Pastor David B. Curtis

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The Power of the Tongue

James 1:19-25

Delivered 07/12/1998

Did you realize that Noah Webster's original dictionary, published in 1806, contained only about 37,000 words? However, by 1961 the English dictionary contained over 458,000 words. Today, there are approximately 700,000 words in the English language. That means there are a lot of new words being created and finding their way into our vocabulary. Words such as: fax, couch potato, compact disc, software, slam-dunk, air-bag, user-friendly, cellular phone, microwavable, and many more.

Words are powerful things, and each of us must decide how we are going to use the power of words. Words have the potential for great good or great harm.

Today, we're going to talk about how, out of the 700,000 or so available words, certain words or combinations of words have an amazing and frightening amount of power to cause enormous and sometimes irreparable damage to others.

Arthur J. Snider, writing in the Chicago Daily News, says that the average person can see a dot as small as eight-thousandths of an inch in diameter. But this is about 14,000 times larger than the smallest known virus.

Yet these microbes are the cause of at least 500 human diseases, some of which are very serious and can even be fatal. I have read that one strain was responsible for what was probably the greatest pestilence civilization has ever experienced -- the flu epidemic of 1918-19. That scourge took more lives than all the years of World War I.

The Bible tells of another small thing that can inflict great harm. It's that "little member" known as the tongue. Unfortunately there is no vaccine to bring its deadly effects under control.

James 3:5-8 (NKJV) Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

Do you believe what James said? Do you think the tongue is really that dangerous? I think that we would all agree that it is.

We're also going to talk about ways we can learn to put an end to words that hurt. I would hope that it's safe to say that most of us here no longer use profanity and vulgar language. But I would imagine that a good number still sometimes say things that we later regret and wish we could take back. We occasionally speak harshly to our children, or spouse, or parents, or roommate, or co-workers, or friends. We become frustrated and angry, and before we know it we say things that hurt and scar other people.

Well, they say "a problem well-defined is half solved," so let's define and break down the various ways we hurt people with words.

1. SARCASM
Proverbs 26:18-19 (NKJV) Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, 19 Is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, "I was only joking!"

After deceiving his neighbor, he tries to avoid being accused by saying he was only joking. But his deception, like a deadly arrow, has already done its damage. Some of us have the tendency to joke around too much, or be a little too harsh in our joking around. Sarcastic comments can really hurt.

2. CARELESS OR THOUGHTLESS REMARKS
An article in Reader's Digest had this to say: "My wife was only 59 when she died. Despite a heart condition and severe diabetes, she was vibrant and busy until the day she passed away. Sylvia loved life and often said that she cared more about quality than quantity. At the funeral a few people said to me, 'Sylvia had so much to live for, it's a shame she didn't take better care of herself.' The implication was that she could have prevented her death, and I remember thinking how thoughtless their statements were."

Have you ever had that happen to you? Someone said something to you that really hurt? We cannot stop the words of others, but we can guard against saying things that will hurt others.

I received an e-mail this week from a man who is a homosexual who read my message on, "Homosexuality, a national plague." Listen to a portion of what he wrote:

"Dear David,

I came across your speech which was preached in August of 1997 on the web and I felt compelled to comment on it.

I am a 28 year old homosexual male and I must admit that I was fairly impressed with your dissertation about the awfulness of the homosexual lifestyle. You present your points clearly and back them up effectively with your version of religious scripture as noted in your translated version of whichever bible you are quoting from. For that, I applaud you.

Your compassion for those dying with AIDS was also commendable.

The main point I would want to raise with you would be that homosexuality is not a sin in all religions. There are many religions in the world (I think the total is up to 15,000) and although plenty see being gay as an abomination, there are also cultures who find it most holy and pure. Is your religion "better" than all the others? I think the Christian religion is no better or worse than any other form of spiritualism.

Thank you very much for your attention and I wish you luck in your spiritual quest. May God be with you."

His letter was encouraging because even though he understood that I was saying homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord, he apparently didn't feel that I was attacking him. His disagreement was with my presupposition and not my attitude. I wrote back to him telling him why Christianity is "better" than all other religions and encouraged him to consider the claims of Christ.

Proverbs 12:18 (NKJV) There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health.

Maybe, just maybe, my words will promote health to this man because he didn't feel attacked. Do your words pierce like a sword or do they promote health?

