It was a Sunday night in September and most people were sleeping when a small fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. Soon the flames spread from house to house and London was engulfed in the Great Fire of 1666. Over 70,000 people were left homeless by the blaze that leveled four-fifths of the city. So much destruction from such a small fire!
The Bible warns us of another small but destructive fire. James was concerned about lives and relationships, not buildings, when he wrote, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5).
But our words can also be constructive. Proverbs 16:24 reminds us, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” The apostle Paul says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). As salt flavors our food, grace flavors our words for building up others.
Through the help of the Holy Spirit our words can encourage people who are hurting, who want to grow in their faith, or who need to come to the Savior. Our words can put out fires instead of starting them.
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.
A few days after his father died, 30-year-old C. S. Lewis received a letter from a woman who had cared for his mother during her illness and death more than two decades earlier. The woman offered her sympathy for his loss and wondered if he remembered her. “My dear Nurse Davison,” Lewis replied. “Remember you? I should think I do.”
Lewis recalled how much her presence in their home had meant to him as well as to his brother and father during a difficult time. He thanked her for her words of sympathy and said, “It is really comforting to be taken back to those old days. The time during which you were with my mother seemed very long to a child and you became part of home.”
When we struggle in the circumstances of life, an encouraging word from others can lift our spirits and our eyes to the Lord. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary” (50:4). And when we look to the Lord, He offers words of hope and light in the darkness.
My nerves fluttering, I waited for the phone to ring and the radio interview to start. I wondered what questions the host would ask and how I would respond. “Lord, I’m much better on paper,” I prayed. “But I suppose it’s the same as Moses—I need to trust that you will give me the words to speak.”
Of course I’m not comparing myself with Moses, the leader of God’s people who helped them escape slavery in Egypt to life in the Promised Land. A reluctant leader, Moses needed the Lord to reassure him that the Israelites would listen to him. The Lord revealed several signs to him, such as turning his shepherd’s staff into a snake (Ex. 4:3), but Moses hesitated to accept the mantle of leadership, saying he was slow of speech (v.10). So God reminded him that He is the Lord and that He would help him speak. He would “be with his mouth” (as the original language translates, according to biblical scholars).
We know that since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God’s Spirit lives within His children and that however inadequate we may feel, He will enable us to carry out the assignments He gives to us. The Lord will “be with our mouths.”
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 my grandmother came to Mexico as a missionary, she had a hard time learning Spanish. One day she went to the market. She showed her shopping list to the girl helping her and said, “It’s in two tongues (lenguas).” But she meant to say that she had written it in two languages (idiomas). The butcher overheard them and assumed she wanted to purchase two cow tongues. My grandmother didn’t realize it until she got home. She had never cooked beef tongue before!
Mistakes are inevitable when we are learning a second language, including learning the new language of God’s love. At times our speech is contradictory because we praise the Lord but then speak badly of others. Our old sinful nature opposes our new life in Christ. What comes out of our mouths shows us how much we need God’s help.
Our old “tongue” must go away. The only way to learn the new language of love is by making Jesus the Lord of our speech. When the Holy Spirit works in us, He gives us self-control to speak words that please the Father. May we surrender every word to Him! “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
May the words we speak point others to Jesus!
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.
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).
From Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to Siberian foxes, humans have learned to tame wild animals. People enjoy teaching monkeys to “act” in commercials or training deer to eat out of their hands. As the apostle James put it, “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind” (3:7).