Disrespectful speech is on the rise. What does the Bible say about the way we communicate and the life-and-death power of our words? How can we improve?
Wise King Solomon noted the immense power of speech when he said: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). We continue to see the truth of this proverb played out today.
Unfortunately, rude and disparaging discourse has escalated around the world. Studies over several years by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research have found that “Americans continue to report that incivility is harming America’s future, our standing in the world and our democracy” (Civility in America 2019: Solutions for Tomorrow).
In their 2019 report the researchers wrote: “This year’s study finds once again that Americans have a deep concern about the state of civility in our nation. Our results show that the vast majority of Americans—93%—identify incivility as a problem, with most classifying it as a ‘major’ problem (68%). This disturbing rate has changed little since 2010.”
As for the sources of this incivility, Americans, no matter their political affiliation, consistently blame social media and the Internet, the White House, politicians in general, the news media and both liberal and conservative social activists.
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has placed further strain on our ability to have healthy communication. Tim Levine, chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explains: “There is some interesting and important research on the effects of social isolation on communication.
“One impact is that, the less contact we have with other people, the more we become suspicious of other people. This can make others more defensive and lead to a vicious spiral where isolation leads to suspicion, which begets defensiveness, which reinforces the suspicion and leads to further isolation as a self-fulfilling prophesy [sic]” (quoted by Yvonne Taunton, “How Has COVID-19 Affected the Way We Communicate?”).
Because of their overarching effect on all citizens, toxic relationships between political parties are particularly unhealthy for democracies. Unfortunately, highly partisan, accusatory and hate-filled types of communication have increased substantially.
A month before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the title of a Politico opinion piece by multiple highly credentialed authors read: “Americans Increasingly Believe Violence Is Justified If the Other Side Wins.”
Around the same time a Northwestern University–led study found that “disdain for the opposing political party now—and for the first time on record—outweighs affection for one’s own party.”
If we want to have civil, respectful communication, we need to start with a mind-set that respects others.The study used the term political sectarianism to describe the heightened emotions discourteous communication can evoke. “The current state of political sectarianism produces prejudice, discrimination and cognitive distortion, undermining the ability of government to serve its core functions of representing the people and solving the nation’s problems,” said lead author Eli Finkel.
“Along the way, it makes people increasingly willing to support candidates who undermine democracy and to favor violence in support of their political goals” (Northwestern.edu).
While the studies cited are U.S.-based, incivility in communication is not limited to Americans. A quick perusal of proceedings in the United Nations and communications between heads of state, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and Israel, reveal (or at best thinly cover) the deep divisions and distrust that exist between some nations.
Bible verses about the tongue in the Old Testament
Scriptures about the tongue are plentiful. God’s Word is not lacking when it comes to helpful guidance on how we are to communicate. Consider the following passages from the Old Testament:
- Exodus 20:16: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
- Psalm 34:13: “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.”
- Psalm 37:30: “The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of justice.”
- Psalm 120:2: “Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips and from a deceitful tongue.”
- Proverbs 10:19: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”
- Proverbs 12:19: “The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.”
- Proverbs 13:3: “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction.”
The ninth of God’s 10 Commandments instructs us not to lie. Other passages from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament affirm that a godly person will be careful about what he or she says.
Bible verses about the tongue in the New Testament
During His earthly ministry, Jesus further explained the importance of carefully choosing what we say.
Matthew 12:36-37: “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.”
Here are additional passages in the New Testament, where James and Peter reflected on Jesus’ assertion.
- James 3:2: “For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”
- James 3:7-10: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
- 1 Peter 3:10: “For ‘He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit.’”
The New Testament teaching on controlling what we say adds emphasis to the instruction found in the Old Testament. Jesus explains that we will be justified—considered right in God’s eyes—by our words and judged by our words.
Keys to godly communication: life in the power of the tongue
Researchers have a number of recommendations about how public discourse can be improved. Tips include:
- Check reputable sources before believing or sharing information.
- Respectfully listen to another’s perspective before responding.
- Strive to set a good example in your own communications.
These suggestions have merit and biblical support (Proverbs 18:17; James 1:19; Matthew 5:16). But there is an even more important foundation to consider that can help us implement this advice.
This nugget of truth about the foundation of godly communication is connected with Jesus’ teaching that we will be justified and judged by the words we use. His astute observation was, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
What Jesus was noting was that we humans say what we think. If we want to have civil, respectful communication, we need to start with a mind-set that respects others. To train our minds to have this perspective, we need to follow Peter’s simple but insightful advice to “honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17).
How to acquire respect for others
The Bible tells us that the way we can acquire a mental perspective that respects everyone is through a process called conversion (Acts 3:19). God’s Word explains that we humans have an inherent nature called the “carnal mind” that invites “hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy” (Romans 8:7; Galatians 5:19-20).
While the complete list of “the works of the flesh” is more extensive, it is easy to see how these traits in particular generate uncivil communication.
Left unchecked, our natural tendency is to be selfish and disrespectful of others. This mind-set is the fundamental cause of today’s uncivil communication.
While self-discipline can mitigate the tendency we all have to be selfish and disrespectful of others, we humans cannot fully master our speech on our own. As James wrote, “But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
The best way to make permanent improvement in our way of thinking and subsequent speech is to repent of our sins—including our disrespectful speech—and be baptized so we can receive God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
God’s Spirit is the spark of a new life within us that can transform our entire lives—including how we think about others and communicate. Of course, God’s Spirit doesn’t control us. There will still be a battle within us between our two natures. But with God’s help, our spiritual nature can overcome our carnal nature.
Paul referred to this change in our mind-set as a process by which we are “transformed” from our human nature into a godly nature. As he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2; compare 2 Corinthians 3:18).
For further study on how to make this change in your life, see our booklet Change Your Life.