Speech is the most creative and most destructive force in all of creation. Two little words, "God said" repeated 13 times in Genesis 1-3 and we have our current situation. Our paradise created with us in mind has been stripped away because of our sin and we bear the punishment for it. It is our words as well as our actions which make us unclean (Matthew 15). Our words reflect the true values within our minds (Matthew 12, Luke 6). The Psalmist asks the Lord to let the "words of my mouth... be acceptable to You" (Psalm 19:14). And of course, James in which we read in verse 9, "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God." ESV.
I hate this passage because it holds a mirror up to my face and I see myself much too clearly. I grew up fighting with my mouth. In seventh grade my best friend and I devoured and memorized books of insults and putdowns. We fed on them and it gave us great pleasure in reducing others to rage. If you've ever heard me say anything remotely nasty, let me tell you it was mild compared to the person I was before Christ.
It is not easy for me to consider this but the truth is, what we say is just one more of the evidences as to whether our lives are captured by Jesus Christ or whether we're content with living a casual, convenient life with Jesus as part of it. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, wrote Words That Hurt, Words That Heal in 1996. Since then he has lectured on the nature of Judaism and it's ethical moral lapse. In one lecture he points out that of all the conversions in Israel none has ever been overturned based on ethics even though the greatest story of conversion is predicated totally on ethics. ["What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it."]1
In his lectures Rabbi Telushkin often asks if those in his audience if they can go 24 hours without saying any unkind words about, or to, another person. A few indicate they can and raise their hands, others laugh, and quite a large number call out, "no!"
He responds that those who can't answer 'yes' have a serious problem. "If you cannot go 24 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go 24 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue."2
To declare we follow Jesus means that our actions will honor Him and among those actions are taking care of widows and orphans and controlling our tongue. It also directly follows a command that not everyone ought to strive to be a teacher. The way we speak about others is also another evidence of the "distinctions" we are warned about at the beginning of chapter 2. Our control or lack of control obviously is part of the command to be "slow to speak and slow to anger" and "bridling his tongue in verse 25.
Let us assume for a moment that your words have gotten us all in trouble from time to time. How might we discover a way to break the addiction to such sin?
First call it what it is. It is sin. We've all sinned. None of us are perfect and if we think we are then we have sinned once more because we've called God a liar who says we have all sinned. Our speech is part of our fallen nature.
It's not just part of our personality, god created nature, the culture we live in, or a sign of our times. The type of unbridled gossip and evil we speak is "birthed in hell, sin". It doesn't come from God but from the evil within us. Name it and claim it as your own.
Second practice your eulogy. Eulogy comes from the Latin and literally means "praise" eu and "word or speech" logia. You don't learn something unless your practice it. That is how we all learned to walk, tie our shoes and master the other daily things of life. It is no different in our talking. Practice our "praise talk" when confronted with others.
Rev Andrew Demotses writes of two boys on the school playground who were discussing a classmate. One of them remarked, "He's no good at sports."
The other quickly responded, "Yes, but he always plays fair."
The critical one added, "He isn't very smart in school either."
His friend answered, "That may be true, but he studies hard."
The boy with the mean tongue was becoming exasperated with the attitude of the other. "Well," he sneered, "did you ever notice how ragged his clothes are?"
The other boy kindly replied, "Yes, but did you ever notice, they're always clean!"
It was his custom to counter every negative observation with a positive comment. In doing so, he discouraged negativity in others who quickly learned that he refused to be their audience.3 Which do you think got the concept of good speech?
So here is what is going to happen to those of us trying to live more captive lives for Jesus. We're going to have the opportunity to gossip, put down and curse others. We're going to run into people who seemingly leave us no option but to slam them. When that happens we get to choose to honor Christ or show our faith to be skin deep. We will choose then whether we will be the giver of life or death. The choice may be ours but we may well loose out eternally if we choose badly.
1 On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon he chased him away with the builder's cubit that was in his hand. When he came before Hillel, (he also asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot) Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it."
2 Rick Ezell, One Minute Uplift (7-21-06) (no longer accessible)
3 http://www.goarch.org/resources/sermons/sermonettes/sermonettes060 accessed August 7, 2009