Fine-Tuning the Tongue 
by Jeanne Kun

What life-giving power lies in our speech the power to build up and impart grace, to speak truth and bring freedom, to encourage and support, to praise and thank, to express love and joy. Yet what sin we also commit and what havoc we so easily work with our speech. I doubt that it would be inaccurate to attribute the greatest part of our daily wrongdoing to what flows out of our mouths. As James wrote, it is with the tongue that "we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing" (3:9-10). As we read in Proverbs, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue"(18:21). 

I am sure we are familiar with many of the forms of speech that are unbecoming in believers -- gossip, backbiting, slander, complaining, and so on. However, there are two particular problems in speech that are less-noted.

"I'm no Good"

Many men and women are plagued with low self-esteem. Few of them are conscious of how much they themselves reinforce and contribute to this problem by their manner of speaking. I am thinking of comments such as, "What a klutz I am!" "I never do anything right", "No one could really like me, I'm so awful". 

A variety of factors may be the actual source of this type of problem; for example, constant parental disapproval or criticism in childhood. Modern-day lack of social esteem for the valuable contributions of a wife and mother has undermined many Christian women's self-regard. But whatever the factors to be dealt with, "buying into it" with belittling speech about oneself only strengthens the bondage of low self-esteem. 

Two pastoral approaches can be simultaneously applied here. The first is to deal with the internal factors that weigh down the person's self-esteem. We can do this by strengthening their relationship with the Lord and sense of identity in him; perhaps praying for deliverance and inner healing; speaking the truth of God's love, regard and esteem for the person; and building right thinking about themselves into their mental framework. 

Simultaneously we can help the person tackle the external difficulties or lacks that they may have experienced. For example, we might help them establish supportive, positive relationships with other brothers and sisters in the Lord who can speak true encouragement to them about their good qualities. This may fill a void they experience from not having received this kind of praise and approval in the past. But it is contradictory to help a person experience praise and encouragement from others while the person continues to speak ill of himself or herself. Habits of negative speech about oneself need to be identified as an obstacle to a healthy, realistic self-assessment (Rom.12:3) rather than a sign of true humility. I have also found it quite effective to help women train themselves to weed out of their speech the kinds of negative remarks they are used to making about themselves. 

Over time these two combined approaches help to eradicate low self-esteem from a person's outlook. I am not saying that changing patterns of speech automatically improves self-esteem. It is "out of the heart that the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34), so an internal transformation is crucial. But the more we hear ourselves say something, the more and more convinced of it we become and the more it works its way into our thinking and takes hold of us. Doubts about our worth quickly entrench themselves if we allow them to.

The Silence that Kills

The second area that I have noticed does not involve a wrong kind of speech but rather a lack of the right kind of speech. Frequently we fail to offer an encouraging word, to extend a verbal reassurance of our care, to compliment and build up, or to express our gratitude, concern, or appreciation. This graciousness of speech is aptly described in Proverbs: "A word in season, how good it is" (15:23), and "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver" (25:11). 

More often our failure is due to negligence, awkwardness, or self-centeredness than to deliberate selfishness or malicious intent. One example illustrates this point and shows how significant an impact this omission can have. One of the women in our community had a miscarriage. Afterwards, as she met with her small group, the other women skirted around this event, as if ignoring it had happened. They even refrained from asking her about it. They failed to express sympathy or concern, or to acknowledge that she might appreciate prayer, emotional support, or the opportunity to talk about it. The woman was grieved by their inexpressiveness. 

Now, it is the case that some of these women were trying to be sensitive to her needs, thinking it might be additionally hard for her if they brought up her miscarriage. Others were more conscious of their own ineptness and couldn't reach out past themselves, so they kept quiet. But the effect was that she received none of the simple, life-giving kindness that might have flowed from them. 

Isaiah wrote: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary" (50:4). And A.L. Waring prayed "I ask thee for a thoughtful love through constant watchings wise....And a heart at leisure from itself to soothe and sympathize". May we teach those we are leading to reach out past themselves, with a heart free from their own concerns, to soothe and refresh the hurt and weary. Again Proverbs states this so well" "The tongue of the wise brings healing" (12:8), and "Anxiety in a man's heart depresses it, but a kindly word makes it glad" (12:25). Sometimes it only takes a heartfelt word to communicate love, a moment taken from our time to compliment someone on a job well-done, a simple expression of encouragement to bring life and joy to others. 

As James argued, "it ought not be" that our tongues are instruments both of blessing and of sin, imparting life but often leading to death: "Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?" (3:10-11). May our tongues truly become a fountain of life not only in the way we praise and honor God himself, but also in our speaking of ourselves with the pride God himself takes in us, and in our offering words of life to one another.

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(c) 1984, The Alliance for Faith and Renewal.  Reprinted with permission from Faith and Renewal (formerly Pastoral Renewal), P.O. Box 7354, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48107.