When I was young, my mother would tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” If only I had followed that advice throughout my life. There have been many times that I have spoken when I should have kept my mouth closed. The important thing to understand about what we say, as damaging as the words can be, is what is in the heart.
Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, 35: “Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.” Clearly what comes out of our mouths is indicative of the condition of our hearts. Alarmingly, this also can be a strong indication of whether or not we are in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
Have you been driving down the road when suddenly someone cuts you off? What was your response? Driving is a very humbling experience for me, on a daily basis. There was a time when I lived about 30 miles from where I worked. The road I took home was a state highway, so the speed limit was 65. One day I was driving home, doing about 68, and a large pickup truck came up behind me, so close that all I could see in the rear view mirror was its front grill. He followed me that way for some time and then suddenly, like he’d been shot out of a cannon, he pulled around me, accelerated past me and then pulled right in front of me barely before he had cleared the front of my car. Then, just seconds after getting past me he abruptly slowed down to exit the highway. I slammed on the brakes, said some very colorful things and even wished some very uncharitable things about the driver. Immediately the thought came to me, Is this what Jesus would have done? Did my words and thoughts have any effect on that driver? No. Did they have an effect on me? Yes. Did the experience help me to change my behavior? I’d like to say yes, but the truth is, probably not. So, what does that say about my relationship with Christ?
“Shall we not remember this? If the love of God is in our hearts, we shall not think evil, we shall not be easily disturbed, we shall not give loose reign to passion, but we will show that we are yoked up with Christ, and that the restraining power of His Spirit leads us to speak words that He can approve. The yoke of Christ is the restraint of the Holy Spirit, and when we become heated by passion, let us say, No; I have Christ by my side, and I will not make Him ashamed of me by speaking hot, fiery words.” The Voice in Speech and Song, 146, 147
How many times have you had difficulty with someone at work or at home or at church and been able to keep your mouth shut at the moment. But later, after you stewed about it for a while, had plenty to say to someone else about what happened and more specifically about the person with whom you had the difficulty? Not only did your words bring more harm to yourself, but they also caused a problem for someone who wasn’t even involved. By this action you also have caused someone else to have ill feelings against another person and together you shared your misery and then perhaps shared it again with someone else and then another and another. Homes and churches have been divided and jobs have been lost because of careless words.
How many times has someone died and suddenly we hear how people really felt about them? Terrible words are spoken about the individual who now has no ability to defend himself/herself against those words. And what about the effect those words have on their family members? It may be that every word spoken is truth, but I just keep hearing the wise words of my mother, say something nice or don’t say anything. If we can speak terrible words about each other or someone who has died, what does that say about our relationship with Christ?
“There is often a great temptation to talk of things which do not profit the speaker or the hearer, but which bring evil and barrenness to both. Our probationary time is too brief to be spent in dwelling upon the shortcomings of others.
“The truly converted man has no inclination to think or talk of the faults of others. His lips are sanctified, and as God’s witness he testifies that the grace of Christ has transformed his heart. … Those only will enter heaven who have overcome the temptation to think and speak evil.” Ibid., 145
James 3:6–10 tells us, “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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
Years ago, Pastor Marshall Grosboll shared excerpts from “The First Settler’s Story,” written as a poem by Will Carleton and published in his book Farm Festivals in 1881. The story of a man and his young bride who went to settle in the western territory, the poem is written in the first-person perspective of the man and had to do, in part, with the man’s inability to control his impatience and his words toward his wife. Here are just a few passages from that poem:
“Well, neighborhoods meant counties, in those days;
The roads didn’t have accommodating ways;
And maybe weeks would pass before she’d see
And much less talk with anyone but me. …”
“And finally I thought that I could trace
A half heart-hunger peering from her face.
Then she would drive it back, and shut the door;
Of course that only made me see it more.
‘Twas hard to see her give her life to mine,
Making a steady effort not to pine;
‘Twas hard to hear that laugh bloom out each minute,
And recognize the seeds of sorrow in it.”
Time passed and the isolation, bad weather, failed crops, poverty and lack of almost everything began to take its toll.
