Harsh Words and the Uncontrollable Power of the Tongue

How Will We Ever Master Our Unruly Tongues?

Guest Contributor / 2.19.20

This one was written by John Sloan.

It’s a strange thing to remember, but I recall the scenario like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the back of my seventh grade class at Clara E. Weisenborn Junior High when, from the front row, a fellow student interrupted the teacher for a poorly timed and decidedly unfunny one-liner. The response of the class was total silence. Not even a nervous giggle. To his credit, Adam was undeterred. He thought that perhaps the class hadn’t heard his joke, so he tried a second time, even louder. Again, crickets. Confused by their ostensible indifference, Adam leaned forward in his seat and uttered his joke a third time, with even greater confidence, only this time both the teacher and the students turned to him with daggers in their eyes, as if to say, “Enough!”

After about a two-second delay, taking advantage of the tension in the room, I whispered loudly and sarcastically from the back row, “Say it again.” The class erupted with the sort of snot-bubbled screeches that junior high kids produce when trying to bridle belly laughs.

That was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. I spent the next two years of my life trying to duplicate my comedic success, blurting out rejoinders, comments, and jokes to little avail. My poor teachers didn’t know what to do. They got a hold of my mom and said, “We love John, he’s a great student, but he will not stop talking inappropriately.”

That was thirty-six years ago, and I would like to tell you that once I conquered junior high (or it conquered me), I never made another ill-advised comment; I’d love to tell you that since then I’ve never spoken out of turn, made a sarcastic remark, or hurt someone with my words, but that would be an epic lie. At the worst times, and in the most conspicuous ways, I’ve caused damage with my tongue.

Unfortunately, mastering the tongue is not a battle that any of us ever totally wins. The consequences get larger, and the phrases we use may change, but the struggles remain. To be sure, if we open our mouths we will sin.

The Scriptures have much to say about the control of the tongue, or the pervasive lack thereof. The book of Proverbs warns us that “when words are many, sin is not absent” (Prov 10:19). When Isaiah meets the LORD in his temple, the prophet summarizes his sinfulness this way: “Woe is me! … I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). When the Apostle Paul presents that powerful and poetic indictment of all human sin and rebellion against God in Romans 3, he says something similar: “None is righteous, no, not one … they use their tongues to deceive … Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

When the biblical writers want to make a case for the complete brokenness of humanity, they seem to start with an area of sin that no one has conquered: the use of our tongues.

So what do we do with this area of weakness? I suppose there are some practical efforts that we can employ (although I’ve never understood the benefit of counting to ten before speaking; that just gives me more time to pile up ammunition), but the first and quintessential step in taming the tongue is recognizing our complete inability to do so in our own strength.

This inability is meant to drive us to Jesus, who controlled his tongue in every way and in every circumstance, in our place: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:7).

James, the brother of Jesus makes the point that “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7). In his On Nature and Grace, Augustine explains that James “does not say ‘no one can tame the tongue,’ but ‘no man,’ so that, when it is tamed, we admit that it was done by the mercy of God, the assistance of God, the grace of God.”

Curse jars and soap bars may occasionally deter one from uttering a mean-spirited comment, and if you feel like they’re of help to you, by all means, use them. But true progress is rooted in increased brokenness, greater self-suspicion, a deeper dependence on God’s grace, and the recognition of who we are in Christ.

To the proud and self-reliant, Jesus’ words were stern and unflinching, often taking the shape of stories about common things like seeds, weeds, kings, and kingdoms. The punch line of each parable was an affront to his audience’s religious sensibilities: it is not white-knuckled obedience or “daily progress” that God requires, but complete and total perfection. Jesus’ sermons were equally confrontational, typically laced with this theme: you thought your righteousness was sufficient but you’re not even close to what God demands. He speaks with the force of the Law to tear down or, better yet, to obliterate any sense of sanctimony.

However, to those who were broken and exhausted, shame-filled because of yet another personal failure, Jesus used his tongue to build up, encourage, strengthen, and announce good news: there is hope for those of us who fail repeatedly with our words. In him, we are not condemned but loved, even when we curse. His resounding message is one I need to hear regularly: even if your words are harsh, God’s final word is not.


Featured image: Hunter Johnson on Unsplash.