I can honestly admit that, while I’m not a super harsh guy, it’s often pretty difficult to hold back the barrage of “constructive” criticism. Personal examples include my brother leaving his oatmeal in my room, my brother leaving his socks in my room, and when people think the earth is flat. The question quickly rises: what’s the separation between letting someone know their faults and unnecessarily affronting every aspect of a person? Honesty is such a valued trait and because of that, it seems like people are emboldened to “call things as they see them” (something I’ve definitely heard a few times). When do you stop, though? What’s the biblical view on honesty and the non-helpful, overly brutal side of it?
In this article, I’m going to be writing about three aspects of the tongue talked about in the Bible: the negative, the positive, and the straight neutral facts. With that in mind, it’s probably in the best interest to lay down the biblical facts first.
Fact: the tongue is extremely powerful.
In the book of James, James (surprise) emphasizes the power of the tongue through not one metaphor, but three.
“When we put bit into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” – James 3:3-5 (NIV)
Few things we as humans have access to, possess such a wide range of good or bad possibilities. Through the avenue of our tongue, the true state of our heart is very tangibly represented.
“But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.” – Matthew 15:18 (NIV)
One of the worst things that can happen in a friendship is when you really feel like you know a person, only for them to spout out something that makes you seriously consider seeing a therapist.
That example actually leads right into the negative side of the tongue:
A person can be easily devastated in only a few sharp words.
If you talk to your friend about the things they said (and they aren’t a terrible person), they’ll probably feel awful. A lot of pain and damage can result from a single phrase. An example that always hits me pretty hard is the denial of Jesus by Peter.
“And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, ‘This man was also with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’”
…And the Lord turned and looked at Peter, and Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”
– Luke 22:55-57, 61-62 (NIV)
I feel like this is also a very visceral example of the remorse and heartache you can inflict on yourself by not holding your tongue back.
Through all this warning about the negative power of the tongue, however, I definitely don’t want to underscore the positives.
The tongue, just as effectively as it can be used to tear others down, can be used to encourage and build people up.
Proverbs (as it often does) really sums it up efficiently:
“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (16:24, NIV)
Not only is gracious speech encouraging, rehabilitating, and helpful, it’s also the chief means by which we share the gospel as believers.
“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” – John 17:17 (NIV)
The wide range of the tongue is not something that can be understated. We can go from praying a wholesome prayer at lunchtime, to yelling at your sibling for stealing your toothbrush the next. It’s both a tool and a weapon.
But, if harnessed correctly, it’s one of the greatest gifts God has given us.