The Problem with our Words

Originally published Wednesday, 30 March 2016.

We were in the car late one afternoon and my children were doing their normal back and forth sibling thing in the back seat. (I would call it "bickering" but was told by someone in my family that "bickering" is an old-fashioned word). I grew frustrated by their behavior. Then I got sarcastic.

Later, after returning home, I noticed my children were irritable. One was downright angry. I finally got them to talk and learned that my sarcastic comments hurt them both. I apologized and they forgave but the exchange was a glaring reminder that I do not have control over my tongue. And because I don't, I hurt my children.

Small Yet Mighty

James says that though the tongue is small, it is very powerful. "So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell" (James 3:5-6). 

Proverbs has a lot to say about our words as well: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits" (Proverbs 18:21). "Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin." (Proverbs 13:3). "Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body" (Proverbs 16:24).

I know that words are powerful. As a writer, I know words can persuade, mislead, attack, comfort, or resonate. I know that words can build up or tear down. They can open doors or slam them shut. They can connect or rip apart. They can bring hope and healing or destroy altogether.

The Real Problem

What do we do when we realize we have a problem with our words? In the case with my children, I could resolve to be kind. I could have that guilty feeling I felt propel me to curb my sarcastic ways. But like the resolve we all feel at the first of a new year, on its own, resolve isn't enough to transform our words.

That's because the real problem is with our hearts. 

Words are one of the greatest reflections of what is going on in our hearts. Jesus said that "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). James 4 says that our problems and conflicts stem from our disordered desires, our idolatry, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight" (vs. 1-2). 

A struggle with words reveals what we really love most. It reveals what we worship, what we've set our hearts on. Unkind words are not the problem but a byproduct of the real problem: idolatrous hearts. Deep down, we want life to be all about us. We want to be on the throne of our lives and have everyone else serve us. Our words reveal our selfishness, pride, self-righteousness, and envy. They show our desire to rule our own kingdoms. And above all, they reveal that God is not first place in our hearts. 

As Paul Tripp wrote in The Power of Words and the Wonder of God:

"There is no escaping the message of Scripture: word problems are heart problems. There's an organic consistency between what is in my heart and what comes out of my mouth. The struggle of words is a struggle of kingdoms; a war between the kingdom of self and the kingdom of God. The kingdom that rules your heart will dictate your words." (Kindle edition, Location 633, 641).

God's Word Shapes Our Words

When our words hurt others, what we need is the same thing we need for all sin in our life: God's amazing grace. We need his grace, through the person and work of Christ on our behalf, to forgive us, cleanse us, and make us new. We need the surgery spoken of in Ezekiel, where we are given new hearts, hearts that desire God above all else. This new heart is what we've been given through faith in Christ. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). 

One of the main ways God is doing the work of new creation in us is through the ministry of his Word, applied by the Spirit. Not only do we come to faith through the hearing of the Word (Romans 10:17) but we are changed and transformed by the Word as well (Hebrews 4:12, John 17:17). It is God's active and living Word that cuts deep into our heart, reveals our sin, points us to truth, and transforms us from the inside out. In doing so, God's Word shapes our words. Sinclair Ferguson wrote, "The more I awake in the morning and feed myself with the Word under a biblical ministry, the more the Word of Christ will do the sanctifying work in me and on me, and consequently the more Christ will train my tongue as his Word molds and shapes me" (The Power of Words and the Wonder of God, Kindle Location 1008). That's why David wrote, "I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11).  The more we dwell on God's Word, the more it overflows into the words we say. Just like our children often repeat what they hear us say, the more we listen to the Word of God, the more we will sound like him in our speech. And the opposite is true, if we have been distant from the Word, neglecting the Word, we can expect our own words to change to reflect whatever our hearts have turned toward. 

Because word problems are heart problems, we need God's grace to change us through his Word applied to our hearts. We need to be saturated by the Word until it fills every corner and crevice of our heart. Then the words we speak will reflect and sound more and more like that of our Savior, the Word made flesh.