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How to Keep Your Words from Doing Harm

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Everyone has played a variation of the childhood exercise designed to teach us the damaging power of the “rumor mill.”
Whether you have five or 25 people sitting in a circle, by the time a whispered secret makes it all the way around, the original statement has been twisted, reconstructed and often changed altogether.

We humans have a tendency to repeat everything we hear. Not only that, we have a tendency to speak whatever words come to our mind.

When we were children, our parents often told us that “sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.”

Such stern advice made us stronger children as we made our debut in the real world of kindergarten. However, it didn’t take most of us long to realize that words can hurt.

Words do hurt. As a matter of fact, words usually hurt.

All of us are trapped in this cycle of unhealthy communication that plagues our world, communities, churches and families.

In this context, the book of James offers us some very beautiful images that are intended to help us with controlling our tongue. James 3:3-6 says,

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.

The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.

I’m really grateful to live in a nation where freedom of speech is guaranteed.

It’s nice to be able to sit around the coffee shop or barbershop and talk about everything under the sun. At times, though, I hear folks talking about people in less than positive ways.

We’re free to do so, but I’m reminded of Saint Paul’s words in Galatians 5:13-14: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Considering whether or not our words express love of God and neighbor is a good starting place for working at speech control. This self-reflection quickly reveals shortcomings in our conversation patterns.

Like an unbridled horse, the unbridled tongue will inevitably send us in directions we don’t want to go. Likewise, if the tongue is our rudder, we have to consider all of the variables that might influence our proper speech.

The political and social currents are pulling and pushing us at all times. We have “cargo” on our ships that might need to be thrown overboard. Some of us have a few negative shipmates that need to be redirected or exchanged for positive examples of speech.

When the fires of unhealthy speech are allowed to escape our lips, they’re destined to burn others, and eventually their flames will consume us, too.

You can post a comment on someone’s Facebook page and within a millisecond it’s being read by thousands of people you may not even know.

You can be trending on Twitter before you put your smartphone back in your pocket.

A careless, senseless and ignorant video can be uploaded to the Internet and within hours another part of the world will be in an uproar.

Words not only have the power to hurt us, words have the power to destroy us and our world.

Before anyone claiming they’re “old school” and “anti-technology” decides this doesn’t apply to them, allow me to remind you that the landline telephone hasn’t been around forever. The arrival of the landline phone was probably when “rumor mills” got their steam.

It’s an old piece of wisdom that James offers, but as we witness the fires of division burning around the world, we’re reminded that they all started as a small flame.

While we can’t fix the problems of our world overnight, we can control the flame on the tip of our tongue and be the change we desire to see in our world.

I know that James is writing to me. He’s writing to you. He’s writing to us all.

Be challenged today and be blessed in the week to come

Mark Reece is the pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Mount Airy, N.C. This article originally appeared in their church newsletter, “The Grove,” and is published with permission.