I live with them. I work with them. Teenagers. It is a blessing and a privilege to do so. But I will confess that, being immersed in life with teens, very little shocks my ears any longer. From their sweet lips, a whole host of the good, the bad, and the ugly has issued forth. One day, they can speak words of insight and affirmation to one another; the next, remarks both biting and bitter. Largely, I’ve attributed these wild vacillations to their lack of a fully formed prefrontal cortex and the whirl of emotions and hormones that attend adolescent life. Occasionally I’ve wondered if they don’t have great models from which to draw a better example.
But a tougher truth is at play when it comes to what spills from our mouths. Sometimes we adults are not much better at tempering our tongues than our teen counterparts. I noticed it at a large gathering recently. A referee's questionable call immediately stirred irate comments; the coach’s decision became the target of hateful critique. The chatter would hardly have qualified as uplifting or endearing. Even the adults were caught up in a maelstrom of malicious talk. Ugh.
The tongue. Anatomically, this small muscle facilitates some essential functions: speaking, swallowing, and breathing. Despite its diminutive size (coming in at an average of 10 cm), the tongue is wildly potent. Just ask the New Testament writer, James. His epistle pegs the tongue as the very source of life and death to a person. With characteristic clarity, James reminds us all that, while small in stature, the tongue is capable of either bestowing blessing or wreaking havoc.
James’ writing about our speech weaves together beautiful and poignant imagery. He compares the tongue to a bit placed in a horse’s mouth, determining the direction of a powerful animal. For the nautically inclined, he draws the analogy between “a very small rudder” capable of steering a large ship through tumultuous waters and this tiny body part which determines “the whole course of one’s life” (3:6). Should those two metaphors not sufficiently drive home the power and influence of the tongue, James further likens our words to a spark capable of igniting a destructive conflagration. The cautionary conclusion? Watch our words.
How can our tongues get us in trouble? We might all be able to count the ways: dishing dirt, encouraging pessimism, spurring divisions, lying outright, breaking confidences, or speaking crudely. The gospel writer, Luke, diagnoses the deeper truth: what comes out of our mouths is simply “from the overflow of our hearts” (6:45). The problem is not necessarily our tongue, but our hearts. Ouch.
Be not discouraged. If you, like me, feel the prick of scripture’s conviction about controlling this, you probably also know that we can’t do this on our own. James’s letter acknowledges “no human can tame the tongue” (3:8). The good news? God can.
God can tender our hearts, soften our words, and redeem our ways. His Spirit bears the fruit of self-control, of joy, of patience, of peace, of love. We don’t have to clean up our act, scrub our words, or get our behavior together on our own. But we do need to acknowledge that our tongues cannot be a part of an irreconcilable duplicity. James presses the matter: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water” (3:9-12).
What do you think, friends? Up for asking God to guard our hearts, train our tongues and sweeten our speech? May we seek His help, knowing He who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6). Let’s be those women whose words are tamed and tender.