USA Today, December 30, 1988, had this to say, "Recently CBS released The Karen Carpenter Story. Karen died unexpectedly nearly six years ago of heart failure at age 32 brought on by years of self abuse from the eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa. But what brought on Karen's fatal obsession with weight control? It seems a reviewer once called her "Richard's chubby sister". Lord, please help us to know the power of our words!

Another way we hurt with words is by...

3. COMPLAINING

Philippians 2:14 (NKJV) Do all things without complaining and disputing,

It's miserable to live with a complainer. It's miserable to work for a complainer. You do something well, they say nothing; you make one little mistake and you never hear the end of it. When someone complains about you or something that you have done, how does it make you feel? You might not have thought of complaining as hurtful to others but it certainly is.

Another way we hurt people with our words is through...

4. GOSSIP AND SLANDER
Psalms 15:1-3 (NKJV) LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? 2 He who walks uprightly, And works righteousness, And speaks the truth in his heart; 3 He who does not backbite with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;

In the March 1989 issue of Mademoiselle Magazine, Rebecca Sharp writes, "I've always prided myself on never stooping to take part in office gossip. but lately I've noticed that some of my gossipy colleagues are getting ahead. Gossip is as natural a part of the corporate landscape as ferns and fax machines. You're making a mistake if you try to avoid it. Instead, you want to use it to your advantage." I think that gossip flows too freely from all of our lips.

I'll bet that everyone here, at one time or another, has been the victim of someone else's "slandering tongue." I certainly have, and it's a terrible feeling to discover that someone has said cruel, hurtful, (and many times false) things about you. But, of course, we've all intentionally spoken harsh words that we knew were hurtful towards others. How that kind of thing must disappoint and sadden our God and hinder our fellowship with Him!

Next, we hurt others by...

5. LYING
In Proverbs 6, and several other passages, God clearly states His feelings about lying.

Proverbs 6:16-17 (NKJV) These six things the LORD hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: 17 A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood,

He says, "I hate your outright lies. I hate your deliberate misleadings. I hate your half-truths. I hate your exaggerations. I hate lips that lie and deceive."

Ephesians 4:25 (NKJV) Therefore, putting away lying, "Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor," for we are members of one another.

God hates lying and wants us to be truthful to each other. Yet, salesmen lie to customers, bosses lie to their employees, employees lie to their bosses, kids lie to their parents, mechanics lie, politicians lie, and sometimes I hear myself slanting the truth a little bit...embellishing a story to make it better...exaggerating here or there if it works to my advantage. Am I the only one who does this?

The bottom line is that lying is displeasing to God, it undermines our integrity, and it deeply hurts other people.

Another way we hurt others is by...

6. OUR TONE OF VOICE
You can scream out at your dog, "GOOD BOY!", but how does he react? Or you can sweetly say, "You bad dog. I'm going to beat you to death you good-for-nothing mutt," and how does he react? Of course, the dog responds to the tone of voice. People are a lot more perceptive than dogs. The way you say something carries as much meaning, if not more, than your actual words.

Proverbs 15:1 (NKJV) A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.

A soft answer can dispel a potentially tense situation by dissolving a person's wrath. Being conciliatory in such a situation requires forethought, patience, self-control, and kindness. A harsh word, by contrast, arouses rather than dissolves anger.

Proverbs 25:15 (NKJV) By long forbearance a ruler is persuaded, And a gentle tongue breaks a bone.

A soft tongue breaking a hard bone is an unusual figure of speech--how can a tongue break a bone? The idea is that softly spoken words can accomplish difficult things.

Words are powerful things. We all grew up saying "Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." That is a lie! Words DO hurt. You can say, "I didn't mean it," but the words still hurt. You can say, "I shouldn't have said it," but the words still hurt. Whether it is gossip, sarcasm, slander, criticism, harsh jokes, careless remarks, complaints...words do hurt! We all realize this when others are saying things that hurt us, but we don't often think of the damage of our own words.

We need to be constantly praying the prayer that David prayed in:

Psalms 141:3 (NKJV) Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips.

The substance of David's evening prayer was that the Lord would direct his words and his actions aright. He wanted God to set a guard at his lips to prevent wrong speech.

Now, I want to talk about some of the negative consequences these kinds of things can bring into our lives. First of all...

1. DAMAGED RELATIONSHIPS

Proverbs 16:28 (GWT) A devious person spreads quarrels. A gossip separates the closest of friends.

