The Problem with the Tongue

I’m cautiously wading into this Paula Deen controversy but not to talk about the celebrity cook. Instead I want to use the controversy as a jumping off point to remind us what scripture tells us about the tongue.

Proverbs 8:21 tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

James 3:8 tells us, “But no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Matthew 12:37 tells us, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

If you were to study all the things the Bible says about the tongue you’d see that God believes it is the thing that has the greatest potential but gets us in the most trouble!

The fact is words are powerful. When we use them to encourage, lift up, and love they can be some of the most important moments in your life. But when we use them to tear down, hurt, and disparage they can be some of the most traumatic moments in your life.

Think about it. Take a moment and think about the nicest thing anyone ever said about you. How did that make you feel? Now think about the meanest thing anyone ever said about you. You still burn with hurt and anger over it just a little don’t you?

When I was about nine years old a foster father who was an alcoholic dropped his biological son (about six) and I off in a park so he could go drinking. He told us he’d be back in an hour. Three hours later I went to a stranger’s house to ask to use their phone to call for a ride. Well, they found the foster father in a bar and told him to pick us up. He was an extremely violent drunk and while he didn’t beat me for calling he did call me several unpleasant names in effect saying I was a chicken for being scared and not trusting that he’d come get us. Even writing about that episode gives me that feeling in my stomach that some of you know. Words hurt and they stick with a person.

James says it pretty well in 3:9-10 when he points out that, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My borthers, this should not be.” As Christians we are really hypocritical when it comes to the tongue.

The question, then, is how do we stop our bad habit (if you have one) of using our tongue for death instead of life? There are few steps that might help.

First, recognize when you fall to the temptation of using your tongue inappropriately. For me it’s when I get frustrated. It can be something simple like misplacing my keys or something more intense like arguing over any given thing with another person. Make a list of the times when you say things you know God wouldn’t want you to say.

Second, decide that you are going to replace your reactionary habit of using that kind of language with a proactive habit of using the right words. You may want to start slowly and just try not to say anything when you are tempted to say the wrong thing. Remember it takes 21 days for something to become a habit. If you’re like me, you’ve been misusing your tongue for decades so be sure to stick to the plan of replacing your reaction with the proper action for at least 21 days!

Third, Paul tells us in Philippians to consider others better than ourselves. This is a VITAL component to using your tongue for life instead of death. If we consider others better than ourselves we will always strive to encourage and lift people up, and we certainly won’t be tempted to tear others down when we think of them this way. It’s a hard habit to create, but make it your mantra and you may be surprised how it transforms your thoughts – I was when I did it.

Fourth, sometimes we are tempted to use our tongue for evil when we are hurt. Replace that temptation with forgiveness and mercy. Realize that you could use the power of your tongue to really rip someone, but instead you are going to show them mercy – something they don’t deserve but God commands you to give. Mercy and forgiveness are powerful tools that you need to add to your arsenal. No matter how hurt you are, don’t retaliate with your tongue.

Lastly, pray that the Holy Spirit can transform you into a person that doesn’t have an issue with a poison tongue. In our own power I doubt seriously we can change, but all things are possible with God and His spirit lives in you so you figure He has a pretty good shot at changing you from the inside out.

The Paula Deen stuff in the paper is instructive for us. Yes, I think at one time or another we’re all going to say something we regret. Doesn’t have to be a racial slur; it can be something as simple as a harsh word toward a spouse or an angry word toward a boss. In all cases where our tongue engages before our brain we need to seek forgiveness both from God and the person we wronged. God can and will redeem you – that is what His forgiveness is all about, but you have to go to Him and others and make it right. I hope that Paula Deen can do that as well. I know God will forgive her and as Christians we should as well.

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