The Bible says a lot about the words we choose to use—but why? Understanding the importance of our words is a vital part of being a Christian in progress.
Words have power.
Well, sort of. The meanings of words have power. Take away the meaning, and you reduce a word to an arbitrary jumble of sounds and shapes. But give those sounds and shapes meaning, and suddenly you can do incredible things with them.
The words you’re reading right now—where did they come from?
I picked these words. As you read them, you’re following my train of thought. With nothing more than sounds and shapes, I’m taking a thought that exists in my own mind and sharing it with you.
What words can do
But words don’t just communicate thoughts.
They change things.
If I organize my jumbles of sounds and shapes in just the right way, I might be able to convince you to look at a given issue from a different perspective.
That’s amazing. I might be able to change the way you think about something. With words.
Words can make us laugh, and they can make us cry. Words can encourage and inspire us, and they can leave us feeling depressed and worthless. People have married because of words, and people have killed because of words.
The things we say—and the way we choose to say them—matter.
The power of the tongue
But that’s not exactly a new concept. King Solomon understood that years ago, and he phrased it a little more emphatically: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).
Death and life.
Can you think of two greater extremes? I can’t. That might be why the Bible devotes a considerable amount of space to discussing the capacity for our words to do incredible good—or cause incredible damage.
James had harsh words to say on the subject: “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
James actually said that the tongue is set on fire by Gehenna—a Greek word for the Valley of Hinnom, which functioned as a sort of perpetual garbage incinerator outside of Jerusalem. There were always fires burning in the Valley of Hinnom, incinerating waste, refuse and even dead bodies from the city.
In other words, at its very worst, the tongue isn’t much better than a dumpster fire.
Should Christians stop talking?
So what exactly does that mean for a Christian in progress?
Should we just not talk at all? Never open our mouths so we don’t risk spreading around the fires of hell?
What words will edify, or build up, those we’re speaking with? What words will they find filthy and corrupt?Well, no. But it does mean that we should be extremely careful about the words we do let out of our mouths. James also said, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19). If we’re not intentional about the things we choose to say, it’s very easy to start fires we can’t put out.
But there’s more to the tongue than the ability to destroy. There’s more to Solomon’s proverb about the tongue. He said, “A man’s stomach shall be satisfied from the fruit of his mouth; from the produce of his lips he shall be filled. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:20-21).
There’s something bigger at work here than just the words that come out of our mouths. The real issue here isn’t the tongue.
It’s the heart.
How the heart affects our words
Speaking of the fruit of our mouths, Jesus said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).
Our words reflect our hearts. And while we might have limited success in constantly censoring ourselves, working hard to make sure no evil thought makes it out of our mouths, the truth is that God is far more concerned with “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4). He can see past any façade, and He knows when we’re trying to game the system.
As Christians in progress, our goal shouldn’t be to just sound good, but to be good. If our words naturally tend to be a reflection of what’s in our hearts, then our job is to be intensely aware of the kind of treasure we’re placing there.
What’s important to us? What are we spending our time on? Is it true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (compare Philippians 4:8, English Standard Version; see also our series of blog posts starting with “Meditate on These Things: ‘Whatever Things Are True’”)? Or is it something else? In time, the treasure in our hearts will produce the words in our mouths.
We should choose our words carefully
Paul told us to put “filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8) and to steer clear of “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:4, New International Version).
Steering clear of obscene and filthy language can feel almost arbitrary sometimes. It’s not as if God gave us a specific list of vulgarities to avoid. So often, it’s the society and culture around us that ultimately shape what words we consider inappropriate. Over a few hundred years, a word that was once insulting might become a compliment, while a word that was once perfectly harmless can become incredibly offensive.
If words are just jumbles of sounds and shapes, why should we care how others view them?
Because words have power. Those jumbles of sounds and shapes have meanings, and those meanings are shared between all of us. Words let us communicate with each other in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
And so the Bible tells us to “let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6). “Let no corrupt word [or ‘unwholesome talk,’ NIV] proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
The people we talk to are going to perceive our words a certain way. Even when there’s nothing inherently wrong with those words, we should take that perception into account. What words will edify, or build up, those we’re speaking with? What words will they find filthy and corrupt?
But more than that, understanding the power of words should change what we let into our lives and our hearts. Do we enjoy things filled with filthy language, coarse joking and unwholesome talk? In time, those words will become our words. Worse, the thoughts behind those words will become our thoughts.
God doesn’t want that. Neither should we.
Treasure into hearts, hearts into words
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our treasure needs to be the truths and promises of God. The psalmist told God, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). The Word of God was a treasure to him, as it should be to us.
As we hold on tightly to that treasure and interact with it on a regular basis, God will use it to begin changing our hearts. And as our hearts change, so will our words. The more we live like a disciple of Jesus Christ, the more we’ll talk like one.
And that’s why God cares about the words we use.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for a future edition of “Christianity in Progress,” you can do so anonymously at lifehopeandtruth.com/ideas. We look forward to your suggestions!