The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8). Remember the first time you heard yourself on a tape recorder? Most of us were inclined to say as we heard ourselves: “I don’t sound like that.” What if at the end of every day we were forced to listen to a recording of everything we said that day? What would we think as we listened to the 17,000 words we spoke that day? We would probably say, “I don’t sound like that.” We would discover how self-centered we are. With our words we defend ourselves, excuse ourselves, explain ourselves, pity ourselves, and promote ourselves. As we listened to the words we spoke through the days and weeks, we would see a pattern develop. Some of us would discover how bitter and resentful we are. Some of us would discover how angry we are. Some of us would discover how jealous we are, or how inferior we feel, as we heard ourselves constantly, but subtly, criticize others. Some of us would discover how manipulative we are.
I don’t think anything discloses more about what is inside us than our daily conversations. James said that the tongue is “a restless evil.” He was saying that the words we speak pour from the spring of our sinful natures. If we are dark on the inside, our words will be dark. If we are angry on the inside, our words will be angry. If we are filled with the Spirit of Christ on the inside, our words will disclose a supernatural love and joy. If you want to know what a person is like on the inside, just listen to their conversations for several days.
When Louis Agassiz, the famous zoologist and naturalist, was a boy his mother took him to a place called echo valley in the Alps near Bern. He had never heard an echo. His mother told him that there was a boy in the mountains who would speak to him if Louis would call to him. The ten-year-old Agassiz yelled, “Are you there?” He heard the reply: “Are you there?” Young Louis was amazed. He yelled again, “Who are you?” He heard the answer: “Who are you?” He was irritated; he thought the “boy in the mountains” was mocking him. He said to his mother, “I think that is a very disagreeable boy.” He was listening to his own words, and it was his own heart he was evaluating.
Our tongues not only disclose the condition of our hearts, our tongues powerfully affect the world around us. Most of the time when we speak, someone is listening. There is another person to whom we are expressing ourselves. That means that we will affect other people with what we say.
We can do great damage through our words. Paul said that the poison of a deadly viper is on our lips; our words can be venomous and toxic (Rom. 3:13). When people spoke ill to us when we were young, we were taught to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is one of the greatest lies ever perpetrated by well-meaning people. A stick or stone only damages the body, while words strike at the heart. Words drive the dagger into the soul.
But just as words have the power to wound and kill, words have the power to heal and restore. Jesus made blind people see and paralyzed people walk, just by speaking a word to them. Similarly, our words can be healing and helpful. The writer of Proverbs wrote, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” One of our church members talked about this recently. He spoke of a lady in our church and said, “Watch her. People seek her out. It is not that she gives them counsel or advice. Her words are simply encouraging, comforting, and uplifting.” We are forced to ask as we listen to our words spoken through the day: “Were my words toxic or therapeutic, hurtful or healing?”
If we listened tonight to the words we spoke today, many of us would respond by saying, “I will join a monastery and take a vow of silence!” However, that is not the message of the Gospel. Jesus does not call us to a vow of silence. We are to speak as men and women filled with the Holy Spirit. We are to speak love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness into this world that is sick with anger, hate, and dissension.
On average, we speak 6,188,000 words a year. Jesus said, “I tell you on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they have spoken.” We began by supposing that we had to listen to the words we speak on a given day. That was no empty supposition. We will hear our words again — 433,160,000 words that we have spoken in an average lifetime. That’s almost a half a billion words! In judgment we will hear the precise echoes of our own words — echoes that will disclose who we were on the inside. What will be the pattern woven by all those words? Will it be a pattern that shouts to the world: “It’s all about me”? Will it be a pattern that hurts and injures, a pattern of complaining and ingratitude? Or will it be a gospel-pattern of encouragement, comfort, love, joy, and grace?
Words — our words — are important. They will be around a long, long time.