Our words are important; what we say matters. Words can be used to build up, encourage, and speak great truths. They can also be used to tear down, hurt, or even speak truths in unloving ways. As James notes, though the tongue is a small member of the body, it holds much power (3:2-4). When I was a kid, I remember a plaque hanging in my grandparent’s kitchen which quoted the wisdom that “It is better to be silent and thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt”.
Though I admired this quote, it was much harder to live by; I was always in trouble for talking back, talking when I was supposed to be quiet, or saying things without thinking about them first. Though I’ve learned this lesson the hard way a number of times, I still sometimes regret the things that I say. I’m sure you’ve had experiences, too, where you wish you could pull back in the words that just left your mouth, but know that once it has been said, it can’t be unsaid. And in this day of social media, we need the wisdom more than ever, of being careful what we say - or type. Our words, when posted online, leave a lasting imprint and can be shared with thousands at the press of a button.
We should be thoughtful about the words we use, knowing the great power they wield. I remember some sage advice from Randy Harris, that I heard many years ago. We were discussing the practice of silence, and how when we are silent, it allows us to hear better. Randy encouraged us to practice silence, and “speak only what love requires.” I love this. Sometimes love requires silence, and sometimes love requires that we speak. Control of the tongue does not mean never speaking up. Control of the tongue means being deliberate and thoughtful in what we say. Our words have the power, as is noted in James 3:5, to set entire forests ablaze.
And sometimes, there are things that need to be burned down. When we see oppression, violence, patriarchy, racism, and evil in the world, the loving thing to do, might just be to speak out against it. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian who was put to death by Nazi Germany for speaking out against Hitler, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Our silence holds as much power for good or for bad as our words do.
This month, I encourage you to be thoughtful about your words, asking Spirit to help you discern how you can use your words and your silence to build others up, to comfort the hurting, to stand with the oppressed, and to live out the good news of the Kingdom of God. I wonder how our words and our lives might change if we spoke only what love requires.