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No One Can Tame the Tongue

The saying goes that two things are sure in life: death and taxes.

James tells us that this list is incomplete. There are actually three things that are sure in life: death, taxes, and sinning with our speech. James 3:2 says,

“…If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”

In other words, unless you have reached perfection, it is a certainty that you will continue to use your tongue in a sinful way.

This is a grievous truth. If you are like me, it is a truth that you have become more acquainted with over the past few months. Living in unbroken proximity with a few people is quite enough to bring the sin in our hearts bubbling out of our mouths! On top of that, our tongues can enlist the help of our fingers in the digital age to share our sinful speech with others through texts, emails, and social media.

I hope that you know the reality of how God calls His people to use their mouths. Ephesians 4:29, Proverbs 15:1-2, and James 1:19 are just a few passages where you can read His prescription to be slow to speak, to use gracious and wise words, and only say what builds up the hearer and is right for the moment. But I think that sometimes we skip right to these instructions without considering something very important. What do we do when we fail? Because, if James 3:2 is telling the truth, we will fail. It’s not a question of IF we will sin with our mouths, but WHEN. If we don’t have a plan in place to deal biblically with our sinful speech when it happens, it will hurt our relationships with others (Proverbs 12:18) and our gospel witness (Titus 2:8).

Too often, when we have failed to live up to God’s standards for our speech, our response is to say “Oops!” to ourselves and promise to do better next time. Or maybe we copy our first mother, Eve, and point our fingers at the circumstance or person we were responding to. Worst of all, we may be in such a pattern of sinful speech that we don’t even recognize it! None of these responses model a godly response to sin. As a vital step in turning away from our sin in true repentance, we must acknowledge our sin by confessing it to God and to those we have sinned against.

1. Enlist God’s help in searching our hearts

First, we must seek to cultivate a soft spirit that welcomes conviction from the Holy Spirit and from the other believers God has placed in our lives. In Psalm 139:23-24, David prays,

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.”

I would encourage you to pray that the Holy Spirit would make your heart sensitive to notice when and how you sin with your tongue. If you have the blessing of a friend or family member who reproves you from God’s Word when you have sinned, determine to be humbly receptive to Scripture.

2. Confess our sin to God

Next, when we see that we have sinned with our speech, we must confess this to God. I John 1:9 says,

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

What good news that God promises to forgive and cleanse us from our sinful speech! What love that Christ died to pay for those misspoken words! And yet, notice that in this passage, God places a prerequisite on His forgiveness: If we confess our sins…” It does not say “If we purpose to do better next time…” or “If we were dealing with a really hard circumstance…” To confess literally means “to say the same as”. When you find you have sinned with your mouth, take the time to say the same thing that God says about that sin! Call it sin. Acknowledge that it grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and that Christ had to take the punishment you deserved for those words (I Pet. 2:24). Humbly ask for God’s forgiveness and cleansing. Thank Jesus for purchasing that forgiveness for you. Pray that the Holy Spirit would empower you to use your speech in a way that befits a Christian.

3. Reconcile with those we have sinned against

There is another thing left to do in order to truly deal Biblically with your sinful speech. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus taught that angry actions and angry words break the commandment against murder. Directly after this revelation, He gives the following instruction:

“Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Mat. 5:23-24)

If you have sinned in your speech in a way that hurt your relationship with someone, Jesus commands you to fix that relationship before you attempt to worship God. In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he writes,

…if at any time a breach happens, we should labour for a reconciliation, by confessing our fault, humbling ourselves to our brother, begging his pardon, and making restitution, or offering satisfaction for wrong done in word or deed…1

This practice was modeled for me beautifully by my late grandfather, Elwood Hale. Grandpa was very careful to humbly ask forgiveness if he thought there was any way in which his words failed to meet God’s standards for speech. I would frequently drive home from dinner at his house only to receive a phone call or an email that night humbly stating that he said something careless or not grace-giving and asking my forgiveness for his sin. Half the time I did not remember any offensive thing he had said, but that didn’t matter to Grandpa. His conscience was held captive by the Word of God. (Interesting to note here: how often have you talked yourself out of asking someone’s forgiveness because you convinced yourself that they didn’t notice or that your sin didn’t actually hurt them? If we are going to err on one side: asking forgiveness from others too much or asking forgiveness too little, I think it’s clear which side God would have us err on!)

Because of the realities of our last few months, your “brother who has something against you” may be people who follow you on social media or those on whose posts you have commented. It may be someone who misunderstood a text message you sent. In my own life, I’ve been convicted that my “brothers” who get hurt by my untamed tongue the most are my children. It’s never easy to confess our sinful speech, but having to do so on social media or to our children is really hard! I’ve found that one helpful side effect of practicing Biblical confession is that it makes me slower to speak because I don’t want to have to deal with the forest that my tongue has set on fire (James 3:5)!

Being quick to confess and repent of our sinful speech also helps build God-honoring relationships. My grandpa often pointed out areas of sin he saw in my life and encouraged me to greater godliness. His willingness to confess his own sins made me more receptive to his teaching. I could trust that every word he spoke to me was intended for my good, because whenever he failed, he quickly repented! With God’s grace, this can be our testimony as well. May we be known to our families, friends, and social media followers as those who use gracious, life-giving words (Proverbs 16:24, 18:21) and who confess and reconcile when we fail.



Notes

  1. Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (1708-1710) https://www.blueletterbible.or...