Cultivating Careful Speech

As my yearlong relationship with my first-ever boyfriend neared its close, I noticed that he gave up on saying “I love you.”  I mean, he said it, of course – when I said it, and when it seemed like he should say it.  But the words lacked luster, and on the night of my birthday, when he gave me a half-hug and a “love ya” on the way out the door, his mind already elsewhere, I realized something wasn’t right.

My husband and I say “I love you” a lot – at random times, and before we sleep or part ways.  The other night, getting ready to set out on his evening run, he gave me a hug at the door.  “Be back soon,” he told me.  “Bye!” I said goodbye back, not registering anything was amiss in our routine, and then dropped a stack of plates on the floor when he thundered back up the steps, burst through the door, and shouted into the living room, I LOVE YOU!  I REALLY DO!”

Words matter.

And we know this as Christians, of course.  James 3 is an entire chapter about learning to mind and tame the tongue, and it’s one that believers often recall.  But I suspect that if we aren’t careful, we can reduce the revolutionary concept of cultivating careful, loving speech – words that are like “fresh water” (James 3:11) – to anodyne truisms like “don’t use profanity” or “don’t gossip” and sometimes “don’t say mean things about people” and pretend that’s enough.

In reality, mastering godly speech is a far more difficult and complex endeavor.  So here are some other ways to keep yourself on track:

Am I mindful of my speech even in trivial situations? What do you say to the telemarketer?  To the postal carrier?  To the various servers and employees you meet throughout the day?  No one is insignificant to God; does your speech make people feel significant, or insignificant?

What is the ratio of criticism to praise in my words? Harsh comments stick more than positive ones do, and I’ve read before that one criticism can wipe out five compliments.  This isn’t to say we should flatter others or never speak critically about anything (although criticism should always be meant to edify – to build up, rather than tear down).  Rather, it’s simply wise to find balance between the two.  If you tend toward criticism, strive to offer praise to others.

Do I consider context and meaning? Words have power.  And certain words have power to or over certain people. One of the excuses I often hear for hurtful speech is, “Well, if someone said that to me it wouldn’t hurt my feelings.”  Fair enough; but this isn’t really about you.  Considering others and how our speech will impact or harm them is a privilege we have as believers.  Let’s make use of it.  If you know certain words can cause undue hurt or harm to others, don’t use them.

Is my language honest?  Honesty means more, far more, than telling the truth.  Words are terrifyingly easy to manipulate.  We can conceal and mislead with our language. We can give false characterizations of others and ruin reputations.  We can build ourselves up to make us better than we are.  In all things, our words should reflect our understanding of Christ and the reality around us.

Am I minding my non-verbal speech? James talks about the tongue, but speech is far more than just words. Our sighs, our eye-rolls, our gestures: they all mean something, and supplement what we say or don’t say.  I remember a certain church member who, when asked for her opinion about a particular acquaintance, would lean forward and say, “Well, I won’t say a bad word about them…” and then arch her eyebrow as if to say, “…but surely you can guess that there’s plenty to be had!”  She spoke without speaking.  Additionally, non-verbal body language can go a long way toward shutting down conversations or making people feel uncomfortable.  We definitely don’t want to do that.

If we consider these guidelines, I think we can keep a grip not just on what we’re not supposed to say, but what we are – to keep our language in line with our character in Christ.


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