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Speak Fitly, and then you may Speak Freely

Category Articles
Date April 13, 2007

Has it ever struck you how often the New Testament defines the life of faith in terms of the words we speak and the way we speak them?

Writing to the Christian church in Colossae, Paul urged God’s people to rid themselves of “anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from (their) lips.” John warned his readers not to imagine that true faith was merely a matter of fine, pious words (1 John 3:18). Peter urged his readers to take to heart the injunction of Psalm 34, “Whoever would live life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech” (1 Peter 3:10). Strikingly, when Paul expounds the character of the unrighteous who do no good at all in God’s sight (Roms. 3:12ff), he says “their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” For the Scriptures, what you speak with your mouth and how you speak with your mouth are huge indications of where you are spiritually. This is something we all greatly need to take to heart.

In evangelical Christianity we have long inveighed against those who honour Christ with their words, but whose hearts are far from him (Mark 7:6). We have not been slow to condemn rote religion. Sadly, however, we have been inordinately slow to confront and condemn people who profess the faith orthodoxly, but whose tongues disseminate gossip, unkindness, churlishness and worse in Christ’s church. This was clearly an issue Paul felt it necessary to address in his letters (and he wrote to Christian churches!). He told the Ephesians, “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.” He urged the Colossians, “Let your conversation be always full of grace.” James warned his readers that the “tongue also is a fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” These are sobering and solemn words. How many churches and relationships have been ruined by a thoughtless, misplaced, selfish, gossiping word: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

The issue of sinful speech, however, raises a more serious matter. Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks … (and) by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-37). How you and I speak to others and about others will by and large be determined by the spiritual condition of our hearts. It is true that even the best of Christians sin. But it is also true that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In union with Christ, God gives to believers new hearts (2 Cor. 5:17). We are not what we once were. Yes, we are not yet all that we should be, but by God’s grace and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, we are new men, new women. A new principle has been planted within us, where love to God and love to the people of God are the formative motivations. That principle of new life will manifest itself, in part, in our choice of words and in the manner we speak them. In my former congregation in Scotland, I had a good friend who (sadly on more than one occasion) was constrained to ask me, “Was that kind? Was it necessary? Was it true?” Those were wise words, if somewhat humbling for me to hear.

“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” What does the overflow of your heart say to your family, your friends, your acquaintances, your church? It is only too easy to retreat into self-justification – “Everything I said was true.” Perhaps. But was it kind? Was it necessary? “Love covers a multitude of sins.” One “spark” can cause immense, irreparable damage. The words of James will always be heeded by the wise: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.”

Ian Hamilton is Pastor of Cambridge Presbyterian Church.

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