radio Friends,
Today we consider the ninth commandment, from Exodus 20:16, which reads: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” This commandments has to do with our words and speaking truth with our words, and it has to do with our words about other people, so, loving the neighbor with our words. We want to look at this commandment under this heading: “Taming the Tongue.” You recognize those words from James 3:8, “The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
I want to consider with you, first, the necessity of taming the tongue. To see that, we have to understand the power of words, especially the damage that can be caused by what we say. There is an old saying that downplays the power of words. We say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones; but names will never hurt me.” Sometimes we tend to think that way, but it is not true.
The Bible teaches the power of words. In James, chapter 3, James uses three illustrations of very strong and large things: a horse, a ship, and a fire. How do you control a horse or a ship? James says, with a small bit in the horse’s mouth, or with a little rudder. How do you start a fire? With a little flame or even a spark. James says that the tongue and words are like that. The tongue is a little member, something we often do not think about, but just a few words can change the course of history.
Now, if you attach that tongue to a sinful heart, it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. James says that you can tame every kind of beast, birds, snakes, and sea creatures, but no man, he says, can tame the tongue. The tongue is a world of iniquity. It is full of deadly poison. It is a source of destruction. It defiles the whole body, that is, it produces other sins. And it is set on fire of hell. That is, words make one worthy of the destruction of hell.
Think of what ruin words can bring. Proverbs 17:9 says that one who repeats a matter separates friends. Proverbs 18:8: “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.” There is a deep hurt. Then, in verse 21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” That is what stands behind this commandment, that we recognize that with our words we can hate our neighbor so much that we ruin his name and reputation and, in fact, destroy his spirit, his desire to live. So, when we think about the power of words, we see that it is necessary to tame the tongue.
At the same time, we must remember that the commandments are showing us something deeper. They are showing us our sin. The evil and false and destructive words that come across a person’s lips are showing us the depravity of his heart. This commandment forces us to look into our own hearts to ask, Where do our harmful and false and hateful words come from? In Matthew 12:34 Jesus says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” That is, the mouth says what is in the heart. This means that we do not become evil because of what we say, but we say what we do because we are evil. Where do our words of hatred and slander come from? Why do we love to gossip about the evil that others have done? Why are we so ready to exaggerate the flaws of others while at the same time talking up our own achievements? All these words come from a heart that is evil. That is what this commandment is teaching us.
In Romans 3, describing the universal depravity of man, Paul writes in verses 12 and following: “There is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” Is it any wonder, then, that James says, “The tongue can no man tame”?
Yet the tongue needs to be tamed because it is such a potential for harm and because it is such an outlet of wickedness that is deep in man’s heart. Just as we would cage a wild animal or would put out a fire, so, as Christians, we are called to restrain our speech. In Psalm 34:13: “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.” In Psalm 141:3 we pray: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” So Proverbs 10:19 says that the one who refrains his lips is wise, and James, chapter 1, that a truly religious person will bridle his tongue.
How do we do that? We have to deal with two things, do we not? Not just our words, but also the source of those words in our heart. Here we see the commandment bringing us to Jesus Christ. By our words we are condemned as those who hate God and who hate the neighbor. So, we are brought to Christ in repentance. We cry out for forgiveness. As we, by faith, consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, we realize that He paid the price there also for the sin of our words. Jesus Himself said that God would bring every work into judgment, including every idle word that is spoken. The judgment of our sinful speech God laid on Jesus Christ.
But also we find in Jesus Christ a new source for words, that is, He gives us new hearts. He sanctifies the source of our words. He fills us with love for God and for others, and then out of our mouth proceed words of blessing and encouragement. We become aware of sinful thoughts and words. We engage in a war with our words and we put off slander and evil speaking and we begin to speak words of truth and love. In this way the tongue, that unruly evil, becomes tamed.
Here I want to speak in a very practical way to apply this commandment. I want you to think of this: How do I tame my tongue? There are three ways. First, I must guard my thoughts. Second, I must guard my words. Third, I must use my tongue in a positive way for good.
First, I must guard my thoughts. Our thoughts are the source of our words. What we are thinking about another person is what comes out in our words. When I blurt something out about someone else, it does not come from nowhere. No, it comes from my thinking, my mind. We do a lot of thinking about other people. We compare, we evaluate, we admire, we envy, we despise. We smile when we think of others, or we do not want to think of them because it brings up wounds that make us angry. We are always thinking of others. Philippians 2 says that as we do this, we should esteem others better than ourselves. The Bible says that as we think about someone else, we should think of things that are lovely and pure and of good report. It even tells us that we should pray for our enemies and those who, in hatred, abuse us. You see, when you are praying for someone else, it is very difficult to think evil thoughts concerning that person. Here is what we say about others begins—it begins in our thoughts.
