I’m friends with a Nazarene pastor named Jay. We worked on our doctoral degrees together. On the whole, Nazarenes tend to be pretty conservative about lots of things – especially their behavior. Historically, they don’t go to movies, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t wear jewelry, don’t gamble, etc., etc.
While I try to be careful about what I say and how I say it, I can get in silly moods and say some foolish stuff – not hurtful, not mean, not inappropriate, not offensive – just goofy. While my friend is a fun guy, and we laugh easily, he has a line he doesn’t cross. More than once he has quoted Matthew 12:36 -37 to me, “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Actually, he shortened it, just saying, “Every word. Every word, my friend.”
Other versions say, “every idle word” or “every careless word” or “every useless word.”
The Bible actually says a lot about the kind of words that are not becoming for Christians to say…
- Misusing the Lord’s Name
- False Witness
- Meaningless Talk
- Malicious Talk
- Unwholesome Talk
- Foolish Talk
- Coarse Joking
- Obscene Talk
- Ignorant Talk
- Corrupt Talk
- Smooth Talk
- Sinful Talk
- Seductive Words
- Perverse Words
- Empty Words
- Boastful Words
- Defiant Words
- Cruel Words
- Rash Words
- Words of Hatred
There are also a number of good words, that we are supposed to say, which I will get to in a moment. But, for now, back to Matthew 12:36, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”
I can honestly say that when I imagine Judgement Day, and giving an accounting of my life, I tend to think about the deeds I have done and the deeds I haven’t done – the sins I have committed, and the good works I have omitted. But, Jesus says that we will also be judged for every word which we have spoken. EVERY WORD!
An image popped in my head the other day of a funeral service, and the public reading of everything the deceased has ever said – how many times they’ve gossiped; how many times they’ve cussed; how many times they’ve complained about the pastor; how many times they’ve been ugly or critical; how many times they’ve used the Lord’s name in vain. For many of us, that would be a pretty lengthy report!
According to the Bible, what we say and how we say it matters a lot – enough for us to be held accountable to our words on Judgement Day! If that doesn’t give you pause to consider your words, I don’t know what will! That ought to be more effective than threatening to wash someone’s mouth out with soap!
John Calvin, the Church reformer said, “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”
I grew up in a conservative home. We didn’t go to church very much. But, I was raised with a high standard of morality – including my language. I was not allowed to cuss, or use bad language in any way. In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to say things like gosh, golly, dang, or darn, as they were close to bad words – sort of. My High School best friend made fun of me for frequently saying, “dadgummit” – I don’t even know how that one snuck into my vocabulary!
When I started a church in Port St. Lucie, one summer I offered my congregation the opportunity to put me to work. One day each week of the summer, I was available to go to work with anyone who could work it out with their employer, and I would work for one day for free. I rode with the Coast Guard. I rode with Animal Control. I worked in a kitchen in Jupiter – and others. My desire was to experience the lives of my members. It was great. But, the biggest surprise from that experience was how much people cuss in the real world. In the church, I don’t hear that a lot. But, in the secular work place, I was amazed how much people cuss – all of the time.
While I’m not an advocate for using obscene language, I’ve also heard some supposed Christians say some pretty awful things without using four-letter words to do it. So, we are not just talking about R-rated language. We’re talking about anything said that is ugly, degrading, or just rude.
The point, of course, is the intent. Are my words rooted and grounded in love? Or, are they at best thoughtless, or, at worst, intentionally negative and harmful.
Why do words matter so much? Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Words have power.
When we were kids we were taught, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That’s a ridiculous lie! Sticks and stones might hurt and leave bruises. But, cuts and bruises heal. Words wound. Words wound deeply. Some words wound permanently.
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the many nice things people say about us, but we can easily remember ugly things that were said? Why? Because words have power, and ugly words seem to be particularly powerful.
