“The words of the mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream” (Proverbs 18:4).
It was a quiet day in May, even a joyful one for the Christian composer Steven Curtis Chapman’s family. The eldest daughter, Emily, had gotten engaged just a week prior, and the family was caught up in wedding preparations. The mother was inside, attending to wedding invitations, the younger daughters were in the yard at their usual play spot, and Chapman was on the front porch of the house. Will, the teenage son of the family, was just returning home in the car when Maria, his 5-year-old sister, dashed toward him, eager to involve him in her games. Accidentally, as Will was backing up, he hit her, and the impact was fatal.
Chapman recalls that he doesn’t remember very clearly what followed in the chaos after the accident. An ambulance arrived shortly, and as Chapman rushed to follow it he noticed his son crumpled on the ground, tormented by what had happened, while his older brother embraced him and prayed for him. At that moment, Chapman slowed down, rolled down the car window, and shouted, “Will Franklin, Dad loves you.”
In one of the most heart-wrenching moments a family can experience, a grieving father paused for a few moments to say the words his son needed to hear most.
Christian author Trevin Wax confesses that he feels suffocated whenever he imagines the scene. There are tragedies that crush even words, and in such a moment, from the pain-pierced heart of the father burst forth a word of love. Not a word of reproach. This speaks volumes about the character of this man.
Who among us doesn’t remember a moment (or more) when they’ve uttered words they wish they could erase with a magic eraser later? Or an occasion where they clung desperately to a kind word, received just when they felt they deserved it the least? If only we could carefully control our words, life would be simpler. But as we contemplate the discomfort or wreckage caused by our verbal slip-ups, it’s worth looking beyond the surface of our words to the deeper causes of uncontrolled speech.
Words reflecting the state of our hearts
Inappropriate speech is a multi-tentacled octopus with a single heart. When we realise the impact of our words (or suffer because of them), we might blame the context in which we let our words slip without thought. Or we might regret not censoring our words more attentively.
However, when we speak inappropriately, the real issue is that we’ve tolerated inappropriate thoughts, says theology professor A. Craig Troxel. Speech is a window to our hearts—the place where deceit, envy, pride, selfishness, hypocrisy, or fear are born. “Words reflect the state of our heart; and our heart—more than anything else—reflects the state of our walk with God,” Troxel concludes.
If speech is a test of character, the preparation for the test happens long before exam day, Trevin Wax says. Instead of fixating on our words, the emphasis should shift to what we store in our minds. The Bible speaks of cleaning the source and not merely superficially addressing inappropriate speech: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). The wise Solomon warns us that among all our duties, none can be more crucial than guarding our hearts: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).
However, this is a two-way street, says Solomon, highlighting why we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be at the mercy of our words: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives” (Proverbs 13:3).
Our words sow death or life
The Bible doesn’t treat the issue of speech as lightly as we often do. After all, if we speak 16,000 words a day and over half a million words a year, it becomes easy to trivialise the significance of each word. Yet, at the end of time, we will meet with our words again, according to the warning given by Jesus: “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgement for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).
Paraphrasing the text from Solomon’s Proverbs (“The tongue has the power of life and death”– Proverbs 18:21), Eugene Peterson once remarked, “Words kill, words give life.” We are the ones who choose the direction in which we wield them.
With our words, we breathe life into or drain marriages, families, friendships, or churches, says Pastor William Boekestein, enumerating several ways of speaking that kill rather than invigorate.
Though seemingly harmless, trivial speech, devoid of significance, can have a thousand lethal edges, says Boekestein, urging us to scrutinise the content of the conversations we routinely engage in. Are we discussing hopes and desires that matter to us, attempting to deepen relationships? Are we addressing essential topics that hold eternal significance?
For Christians, the plan of salvation is an inexhaustible topic that revives the soul, as it did for the despairing disciples joined by a “Stranger” on the road to Emmaus, as writer Ellen White says. Advocating for engaging in serious conversations rather than frivolous or meaningless ones, she observed that when God’s truth is stored in the heart, “it will be like a living spring. Attempts may be made to repress it, but it will gush forth in another place; it is there and cannot be repressed. (…). It refreshes the weary and restrains vile thought and utterance.”
Hasty speech and gossip destroy many of our relationships, just like angry words or resentful outbursts.
