If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All.

My tongue tends to get me in trouble a lot. Or maybe it isn’t really the fault of the tongue. I think the real problem goes much deeper than that. Jesus said in Matthew 15:17-19 (NIV), “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

What I say reveals a lot about what is going on in my heart. This is especially true in those moments where I am not “focusing on being good.” We all have moments where we slip up and say something we would rather take back. What comes up in these moments may reveal things in our hearts that we need to allow God to resolve.

My tongue problem is really a heart problem. And the tongue is indeed a powerful part of the body. With the tongue we can curse or bless; we can hurt or heal; and we can encourage reconciliation or cause division. The words we say to others can come back and hurt us. I think of it sort of like bouncing a ball against a wall. All that force and destructive energy has to go somewhere. And it tends to bounce back at some point.

I am starting to realize that much of what I think should never be said. This is hard for someone who is a verbal processor. And while it may seem like common sense, it is hard to accept when you highly value honesty and justice. Keeping your tongue in line, is also hard for someone who is paid to make value judgments in his occupation. As a journalist, I am supposed to interview various people and write what I find. But this is always more than just dictation. You have to make judgments about the reliability of various sources, analyze the importance of the different aspects of a story, and make clarifying statements that some would seem as undue criticism. When it comes to writing opinion pieces, you have to be critical and analytical. That is what you are paid to do. It is hard to turn off this way of looking and speaking about the world when you are not at work.

Scripture offers a pretty harsh critique of the tongue. It calls the tongue a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is “set on fire by hell.” The tongue cannot be tamed by any man. It can “corrupt the whole person” according to James 3. This famous passage makes you almost want to take a knife to your tongue. But I think even a mute person might tell you this doesn’t really solve much.

Jesus clearly never shied away from making a harsh rebuke when necessary. He scolded His disciples and made all sort of tough rebukes (some might even call slanderous statements) against the political and religious leaders of the day. Jesus said all sort of things that baffled or enraged some who heard His statements. Of course, we are not Jesus. He is His own category. Yet, it doesn’t seem that Jesus forbid His followers from making judgments or giving harsh rebukes. The key comes back to the heart and why we say what we say. Is this rebuke to build up or just merely to cast mud on the reputation of another? Do you have standing so that your words matter to that person? Have you prayed about this first?

These questions all make me want to stop and think before I say anything. Maybe my momma was right. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all (that is unless you know that you have the authority, standing and the responsibility to give a godly rebuke).

Some interesting Scriptures on the tongue and its power.

Psalm 139:4
Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

Proverbs 10:19
Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.

Proverbs 12:18
The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 15:4
The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 16:1
To humans belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.

Proverbs 21:23
Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.

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