A few days ago, I recalled an instance from my childhood. I had made my father angry about something, which led to him following me outside, and accidentally locking us out of the house. In his anger at the situation, and me, he said, “Get out of my sight. I’m sick of looking at you.” When I remembered it the other day, over 4 decades later, I wept.
Sticks and stones.
Gary Chapman writes that words can be either seeds or bullets. When we speak words of encouragement, love, affirmation, gratitude, and kindness, we plant seeds in a person that can grow to become something beautiful. But, when we speak words that are hurtful, condescending, destructive, belittling, and ugly, they can be like bullets that wound, injure and possibly even kill and destroy.
So, let’s do some honest self-assessment. What kind of seeds are you planting – and in whom? And, what kind of bullets are you shooting – and at whom? In whom are you sowing seeds of blessing? At whom are you firing bullets that injure and curse?
Maybe that’s another image. On Judgement Day, will there be more evidence of the seeds you have planted through your words? Or, will there be more evidence of the destruction you have caused by your word bullets?
Here’s another image. Joyce Landorf Heartherly wrote a book called Balcony People. She writes that we all need balcony people in our lives. They are the ones who believe in us, encourage us, and cheer us upward. But, many of us also have basement people in our lives. They are the ones who insult and discourage us, and drag us down. Her challenge is to be a balcony person for someone else – and to avoid being a basement person!
Biblically speaking, we are talking about blessing and cursing. In the Bible, when a blessing or a curse was spoken over a person, it was believed that those words had power, and could not be taken back. Blessings build people up. Curses tear people down.
James 3:3-12 says, When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Well, frankly, that’s pretty discouraging. James does not provide any hope of controlling our tongues at all! He just names the problem as hopeless, and then tells us that we shouldn’t do it! That’s a major problem! If we will be judged for our words, and we can’t control them, we are all in big trouble!
While James doesn’t give us much help, thankfully other verses of scripture do. For instance,
- “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
- “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” Proverbs 4:24
- “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
- “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14
The point is, we have to be very intentional about what we say and what we don’t say. We have to develop self-control when it comes to things like gossip, grumbling, complaining, criticizing and cussing. And, we have to be intentional about speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing – words rooted in love.
We may have to learn new habits and break old ones. If you’re not in the habit of blessing, it may mean you need to learn a new language. Or, you may have to relearn what we learned as children – “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
James is very clear that getting control of the tongue is hard. But, this is the 40-day Summer Stretch! And, I can’t think of anything that deserves more effort than controlling what we say, and what we don’t say.
Let me be very clear. This does not mean that difficult, truthful, sometimes painful conversations can’t happen. Sometimes, those conversations are necessary – even if they are hard. Sometimes, avoiding difficult conversations is the worst thing we can do, and only makes the problem worse. But, difficult conversations must be for the purpose of working through a problem, and offering forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation, and rebuilding what is broken. They can never be for the purpose of hurting, or belittling, or tearing down.
In the village where I work in Guatemala, they speak a Mayan language called Quiche’. The first word I learned in Quiche’ was “utz.” It also seems to be the most frequently used word, in a variety of ways.
“Utz” simply means good. If you like something, it is “utz.” If you feel good, you are “utz.” If you are healthy, you are “utz.” When you greet someone, you say, “utz, uwuch?,” which basically means, “are you good?” To which you respond, “utz.” Or, if you are really good, you might say, “pudu utz,” or, more often, “utz, utz, utz.” Or, if it’s really good, you might say, “pudu utz pin pin,” which means it is the best of the best!
When you are welcomed, you hear, “utz a patik,” which basically means, “good for you to come.” If something is beautiful, it is “utz kakyak.” If you like something, you say, “utz kinwilo,” which literally means it is good for you to look at.
If you want to know if you have done something correctly, you might ask, “utz?’ To which you will most likely be told, “utz.” In essence, you spend the day asking and saying over and over, variations on a theme of “good.”
What if, at the core of everything we ever said was simply, “good?”