With three powerful words—it is finished—Christ simultaneously announced his earthly death, and our freedom from death, for all eternity. Life and death are in the power of the tongue.
With words, God spoke the universe into existence. Words have birthed kingdoms and buried dynasties. We commemorate life with words like happy birthday, I do, and it’s a girl! And with three powerful words—it is finished—Christ simultaneously announced his earthly death, and our freedom from death, for all eternity. Life and death are in the power of the tongue.
What Does ‘Life and Death Are in the Power of the Tongue' Mean?
Proverbs 18:21 tells us “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” But what does this ominous declaration really mean?
Last year wildfires swept through California and left a historic record of destruction in their wake. Over 8,200 fires blazed across 4 million acres, forcing 36,000 people to evacuate their homes.10,488 buildings were destroyed, and 31 people lost their lives, as 20,000 firefighters battled to extinguish the towering flames for weeks on end. What caused these epic wildfires? Some say contributing factors might include climate change, malicious intent, negligence, etc. But the origin of every raging fire can be traced back to one element—a single 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” (James 3:7). This strong statement is among many in the Bible that warn us about the hazardous impact of our negative words. Just like a single spark can ignite a wildfire, one word spoken out of anger, haste, or judgment can spark destruction that reaches far and wide.
Scripture also tells us that our tongue—or words—can have a monumentally positive effect when used wisely; a gentle answer can extinguish rage, soothing words bring life, kind words are like honey, and wise words can heal (Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 15:4, Proverbs 16:24, Proverbs 12:18).
Spiritual and psychological experts agree that words have power—oftentimes more than we realize. Research shows that negative words can impact the brain by releasing stress-producing hormones that disrupt brain function, while positive words can release brain chemicals that increase cognitive reasoning.
God created our minds and bodies to function according to His design, so it’s no surprise that science supports what the Bible repeatedly says about our tongue; though it’s one of the smallest members of our body, the tongue carries great power to change the world around us.
How Can a Christian Speak Life?
Recognizing the power of words is only half the battle. We have a choice every day to use our voices to build each other up, which promotes growth and life—or we can verbally tear one another down. But there’s more to that decision than meets the eye. We can have every good intention to speak life-giving words to those around us, and even bite our lips and hold our tongues when tempted to fly off the handle, “but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
So what’s a Christian to do if the tongue can’t be bullied or disciplined into bearing consistent, life-giving fruit? Luke 6:45 tells us that the words we speak don’t originate with our intent; they’re an overflow of whatever is in our hearts. That’s great news, because if we belong to Christ and abide in Him, and He in us, then the overflow of our hearts is Him, and He is life (John 14:6).
Since our words have a direct tap to the heart, they tend to be an effective spiritual barometer. Do our words reflect that we’re abiding in Christ and He in us? If so, they’ll bear the fruit of His Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Any truth a Christian proclaims, any statement we make, or message we bring that is wrapped in this collective fruit, will “speak life” to the hearer. Conversely, any message, statement, or truth spoken apart from this fruit will ring hollow and empty to the listener.
In her article What Does “Life and Death Are in the Power of the Tongue” Mean in the Bible? Debbie Wilson gives us the key to how a Christian can embrace the life-giving power of our words, “Present your tongue to God as an instrument of righteousness” (Romans 6:13). Ask Him to fill you with His Spirit. Practice offering Him praise and thanksgiving (Psalm 34:1), and watch God infuse your tongue with life-giving power. Spirit-filled lips bless God and people. Submit your heart to God and hand Him the reins to your tongue.”
How Can A Christian Avoid the Trap of Speaking Death?
Fueled by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling power, Christians are equipped with everything we need to be a voice of life for Him. He is the power source behind every good work and every good word we’ll ever accomplish. But this side of Heaven, our flesh will always be in constant combat with Christ’s life-giving power inside us (Galatians 5:17).
Let’s face it, when angry, flustered, tired, or disappointed we’ve all succumbed to the draw of our flesh and have spoken words we regret. Those words can inflict a heavy sentence upon the listener that lasts far longer than the minutes we took to speak them. A wise Quaker by the name of Jessamyn West once said, “A broken bone can heal, but the wound a word opens can fester forever.” So it’s vitally important that we guard our hearts and take a firm stand against our flesh when the battle for our tongue rages.
In Ephesians 4:22-24, the Apostle Paul tells us the only way to deal with unruly flesh, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Although the tongue can’t be tamed by any human, we can effectively wield it when we give the reigns of our heart to the Holy Spirit. By His power, we can avoid the trap of speaking death when we put off our old flesh and put on the new.
9 Practical Ways to Wield the Power of Our Words
What we say matters to God. According to Debbie Przybylski in The Tremendous Power of Our Words, “the terms tongue, lips, mouth, and words, and they appear over 170 times in the Bible.” Our words can be used as tools to build up or weapons to tear down. Through God’s Word, we have instructions for the tongue’s proper use. And through God’s Spirit, we have the power to ensure that our voice accomplishes His purposes. Here are some practical ways we can tap into that power to wisely wield the power of our words:
1. Put off hate-filled speech that degrades or demeans (1 John 4:20, Titus 3:3, 1 Peter 2:1). Instead, put on the same love Christ gave while we were yet sinners (Proverbs 10:12, Titus 3:4-5).
2. Put off words that discourage and lack faith (Colossians 4:6, Hebrews 3:12-13). Instead, put on the joy of the Lord which revives hope (Romans 15:13, Colossians 3:16).
3. Put off conversations that provoke discord (Jude 1:19, Romans 16:17-18). Instead, put on His peace, which passes understanding (James 3:18, Philippians 4:7).
4. Put off impatient words spoken in haste (Matthew 12:36, James 1:19). Instead, put on forbearance and esteem others higher (Colossians 3:12, Philippians 2:3).
5. Put off harsh or brash words of irritation (1 Peter 2:1, Proverbs 15:1). Instead, put on the same kindness that led you to repentance (Romans 2:4, Ephesians 4:2-3).
6. Put off unwholesome talk (Ephesians 4:30, Ephesians 5:4). Instead, put on Christ’s righteousness that was purchased by His blood (1 Corinthians 1:30).
7. Put off lies and deceit (Colossians 3:9-10, Ephesians 4:22). Instead, put on the His faithfulness (1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:3).
8. Put off heated arguments and debates (Titus 3:9, 2 Timothy 2:14). Instead, put on gentleness when you feel the need to correct opponents (Proverbs 15:1, Titus 3:2).
9. Put off idle or irreverent babble (1 Timothy 4:7, 2 Timothy 2:16). Instead, put on self-control (James 1:19, 2 Peter 1:5-6).
Set before us today is a choice to use our words for life or death, blessing or cursing. In The Power of Words, Anna Kuta sums up the mission this way: “A kind, positive or encouraging word at the right time can truly be life-changing. Your words hold the power to breathe an attitude of death or life into others – which will you choose? Let us strive to remember the power of our words and their impact on those who hear them. Think twice before making a negative statement, and instead find a way to pass along an encouraging word today.”
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Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.
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