The gospel of God’s self-giving love draws us out of our selves so we may give ourselves in love to others. As followers of Jesus, we assume an other-oriented posture. Although we do not live to please people, we do live to love them. One of the more practical and powerful ways we show love to others is through our use of words.

More important than the use (or nonuse) of a particular word is the use of purposeful phrases. We string words together to form conceptual units. A disciple’s concern should be with the honorable and helpful quality of those phrases. In order to disciple others to use their words well, we need to establish perspective and encourage love over liberty.

Establish Perspective

Our speech should simultaneously honor God and help others. The Apostle James writes, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts in great things. . . . With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (James 3:5, 9-11). Our speech can be a source of blessing or cursing, but it cannot be both at the same time.  Words that honor God should help others; words that help others should honor God. Words that do neither are carelessly wasted.

Jesus warns against careless words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt. 12:36-37). To be clear, a person is not justified by their words per se but by what their words disclose. Words are revelatory for they unveil the condition of a person’s heart.

Jesus ties our tongues to our hearts: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Mt. 12:34b-35). I believe this is why the Apostle James says that taming the tongue is impossible. He writes, “For 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). No human being can tame the tongue because no human being can transform the heart. Only God’s grace in the gospel can do that (Ez. 36:26; 2 Cor. 5:17).

Careless speech is a more reliable thermometer for gauging the real-time temperature of a person’s heart than calculated speech. This may seem counter-intuitive because we often assume that “taming the tongue” means to calculate one’s speech. We then measure our words to make sure we say the right ones and avoid saying the wrong ones.

We all speak from culturally and contextually conditioned dictionaries. A person surrounded by second graders may choose to scream “Poop!” rather than “S@#%!” But being able to select a softer synonym does not reflect a tamed tongue. Synonyms express similar sentiments regardless of the fact that some cultural contexts deem one option more palatable than another.

Regulating particular words can be done apart from the gospel. Many morally religious people avoid saying what their cultural context considers to be curse words. But their nonuse of certain terms is not a reliable reflection of love for God and others. They may simply love their devout personas. Calculating their speech enables them to maintain appearances.

A tamed tongue is harnessed by a transformed heart. The gospel is far more interested in creating a current of love that flows fluidly from our hearts to our tongues. A tamed tongue honors God and help others not simply in calculated measures but in the seemingly careless moments of daily living.

When people get bumped, what is inside of them will flow out of them. Our involuntary speech reveals realities within our hearts. When Jesus got bumped on the cross, honorable and helpful words of truth and grace flowed out of him: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Lk. 23:34). As the gospel dwells in us more richly, honorable and helpful words of truth and grace will flow more naturally out of us as well. Even in our careless speech we will reflect love for God and love for others.

Encourage Love Over Liberty

I once played on a flag football team comprised of Christians. After losing a game because the referee blew a call, one of my teammates lost his lid. He ripped into the ref with colorful language. Someone watching from the sidelines screamed out, “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian!” My teammate foolishly replied, “I’m under grace. I’m free to say what I want!”

Both individuals misconstrued the gospel in their responses.

First, implying that a professed Christian is not a Christian because he lost his temper and cursed reflects a misunderstood gospel. A Christian is not a perfect person. A Christian is a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. As such, all Christians are works in progress. The comprehensive changes that correspond with repentance and faith in Christ take time.

Second, leveraging Christian freedom as a license to sin reflects a distorted gospel. Liberty is an important aspect of the Christian faith, but love is the ultimate aspect of the Christian faith.

When we view Christian liberty as ultimate, we obsess over the question: what is permissible for me?  When we recognize that love is ultimate, we obsess over the question: what is profitable for others? Whereas liberty tends to be self-oriented, love never ceases to be other-oriented.

The gospel liberates us to love others. When we restrain ourselves from a particular behavior—regardless of where it falls on the scale of permissibility—we do so freely for the sake of better loving those around us.

Where do you place the accent in your discipleship? Are you more concerned with what’s permissible for you or what’s profitable for others?

Share This