There are some people who haven't spoken to each other for years because at some time things were said, harsh words were spoken, and they just never got over it. You see, most people will overlook it if your grammar isn't perfect, or if your jokes aren't funny, but if your words regularly cut and scar people, you're going to find your circle of friends shrinking, because people don't like pain. The result is that you become alienated, because people avoid the person who brings them pain.

When too many hurtful words are absorbed, it's tough for a relationship to survive. Secondly...

2. THE HARM YOU BRING UPON YOURSELF
Proverbs 13:3 (GWT) Whoever controls his mouth protects his own life. Whoever has a big mouth comes to ruin.

Dr. David Fink, a psychiatrist from the Veteran's Administration, did a study on "nervous tension." He studied some 10,000 case histories and discovered that nearly everyone who suffered from nervous tension had one trait in common: they were habitual fault finders and constantly critical of the things and people around them.

Criticism and negativism and sarcasm are like an acid that eats away everything it comes into contact with, and most especially...yourself. Next...

3. GRIEVES AND DISHONORS GOD
Jesus told his followers that others would know they were His disciples by their love for one another. God is grieved when negative words threaten to destroy unity in His church. And you know what non-churched people think when they hear about Christians who fight and back-bite and can't get along with each other. Genuine believers should be characterized by love, kindness, and sensitivity.

So, here are some practical suggestions on how to overcome the tendency to say words that hurt. First of all...

1. Speak Less
Decide not to talk so much. Make an effort to remain silent.

Proverbs 15:28 (GWT) The heart of a righteous person carefully considers how to answer, but the mouths of wicked people pour out a flood of evil things.

Here's an acrostic for those of us who tend to say things we later regret. It's based on the word "think."

T... Truth: Am I telling the truth?
H... Help: Will saying this be helpful or beneficial?
I... Inspire: Will my words inspire and encourage?
N... Necessary: Are my words necessary?
K...Kind: are my words kind and caring?

Many of us need to learn to think before we speak, and to practice the discipline of speaking less often.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin comments: "Over the past decade, whenever I have lectured throughout the country on the powerful, and often negative, impact of words, I have asked audiences if they can go for twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, anybody. Invariably, a minority of listeners raise their hands signifying 'yes,' some laugh, and quite a large number call out, 'no!' I respond by saying, 'Those who can't answer 'yes' must recognize that you have a serious problem. If you cannot go for twenty-four hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. If you cannot go twenty-four hours without a drink, you're most likely an alcoholic. Similarly, if you cannot go for twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue.'"

2. Avoid Critical People
Of course, you can only go so far with this one, but we all know that if you're always around people who are sarcastic and negative, there's a good chance that you might get caught up in it, too. This is why I quit listening to Rush Limbaugh. He can be very critical and sarcastic, a problem I already have, and I don't need to be encouraged in critical speech.

3. Ask Yourself "What Would Jesus Say?" (WWJS)
I'm sure you've seen the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) that is popular in Christianity today. I think it's good. We all should be asking that question. But we should also be asking, WWJS? Can you picture Jesus using sarcasm? Can you picture Him criticizing and insulting other people? Jesus used strong words when he needed to, "You are of your father the devil." But he never said things to hurt, but to awaken. Don't say anything you'd be ashamed to say if Jesus Christ was present, because He is.

4. Be Held Accountable
Sometimes we get "blind spots" when it comes to this kind of thing. We say things that inadvertently hurt someone's feelings, and we don't even realize that we said it. Most people will just "absorb" the hurt and not say anything to you about it, which results in there being a wedge driven in the relationship.

Ask a trusted friend to help you by saying, "Look, I think I have a tendency to unknowingly say things that offend others. Anytime you see me doing that, please pull me aside and point it at to me." Do you have the courage to be accountable?

I read of a well-known minister who does this very thing. He has a tendency to speak harshly to people when he gets under stress, so he gave his secretary permission to call him on the carpet anytime he begins treating his staff like peons. She catches him from time to time...and he is overcoming a very bad habit.

5. Ask For God's Help
A habit is like a cable. You weave a strand a day until it becomes almost unbreakable. God has the power to help you break the habits you've developed with your tongue. We all need to be praying the prayer that David prayed in:

Psalms 19:14 (GWT) May the words from my mouth and the thoughts from my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my defender.

We've got to remember that words carry tremendous weight, and we can use them to build a life or destroy a life. Let's all meet the challenge that God has given us to speak with gentleness, and put an end to words that hurt.

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