Also, as we guard our thoughts, it is important, too, to think proper thoughts concerning God. That is, to think about God. Psalm 139 says that there is not a word in our mouth but God knows it altogether. Proverbs 6 tells us that God hates a false witness, God hates a lying tongue, and God hates the one who sows discord among brethren. Ephesians, chapter 4, tells us that by corrupt communication, that is, evil words about others, we grieve the Holy Spirit. So, the first line of defense for the tongue, for our words, is our thoughts—our thoughts about others and our thinking about God. This is how we tame the tongue.
Second, we tame the tongue by watching our words themselves, by recognizing how easily we can and do sin with our words. One of the Puritans once said that God has placed the teeth and the lips as a double sentry to guard the tongue. That is, we have to both open our lips and unclench our teeth before our tongue can say a word. We ought to think about that. In Proverbs 29:11 we read that “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.” In the control of our lips, our teeth, our tongue, and our jaw we show wisdom. A wise person ponders his words before they come from his lips. Sometimes he remains silent. Other times he waits to speak and he thinks first. The Bible says that “in the multitude of words there wanteth not sin,” that is, the more we speak, the more likely we are to sin.
Words cannot be retracted. To think after one has spoken is too late. So, before we speak about someone else, we ought to ask ourselves these important questions about what we are going to say. Three questions. They go with the prayer of Psalm 141: “Lord, set a watch before my mouth.”
The first question. Is it true? Do I know that what I am going to say about someone else is true, or is it something that I have simply heard second or third-hand? Is not this how destructive and divisive rumors start, when someone who does not know and who should not be involved starts to talk? But God is a God of truth, and what we say should reflect what is true.
The second question we should ask is this: Is it necessary? It may be true, but does it need to be said? Are my words going to be useful, are they going to be edifying? Would what I say benefit another? Too often what we say is not only a waste of breath, but it would be better not said. Is it necessary?
Then, the third question is this: What I am going to say about another person, is it loving? Am I speaking about this person because I love him, to protect his name and his reputation? This gets at the heart and the motivation behind words. Paul says, in Ephesians 4:15, that we should “speak the truth in love.”
If we would ask those questions, if we would run our speech about others through this screening process, then so much less of what we say would be harmful. Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it loving? And we should pray, Lord, set these watches before my mouth. This ought to be the constant prayer of the child of God. Solomon says this in Proverbs 26:20: “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.”
So I tame my tongue first by guarding my thoughts, second by guarding my words, and then third, by recognizing the positive potential of words, and then speaking accordingly.
You see, words themselves are not evil. They do have a great potential to cause harm. But, oh, what good can be accomplished simply with words. Not only must we repent of evil speaking, but we must put on the new man and speak that which is good to the use of edifying (Eph. 4). We must love our neighbor with our words. Just think of the power of words for good. Think of the power of God’s words to us. He speaks the gospel, good news. And that good news, that gospel, is a power that saves. He speaks truth, and that truth transforms us. God equips the believer to use similar words in similarly powerful ways.
That begins for us, very simply, with speaking the Word of God into the lives of others. We do this both by being a witness of the good news of the gospel to unbelievers, by telling them about the wonderful things that God has done for us and calling them to faith in Jesus Christ, and also by speaking encouraging words from Scripture to fellow believers.
One of the main reasons that God calls us together as believers is so that we night minister His Word to one another. Hebrews 10:24 and 25 says that we are to gather together as believers so that we might consider one another, that is, get to know one another, and then, having gotten to know one another, to provoke one another and exhort one another to love and good works. You see, life is not easy. Every person has his or her own set of difficulties and burdens. If we would listen, rather than talk, we might get to know the burdens of other people, and then, instead of tearing others down with our words we could build them up. Proverbs 12 tells us that the tongue of the wise is health and that heaviness makes the heart of a man to stoop, but a good word maketh it glad. One good word can cheer us all. Words have impact. Proverbs 15:23 says this: “A word spoken in due season, how good is it!” An appropriate word, a suitable word spoken in season, how good it is. That word might be a word of rebuke or it could be a word of comfort. It could be a word of encouragement, a word of praise, a compliment, a thank you. Such a word, how good it is.
So, as we close, two questions. 1) Do you think about the positive use of your words and the positive impact that your speech can have on others? I do not mean to be insincere, that you should be insincere with your words. Some people are so nice, too nice, and soon you get tired of all their soothing language. No, the Bible says that a friend loves at all times, and that the wounds of a friend are faithful. Sometimes a friend will bring appropriate words that are a mixture of admonition and appreciation. But Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your [words] be always with grace, seasoned with salt.” The flavor of our speech must be gracious.
Then, the second question, in conclusion: Do you love God? Do you love the God of truth, and do you love your neighbor also in your love for God also in your words?
Then pray this prayer with me: “Lord, set a watch before our lips. Help us and teach us to say only things that are true, that are necessary, and that are loving. Help us to see the great powerful good in our words, in the words of the gospel, in the words that we speak concerning others. And, Lord, if one is listening and praying now who has been crushed by the words of others, use the gospel, the good news of gospel truth, to lift them up. We pray it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.