Meditation – mortify destructive speech
by Isaac Overton
In Proverbs 12:18, we read that “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” One important insight that we should glean from this verse is that there are two basic ways of speaking. In everything we say, we will either destroy or we will heal. There is no third category! Ephesians 4:29 expresses exactly the same thought in different words: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” One of our most basic aims in speaking well should be to speak words of healing to others, words that build up appropriate to the occasion. As we’ve seen in an earlier meditation in this series, these kind of words fundamentally flow out of a heart that is near to God, but what else might we do to ensure that our words are words of healing?
As I see it, there are two basic aspects of fulfilling this aim: (1) we need to mortify that within us which inclines us towards harmful words; and (2) we need to cultivate that within us which grows words of healing. In his meditation, I plan for us to focus in on the first of these two activities.
As we’ve already can see clearly in James 3:2, controlling our tongue is profoundly difficult and we thus ought to be immediately humbled by our constant failures to speak words of healing. In fact, it’s important to realise that this will always be a sin that we need to repent of on this side of the grave (and what a blessed and incomprehensible thought to think that the day approaches when that will not be the case!). We will stumble in many ways in the words we speak each day. Nevertheless, our aim is to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (1 Pet 1:15- 16). Again, we will not be perfect on this side of eternity, but God’s grace will cover our many sins. Yet still we confess: I must not tolerate sin. I must mortify destructive speech.
James has more wisdom for us on this point.
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:7-10)
This passage reinforces the difficulty of this task, for our tongue is inclined to sin in this way. It is full of deadly poison, like a viper ready to strike. This ought to profoundly humble us, and yet, as James also says, this ought not to be so! We thus see the call to mortify destructive speech, but the question naturally follows: what can be done? How can we combat so great an evil and be the people that God calls us to be? Obviously, our first port of call must be to cry out to our God that he will help us.
When confronted with the beauty and glory of God, Isaiah confessed: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5). As we grow in our relationship with God, as we see him in all his glory and holiness, we will be more aware of the sins of our tongue and will be moved to lament. Let’s take time each day to meditate on how we have used our tongues, and be quick to confess our specific sins to him. In this we will both draw nearer to God, and we will also gain insight into our sin that we may be better prepared to combat it next time. We must keep short accounts with the Lord when it comes to the sins of our tongues.
We must also pray that God will watch over our tongues and teach us not to sin against him with our words. “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Ps 141:3). We belong now to Christ (Phil 3:12), and we must therefore cry out to our master for help in this task. Unless the Lord is at work to help us, we cannot expect progress in this area. Let us be diligent in prayer, crying out to God that he may keep us from speaking words of destruction into the lives of those about us.
Furthermore, by the grace of God, let us also be slow to speak. This principle could not be any clearer in scripture: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” The impulse to speak without thinking, or speak hastily, is easily cultivated. It is like a weed that may spring up and multiply in a short space of time. We must be in the habit of restraining that impulse. I say “in the grace of God” to remind us that we need his help to do this. Let us pray regularly that he will enable us to “be slow to speak.”
One way that we can commit ourselves to being slow to speak is by resolving that we will never interrupt others. Now this is getting hard isn’t it! I think this is a first step in being slow to speak. If someone else is speaking, we ought to make it our habit not to speak until they are finished. Period. We ought to see any and every interruption we make as an infringement on this commitment that must be mortified – beginning with a prompt apology for being rude by interrupting. If we interrupt others, clearly we aren’t listening properly (we are formulating a response), which is another clear indicator that avoiding interrupting others is a key ingredient to being slow to speak. Interrupting by nature, after all, is comprised of a hasty expression! And so making this commitment not to interrupt has a double effect – it helps us both to listen and be slow to speak. May God be glorified as we learn to mortify destructive speech, and may he by his grace restrain and train our tongues where we cannot. SDG.