“One night, I came from work unusual late,
Too hungry and too tired to feel first-rate,
Her supper struck me wrong (though I’ll allow
She hadn’t much to work with, anyhow);
And when I went to milk the cows, and found
They’d wandered from their usual feeding ground,
And maybe left a few long miles behind ‘em,
Which I must copy, if I meant to find ‘em;
Flash-quick the stay-chains of my temper broke,
And in a trice these hot words I had spoke:
‘You ought to’ve kept the animals in view,
And drove ‘em in; you’d nothing else to do.
The heft of all our life on me must fall;
You just lie around, and let me do it all.”
He knew right away he was in the wrong, but he was a proud man and he left the apology unsaid. With a quick good-bye the next morning, he left his young bride. But that afternoon, sensing a storm coming, he left work early and hurried home.
“Half out of breath, the cabin door I swung,
With tender heart-words trembling on my tongue;
But all looked desolate and bare;
My house had lost its soul – she was not there!
A penciled note was on the table spread,
And these are something like the words it said:
‘The cows have strayed away again, I fear;
I watched them pretty close; don’t scold me, dear.
And where they are, I think I nearly know;
I heard the bell not very long ago.
I’ve hunted them all afternoon;
I’ll try once more – I think I’ll find them soon.
Dear, if a burden I have been to you,
And haven’t helped as I ought to do,
Let old-time memories my forgiveness plead;
I’ve tried to do my best – I have, indeed.
Darling, piece out with love the strength I lack,
And have kind words for me when I get back.’ ”
As he finished reading her note, the storm swept in. Once the storm had ended, he and his dog went in search of his wife.
“All night we dragged the woods without avail;
The ground got drenched – we could not keep the trail.
Three times again my cabin home I found,
Half hoping she might be there, safe and sound;
But each time ‘twas an unavailing care:
My house had lost its soul; she was not there!
When climbing the wet trees, next morning sun
Laughed at the ruin that the night had done,
Bleeding and drenched – by toil and sorrow bent –
Back to what used to be my home I went.
But, as I neared our little clearing-ground
Listen! I heard the cowbell’s tinkling sound;
The cabin door was just a bit ajar;
It gleamed upon my glad eyes like a star!
‘Brave heart,’ I said, ‘for such a fragile form!
She made them guide her homeward through the storm!’
Such pangs of joy I never felt before
‘You’ve come!’ I shouted, and rushed through the door.
“Yes, she had come – and gone again. She lay
With all her young life crushed and wrenched away –
Lay the heart-ruins of home among
Not far from where I killed her with my tongue.
The rain drops glittered mid her hairs’ long strands,
The forest thorns had torn her feet and hands,
And midst the tears – brave tears – that one could trace
Upon the pale but sweetly resolute face,
I once again the mournful words could read –
‘I’ve tried to do my best – I have indeed!’ …
“Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
‘Careful with fire,’ is good advice, we know:
‘Careful with words,’ is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead;
But God Himself can’t kill them once they’re said.”
I have remembered that last verse of the poem for at least 30 years now. Each time I have heard it or read it, it has brought me to tears, even now writing it in this article. And yet, I still struggle myself with impatience and my words. And with every thoughtless, angry, and unkind word spoken, I am reminded of the question: What does it say about my relationship with Jesus Christ?
“God desires your words to be life-giving. Not a word of irritation is to be spoken. However provoked you may feel, keep back every word that would stir up the evil in another heart. … Let every word you speak bless and elevate.” The Voice in Speech and Song, 144, 145
“The love of God in the heart will always lead us to speak gentle words. ‘Charity (love) suffereth long and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil. Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.’ ” Ibid., 146
“Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Proverbs 21:23
Friends, let us all remember that our mouths only speak what is in our hearts. If we have not surrendered ourselves to the in-working of the Holy Spirit, then there will be no change and we will continue to speak evil. We must cry out to the Lord, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, Oh Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
“As God works upon the heart by His Holy Spirit, man must cooperate with Him. The thoughts must be bound about, restricted, withdrawn from branching out and contemplating things that will only weaken and defile the soul. The thoughts must be pure, the meditations of the heart must be clean, if the words of the mouth are to be words acceptable to heaven, and helpful to your associates. … ‘For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.’ ” The Review and Herald, June 12, 1888
[All emphasis supplied]
Judy Rebarchek is a member of the LandMarks team. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org