James 3:5 How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
James is graphically describing the power of words. And, my goodness, is he correct. Perhaps you’re old enough to remember an old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, turns out that’s not true. Sticks and stones may cause harm on the outside, words can devestate the inside.
Like many of you, I’m an extravert. In other words, I tend to think out loud – externally – more than I think in my head, internally (which would be the mark of an introvert). We all do both, of course, but most of us favor one or the other. I learned from an early age that it’s easy to say too much, or to say something in the wrong way – and hurt others and/or myself.
I also noticed that I had few filters related to my words. Whatever I was thinking at the moment just came right out. Not good. One of the most difficult things for an extrovert is to learn “discretion” – when to keep silent, when to speak, and what to say when we do. Discretion is even more important for those of us who are leaders (at home or work or both).
As leaders we have outsized influence over others. Our words literally build up and tear down those around us.
Though I’ve gotten better over the years, I still find it a challenge to THINK before TALKING. This is particularly true when I’m under pressure or feeling anxious. People like me have a tendency to just open our mouths and let er rip! And often regret it. Some of you know what I mean.
Others of you, the more introverted sort, can have this problem in reverse. Your challenge is not speaking too much, or too quickly, but failing to speak at all – or at least in a timely manner. There are times when things need to be said, not merely thought about. Introverts often find that they spend too much time formulating words in their heads, prepared to speak only after the time to do so has passed.
Yes, words can be destructive, but words can also be life-giving. It’s crucial when we encounter those in need we are able to share a word of encouragement, support, or comfort. Words can bless people and build them up. A word from you, to a person who is struggling, can be like a word from the Lord the other person. In fact, because the Holy Spirit lives in all believers, a word from you IS a word from the Lord. Think about that.
Lord Jesus, you gave us a tongue to use for building up, not tearing down. It’s a small thing, the tongue, but as James writes the tongue is a powerful thing. Give us grace to use our words well. Help us to speak when a word of love and grace is needed. And help us to keep our mouths closed when we’re tempted to hurt others with our words. We ask this in your precious name. Amen.