When things go wrong in a relationship, we can almost always be sure that people are talking in hurtful ways to each other.
This is one reason why it’s important to often take personal inventory about the way we use our words.
Another reason relates to local Churches. Teaching people the right ways to speak to one another (and about one another) is essential to preserving the unity of Christian fellowship.
Believers are called to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Some of the most destructive forces threatening unity are related to speech (James 3).
The first practical problem faced by the early Church involved verbal complaints.
“But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1, NLT).
One of the earliest letters to New Testament believers has much to say about speech. Evidently there was a significant problem because in the first chapter we read,
“If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (James 1:26, NIV).
Think of the possible things that could have been said in the second part of the verse: “If you claim to be religious but… do not go to Church, do not read your Bible, do not pray, etc… These are important parts of living a godly life but I am not sure many would have expected to read: “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue…”
Restraint and Reflection
A little before this, we read about the need to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV). Restraint and reflection are virtues when it comes to speech. And of course, those familiar with the book of James know the focus given to the tongue in chapter three. There we learn about the power and potential of the tongue. There we learn about the difficulty of taming the tongue. There we learn about the importance of reigning in that powerful little muscle. There we learn that the discipline of reigning in our speech (words and tones) could help us bring needed discipline in other areas of lives.
Out of the heart
Jesus takes matters to a deeper level in teaching that our words reveal our hearts. “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:35). An example of this in the Old Testament comes from the life of Joseph and his brothers.
“Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children because Joseph had been born to him in his old age. So one day Jacob had a special gift made for Joseph—a beautiful robe. But his brothers hated Joseph because their father loved him more than the rest of them. They couldn’t say a kind word to him” (Gen. 37:3-4).
It’s not at all surprising that people with hearts full of hatred find it impossible to speak kind words. And this connection between heart and speech should encourage us to look for heart conditions behind the ways people speak. Our speech (way of talking) is a window into what’s happening in our hearts. Words are windows to the heart. So our way of talking could be a warning sign of the need for inner transformation.
We should also look closely at the ways of speaking passed on to us from our family backgrounds. If you grew up in a home with lots of yelling, don’t be surprised if you default to the same way of speaking.
A helpful exercise
Discuss the possible heart issues behind each of the forbidden ways of speech listed below. Then look closely at the list of 12 tones of voice and discuss the possible heart conditions behind each one. Attach specific Scriptures to counter each tone of voice and the possible heart conditions behind them.
- Lying (Ephesians 4:25; I Peter 3:10; Psalm 34:13)
- Slander (Titus 3:2; James 4:11)
- Gossip: (Proverbs 6:16-19; 11:13; 16:28)
- Complaining: (Philippians 2:14; Jude 16)
- Vengeful words (I Peter 2:23; Romans 12:17-19)
- Malicious or hurtful words (Ephesians 4:31-32)
- Angry words (Ephesians 4:31-32)
- Hasty words (James 1:19; Ecclesiastes 3:7)
- Flattery (Proverbs 24:26-28; 29:5; Rom. 16:18)
- Cursing people (James 3:7-10)
- Boasting (I Corinthians 13:4-8)
Watch that tone
Tone of voice can make a big difference in communication. True words spoken with wrong tones are often self-defeating in their aim. Scripture says, “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Although I would never argue for a single-tone as a Christian way of speaking, some tones are clearly unacceptable. Some tones are destructive to good relationships and some even misrepresent and dishonor God.
One of the best ways to change our speech patterns is to replace inappropriate ways of talking with godly speech. An obvious example would be to replace gossip or slander with positive words about others. Words of thanks and kind words of encouragement are excellent alternatives to many of the wrongful ways of speaking (Ephesians 4:32; 5:18-21). Praising for God (Hebrews 13:15) is a potent form of speech that can set a clear tone for the rest of life. Those in authority who must confront, correct and punish others are also commanded to affirm those who do good (see: I Peter 2:13-14).
Use formula E429 to remind yourself and each other of God’s will for our speech. This formula comes from Ephesians 4:29 which says, “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.” “Let all that you do be done in love.” (I Corinthains 16:14).