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God's Total Body Workout -- The Tongue

In his book The Way of the Heart, The late Henri Nouwen writes about our word-rich society.

Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: word softly whispered, loudly proclaimed or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence (45).

Our whole society depends upon words to convey thoughts, ideas and feelings. In our culture we are brought up thinking words are just harmless sounds. We teach our children to chant: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me. However, in the minds of the ancient Bible writers, words have power. Words create, heal and save. Words inspire. Words curse and judge. Our words have the power to show love, or hate and indifference.

What does The Bible’s Total Body Workout say about our tongues? How can we exercise the tongue for spiritual growth and fitness? To gain a handle on our tongues, so to speak, read these words from James 3:1-12

Before we even get to chapter 3, James mentions the tongue a number of times. Look at James 1:19

“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick tolisten, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Seven verses later James says,

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tightrein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

And then half way through chapter 2 he says we should, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom”

James has much to say about the use and abuse of our words. He uses three illustrations to make his point:
The tongue is like a bit in the mouth of the horse,
a rudder on a ship,
and a spark that ignites a wildfire.

James reminds us that the tongue might be elfin in appearance, but it has enough influence to control the entire body The tongue cannot be tamed. Like a coiled cobra, the tongue will strike out with deadly precision when its cornered or angered. The tongue is temperamental and explosive. It is as deadly as a razor –sharp sword or an arrow laced with poison. Even when it isn’t speaking, it can stick itself out in a gesture of rude dismissal[1]. The best we can hope for is to allow God help us exercise some fearful control over it. The Bible’s Total Body Workout gives us some ideas on how to warily gain control over our word:
“Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life. Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” -- Proverbs 4:23

Our words will only be as encouraging as our minds and hearts allow. In many ways, our tongues are a litmus test of our spiritual maturity. Do you remember those little strips of litmus paper we used in chemistry labs? Litmus paper is used to detect the presence of acid or alkali. Like litmus, the color and features of our words point to of the acidic nature of our minds and hearts. Words reveal what is inside of us – the places where our minds like to dwell the most. This includes the books and magazines we read, the shows we watch on television, the web sites we visit, the people we associate with, and how we spend our leisure time Our words are the mirrors of our hearts and reveal our will and morality.

If we want to enjoy significant spiritual growth, we need to work on what we do and do not say. Spiritual maturity requires a tamed tongue. Proverbs 13 reminds us that the one who guards the lips guards one’s life. The question is how do we do it? Read Ephesians 4:29

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up, that it may benefit those who listen.”

We begin controlling the tongue by exercising encouragement. We use our words to build up everyone around us.

Paul spends some time in Ephesians chapter 4 exploring Christian maturity and unity. He tells how we can continue develop in Christ through faith and obedience. Then he asks his readers to “speak the truth in love.” Paul does not present his readers with alternatives. He does not say that we may choose to either speak truthfully or to speak lovingly. He asks us to do both at once - to speak the truth in love.

I once heard that love without truth is sentiment, and truth without love is dogmatism. The Christian’s aim is allow one’s words to articulate reality. The right words must be words of truth. The right motivation is love stemming from obedience.

In the book Encouragement: the Key to Caring, Larry Crabb suggests that we should, “carefully select words that are intended to influence another person meaningfully towards increased godliness.” A preacher once shared a simple acronym to help us think before we talk. It was the word THINK: Is it True, Is it Helpful, Is it Inspiring, Is it Necessary, Is it Kind. Before you speak, think through this list. If you score 5 out of 5, it’s OK to talk; if you score 4 out of 5 speak with caution. If you score 3 or less, don’t open your mouth. Our priority is to build others up! By the way, the list of those who need encouragement includes spouses, children, and parents. If what you are about to say is not True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind, then keep it to yourself.

Beside a churchyard, along a windswept hill in England is a cemetery with Arabella Young’s tombstone. The elements have almost erased the inscription, but if you look closely and take your time you can read her epitaph:

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young,
Who, on the Twenty-forth of May, Began to hold her tongue.”

One day our tongue, like Arabella Young’s, will cease to move, but in the mean time the question remains--what will we do with it here and now? Will we use our tongues to praise God, encourage the fainthearted, and tell people that we love them? Or will we use our poisonous pink tongues to curse, blaspheme, and spread discord, rumors and gossip?

This week our spiritual exercise is to THINK before we speak. The truth does not come cheap, nor does it always come easy. Yet, the bottom line is that we should seek the right words, stemming from the right motivation. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what we say doesn’t matter. It does! The tongue may be small but it is powerful. What we do with it makes a mountain of difference.


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