We fall into the trap of badmouthing, even unintentionally, when we share the pains generated by our conflicts with the wrong people, Boekestein says. However consuming an unresolved conflict might be, the circle of those privy to it should be kept as small as possible. Only those who could play a constructive role in resolving the issue should enter this circle, and the person with whom we’re in conflict should be presented in the best possible light.
Words laden with resentment are evidence of our failure to handle conflict according to the biblical model, resulting in the wounds we inflict on each other having ample time to fester. Boekestein’s analysis concludes that only God’s grace can regenerate our words, but this regeneration must begin from within.
The way we speak serves as an indicator of Christian maturity
The apostle James employs various metaphors in his epistle to illustrate the power of the tongue: it’s “a very small rudder” (James 3:4) that steers the ship wherever it wants; “a small spark” (verse 5) that can ignite a large forest; “it corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire” (verse 6), “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8).
Had he known the term, perhaps the apostle might have dubbed the tongue a “weapon of mass destruction,” says Pastor Andy Davis, who analyses several reasons why our speech must be shaped by the power of God.
Firstly, Davis reminds us that we will be judged according to our words. Secondly, controlling our words is the means by which we control our entire lives. “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:2). The Epistle of James is a practical one, says Davis, underscoring that the message of the preceding verse is that mastery of the tongue is the hallmark of genuine, credible Christianity, while its lack of restraint shows our religion to be valueless.
Another reason we must rein in our speech is tied to its overwhelming influence on others. Moreover, the words we speak have the power to shape ourselves. “What you say to others you also say to God,” says Christian journalist J.B. Cachila, reminding us that Jesus Himself identifies with us and our needs: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).
There must be harmony between how we speak and our Christian testimony, emphasises Pastor David Jeremiah in an article recalling the bittersweet testimony of Pastor Gordon MacDonald. During a preaching tour in Japan, MacDonald was strolling through Yokohama with a Christian friend when a mutual acquaintance came up in conversation, leading MacDonald to make a sarcastic remark.
At that moment, the conversation froze, and his accompanying friend told him firmly, “Gordon, a man who says he loves God wouldn’t say something like that about a friend.” Later, MacDonald recounted the sharp pang of this unvarnished rebuke but also how effective the experience was in curbing his tendency to speak ill of others.
When writing about the power of speech, the Apostle James contends that the tongue cannot be tamed. In this case, what hope do we have of avoiding the whirlpool of inappropriate words? We don’t possess, within ourselves, the power to control our speech, but we have someone to turn to with our thoughts and words tainted by sin. There is hope for recovery and healing only for those who acknowledge their state of helplessness: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
To begin to repair the damage we’ve caused by hurtful words, we need a broken heart, the recognition of our falls and failures, but we mustn’t remain confined here, in guilt and remorse, after seeking forgiveness from both people and God for our thoughtless use of words.
“If you feel yourself to be the greatest sinner, Christ is just what you need, the greatest Saviour. Lift up your head and look away from yourself, away from your sin, (…) to the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world,” Ellen White says.
The breath of our final words
What would our words sound like if we knew they were the last we would utter? What would we say to a loved one if we knew that was the last chance we had to be together?
In his speech at the 2008 TED event, English conductor Benjamin Zander recounted the story of a girl who endured the hell of Auschwitz concentration camp. She was only 15 years old when she was herded onto a train bound for Auschwitz along with other Jews—a place about which no one on that train knew anything.
The girl travelled with her 8-year-old brother, the only family she had left, as her parents had already died. During the journey, her brother lost his shoes, and she scolded him harshly for being careless with his belongings. She survived Auschwitz, but the boy didn’t, making those her last words to her brother.
Upon her release from the camp, the young woman made a vow—never to say words to anyone that she would regret, words she wouldn’t utter under any circumstances if she knew they were her last.
The last words we do or don’t say to others can either bring comfort or burn like embers in our souls. The last words we say, most likely without knowing they’ll be our final ones, will remain etched not only in the memories of mortals but also in heaven’s “scroll of remembrance” (Malachi 3:16).
No one knows the day when the thread of words will be cut off. That’s precisely why each day is an open door to the heart of our Father, the One who can renew our words and our hearts—a Father with a heart torn by the agony of His Son dying on the cross, yet who still stopped to seek His wayward children and cry out to them: “Child, your Father loves you!”