It was Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” There’s a tremendous lure in the hearing of bad news, isn’t there? If not, there’s many a celebrity magazine that would go bust overnight.
The Bible speaks at length about the way we speak of each other and the motivation behind such conversation. In Ephesians 4:29-31, for example, Paul encourages the young group of believers thus:
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
Speech is the vital currency of life. It’s how we develop relationship. So what do my words actually do in the development of those relationships? Do they “give grace to those who hear”? It’s an interesting thought. The opposite to giving grace, presumably, is to give law. That is to say, if my words do not give grace then do they condemn, or categorise in sharp rigid black-and-white lines that insist that “This is, and this isn’t”?
Do my words take on the role of a judge?
James warned of that tendency: “Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it.” (James 4:11)
Generally speaking, for a moment, you have to think about the words you speak and answer the question: Am I speaking positively or negatively, in the main? Do my lips speak of trouble? What is my speech full of?
There’s a possible -and awful- answer in Psalm 10:7 : “His mouth is full of curses and deceit and oppression; Under his tongue is mischief and wickedness.” Ponder that, for a moment. A modern paraphrase suggests for that first phrase “They carry a mouthful of hexes…”
Surely we wouldn’t do such a thing?
A pastor-friend of mine told me how he and his wife drove away from their church with the sermon recording in their car. Unbeknownst to them the recording was still going on, so it merrily recorded their total drive-time conversation as they picked off various people in the congregation…a mouthful of hexes! Not curses, you understand, but sharing concerns for prayer, and evaluating the spiritual condition of their people, of course.
What I never heard was whether the tape was sent out unedited as usual or mysteriously lost in the tech process.
No, we have to consciously seek the positive, or our lips are talking up trouble. Because underneath the “curses” there is “deceit and oppression.” This is what negative talk may lead to: a restructuring of what is spoken (“deceit”) for the purposes of control (”oppression”). And underneath it all is a subtext of “mischief and wickedness.”
The book of Proverbs (particularly) speaks of negative conversation “digging up evil” (16:27); “stirring up anger” (Proverbs 15:1) and “kindling strife”( 26:20-23). And such conversation will always find an audience. According to Proverbs 17:4; “An evildoer listens to wicked lips; A liar pays attention to a destructive tongue.” Twice, the writer refers to “the whisperer.” In Proverbs 18:8: “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts of the body.” And in Proverbs 26:20-23: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down. Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, So is a contentious man to kindle strife.”
Paul warned Titus “to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” (Titus 3:2)
There used to be an old wartime poster that said “Is your journey really necessary?” Since resources were so stretched, it was deemed important to limit their use. Perhaps the same question should be asked of our conversation: Is it worth saying? Why am I really speaking thus?
There’s a powerful moment in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about the way we use language in the making of oaths:
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the oaths you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes,” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5: 33-37)
Jesus refers to the common pious-sounding legalistic practice with a mighty grace response. Don’t swear an oath at all! Just say yes or no! But look at that closing phrase: “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Lord, keep me simple. Help me to bridle my tongue and speak things that give grace to those who hear, that build up and do not tear down. Help me not to engage in contentious issues and to malign no one; to be peaceable, gentle, and show every consideration for everyone I talk to.
Through the grace of God in Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.