Early in the day, a London commuter shoved and insulted a business manager who got in his way. That afternoon, the business manager sent a quick Twitter message to his friends: “Guess who just showed up for a job interview?” When his explanation appeared on the Internet, people all over the world winced and smiled. Imagine walking into a job interview only to discover that the person who greets you is the one you had shoved and sworn at earlier that day.
Saul also ran into someone he never expected to see. While raging against a group called The Way (Acts 9:1-2), he was stopped in his tracks by a blinding light. Then a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v. 4). Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” the One speaking to him said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (26:15).
Years earlier Jesus had said that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and the prisoner reflects our relationship to Him (Matt 25:35-36). Who would have dreamed that when someone insults us, or when we help or hurt another, the One who loves us takes it personally?
Have you ever sent an email and suddenly realized it went to the wrong person or it contained harmful, harsh words? If only you could press a key and stop it. Well, now you can. Several companies offer a feature that gives you a brief time after sending an email to stop it from leaving your computer. After that, the email is like a spoken word that cannot be unsaid. Rather than being seen as a cure-all, an “unsend” feature should remind us that it’s extremely important to guard what we say.
In the apostle Peter’s first letter, he told the followers of Jesus, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing. For, ‘whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it’ ” (1 Peter 3:9-11).
The psalmist David wrote, “Set a guard over my mouth,
Lord, guard our words today so we may not harm others by what we say.
Napoleon's defeat in Russia 200 years ago was attributed to the harsh Russian winter. One specific problem was that his horses were wearing summer horseshoes. When winter came, these horses died because they slipped on icy roads as they pulled the supply wagons. The failure of Napoleon’s supply chain reduced his 400,000-strong army to just 10,000. A small slip; a disastrous result!
James described how a slip of the tongue can do great damage. One wrong word can change the careers or destinies of people. So toxic is the tongue that James wrote, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). The problem has increased in our modern world as a careless email or a posting on a social media site can cause great harm. It quickly goes viral and can’t be retracted.
King David tied respect for the Lord with the way we use our words. He wrote, “I will teach you the fear of the
When Rebecca stood on stage to speak at a conference, her first sentence into the microphone echoed around the room. It was a bit unsettling for her to hear her own words come back at her, and she had to adjust to the faulty sound system and try to ignore the echo of every word she spoke.
Imagine what it would be like to hear everything we say repeated! It wouldn’t be so bad to hear ourselves repeat "I love you" or "I was wrong" or “Thank You, Lord” or "I'm praying for you." But not all of our words are beautiful or gentle or kind. What about those angry outbursts or demeaning comments that no one wants to hear once, let alone twice—those words that we would really rather take back?
Like the psalmist David, we long to have the Lord’s control over our words. He prayed, "Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips” (Ps. 141:3 nlt). And thankfully, the Lord wants to do that. He can help us control what we say. He can guard our lips.
As we learn to adjust to our own sound system by paying careful attention to what we say and praying about the words we speak, the Lord will patiently teach us and even empower us to have self-control. And best of all, He forgives us when we fail and is pleased with our desire for His help.
When commuting into Chicago on the train, I always followed the “unwritten codes of conduct”—such as, no conversations with people sitting next to you if you don’t know them. That was tough on a guy like me who has never met a stranger. I love talking to new people! Although I kept the code of silence, I realized that you can still learn something about people based on the section of the newspaper they read. So I’d watch to see what they turned to first: The business section? Sports? Politics? Current events? Their choices revealed their interests.
Our choices are always revealing. Of course, God doesn’t need to wait to see our choices in order for Him to know what’s in our hearts. But the things that occupy our time and attention are telling. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Regardless of what we want Him to think of us, the true condition of our heart becomes clear based on how we use our time, our money, and our talents. When we invest these resources in the things He cares about, then it reveals that our hearts are in tune with His.
God’s heart is with the needs of people and the advancement of His kingdom. What do your choices tell him and others about where your heart is?
June Williams was only 4 when her father bought 7 acres of land to build a zoo without bars or cages. Growing up she remembers how creative her father was in trying to help wild animals feel free in confinement. Today Chester Zoo is one of England’s most popular wildlife attractions. Home to 11,000 animals on 110 acres of land, the zoo reflects her father’s concern for animal welfare, education, and conservation.
Solomon had a similar interest in all creatures great and small. In addition to studying the wildlife of the Middle East, he imported exotic animals like apes and monkeys from far-off lands (1 Kings 10:22). But one of his proverbs shows us that Solomon’s knowledge of nature went beyond intellectual curiosity. When he expressed the spiritual implications of how we treat our animals, he mirrored something of the heart of our Creator: “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Prov. 12:10).
With God-given wisdom, Solomon saw that our relationship to our Creator affects not only how we treat people but also how much thoughtful consideration we give to the creatures in our care.
My daughter has had a lot of ill health recently, and her husband has been wonderfully caring and supportive. “You have a real treasure there!” I said.
“You didn’t think that when I first knew him,” she said with a grin.
She was quite right. When Icilda and Philip got engaged, I was concerned. They were such different personalities. We have a large and noisy family, and Philip is more reserved. And I had shared my misgivings with my daughter quite bluntly.
I was horrified to realize that the critical things I said so casually 15 years ago had stayed in her memory and could possibly have destroyed a relationship that has proved to be so right and happy. It reminded me how much we need to guard what we say to others. So many of us are quick to point out what we consider to be weaknesses in family, friends, or work colleagues, or to focus on their mistakes rather than their successes. “The tongue is a small part of the body,” says James (3:5), yet the words it shapes can either destroy relationships or bring peace and harmony to a situation in the workplace, the church, or the family.
Perhaps we should make David’s prayer our own as we start each day: “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
A fishing buddy of mine observed, “Shallow streams make the most noise,” a delightful turn on the old adage, “Still waters run deep.” He meant, of course, that people who make the most noise tend to have little of substance to say.
The flip side of that problem is that we don’t listen well either. I’m reminded of the line in the old Simon and Garfunkel song Sounds of Silence about folks hearing without listening. Oh, they hear the words, but they fail to silence their own thoughts and truly listen. It would be good if we all learned to be silent and still.
There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). Good silence is a listening silence, a humble silence. It leads to right hearing, right understanding, and right speaking. “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters,” the proverb says, “but one who has insight draws them out” (Prov. 20:5). It takes a lot of hard listening to get all the way to the bottom.
And while we listen to others, we should also be listening to God and hearing what He has to say. I think of Jesus, scribbling with His finger in the dust while the Pharisees railed on the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11). What was He doing? May I suggest that He could have been simply listening for His Father’s voice and asking, “What shall we say to this crowd and this dear woman?” His response is still being heard around the world.
I had been driving for almost half an hour when my daughter suddenly wailed from the backseat. When I asked, “What happened?” she said her brother had grabbed her arm. He claimed he had grabbed her arm because she had pinched him. She said she pinched him because he had said something mean.
Unfortunately, this pattern, which is common between children, can show up in adult relationships too. One person offends another, and the hurt person shoots back a verbal blow. The original offender retaliates with another insult. Before long, anger and cruel words have damaged the relationship.
The Bible says that “the words of the reckless pierce like swords,” and that “a harsh word stirs up anger” but “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 12:18; 15:1). And sometimes not answering at all is the best way to deal with mean or cruel words or comments.
Before Jesus’ crucifixion, the religious authorities tried to provoke Him with their words (Matt. 27:41-43). Yet, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate . . . . Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
Jesus’ example and the Spirit’s help offer us a way to respond to people who offend us. Trusting the Lord, we don’t need to use words as weapons.