And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
While you can delete a tweet, a Facebook post, or a blog post, the spoken word is heard immediately and remembered forever, especially when those words are hurtful. We are tempted to blow up when angry and to let words fly without control. Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” Our mouths can put us in awkward situations. Mine has many times. As a teenager, I’ll admit that I talked back to my parents, especially my dad, far too much. At one point, it got so bad my parents discussed sending me away to a boarding school. The idea of going away didn’t bother me, especially if it was an all-boys school (the fantasy probably was better than the reality would have been). Once my parents realized that I was perfectly happy with the idea of going to a boarding school, they dropped the subject, much to my dismay.
Eventually, my Grandmama sat me down as told me that I needed to deal with my father like she did my grandfather. She said, “Just keep your mouth shut, and eventually, he’ll shut the hell up.” It turned out to be good advice, though it was hard to do. My father was one of those people who believed in “Do as I say, not as I do.” It’s one of the reasons I hate hypocrisy so much, and it was hard not to point out his hypocrisy.
But it is not just talking back that kept me in trouble. I often said things I shouldn’t have said, but I have never been a person to intentionally inflict harm on someone with my words. That does not mean I did not inflict damage with my words. It just wasn’t intentional. Proverbs 12:18 tells us, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Remember the phrase “open mouth, insert foot?” I’m sure all of us have been guilty of that one. Once you say hurtful words aloud, you can’t take them back. You can only live them down, which is often very hard to do. Hurtful words are more damaging than physical hurt, leaving scars on the soul and spirit.
A wise man learns to weigh his words before speaking. Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” This wisdom comes with age and experience. Anger confounds many people in our world today. We simply don’t know how to handle our anger as we have in the past. Some of that has to do with the anonymity of the internet, which some people use as an excuse to inflict hurt on others with words. I also blame the last four years of having a bully as a president, someone who made fun of a young girl with autism or a disabled reporter suffering from arthrogryposis. He did so for laughs and the enjoyment of his audience. It was not only immature, but it was mean spirited. Because of the example set by our previous president, people felt emboldened and encouraged to show their cruel ways, whether that was through homophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, or any other disgusting and ungodly reasons. We must resist the temptation of hurtful or angry words, and instead, we should show the world God’s kindly words and deeds.
We must think before we speak. When we pause and consider our words, it is often an excellent remedy for anger. We don’t need to delay indefinitely, but we need to give ourselves time to consider the consequences of our words more carefully. If you’ve got an issue you need to deal with, you need to do so. Anger delayed indefinitely becomes bitterness. That’s worse than anger. Anger isn’t always a sin, as we can be angry over injustice. However, bitterness is a sin because it means we have refused to forgive. If we respond impulsively, we tend to react in anger. If we wait to talk about whatever conflict we’re dealing with, we will be more rational and reasonable when we do. The longer we hold our temper, the better our response will be. We need to give ourselves time to think.
Setting a guard over our mouth as we are instructed to do in Psalm 141:3 requires that we keep our mouth shut when we are irritated and that we seek the Lord’s help to say the right words with the right tone or, perhaps, not speak at all. When it comes to controlling our speech, it’s a lifelong work. Thankfully, God is working in us, giving us “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).