We are convoluted creatures–one moment brimming with hope and gladness, the next moment down in the dumps, another moment magnanimously gracious, and the next moment backbiting and petty. Our tongues simply follow suit, giving praise and encouragement in one breath and dripping with sarcasm and negativity in the next. We sense that just as a spring issuing both fresh and brackish water is wrong, so also it is not right for us to show such differing attitudes and words, yet what is the solution? James teaches in 3:7-12 that the tongue simply manifests the division that already exists in our hearts. The solution, I must deduce, is to find purity and wholeness, to be in harmony with the Spirit in our hearts, so that we might produce only the fruit of the Spirit, and no longer the fruit of our old sin nature.
So how does one find this inner harmony? In my struggle to tame my tongue, here are the teachings I have personally found to be the most helpful.
1. Live from your center.
It is impossible to fake a pure heart, at least not for any significant length of time. Likewise, the tongue can never be completely tamed. Eventually, the facade will cave in and people will see you for who you really are, and usually your tongue is the first thing to give you away. To live from your center is to live authentically, truthful about your struggles, doubts, and fears, and acknowledging the uglier feelings of anger, bitterness, loneliness, and the like. Often, passing through these struggles, not skipping over them, is what builds the strength of character you are trying to project to the world. It takes time and effort to develop your inner heart, which equates to time spent in solitude with God and in vulnerable conversation with a select few who will walk with you on your journey to finding your center in Christ. If you want to tame your tongue, don’t waste your time constructing an external facade of perfection. Rather, do the inner work necessary so that your heart is pliant, and the Spirit can change you from the inside out.
2. Follow your words with actions.
If we were required by some natural law to actually follow through on our words, there would be a lot less broadcasting of our opinions or acceptance of commitments. So if you say something, be willing to back it up with action. If you pray, be ready to be part of the answer. And for goodness’ sake, (I’m talking mostly to myself here) if you make a commitment, follow through or at least confess when you realize you’ve overextended yourself. Thankfully, I’ve discovered that even just a little follow-through can go a long way in the long run. For instance, when I get fired up about something, like missions or learning to budget or taking better care of myself, my instinct as a natural-born perfectionist is to go all out and consider myself a failure if I don’t achieve my ultimate goal overnight. However, I have learned that we all handle change much better through “baby steps.” (I know, you’re probably imagining Bill Murray in What about Bob?). But by taking baby steps in the right direction–donating to a short-term mission trip, listening to an audiobook about personal finance in the car, or doing yoga stretches for 20 minutes every other day–you affirm the words you have said and the goals you’ve made for yourself, and you teach your tongue to speak only what you can commit to in your deeds. But as you act on your words, the witness of your words can then reach farther and farther.
3. Give others permission to test your words.
For me, this is the hardest of all. How I hate to have my words questioned or my opinions criticized. But just as a writer needs an editor, so does a speaker need an active listener who will push back and offer the teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training of Scriptural truth (2 Timothy 3:16). Even if you don’t ask for this kind of accountability, God will provide people who will not take your words at face value, who won’t put up with your bad attitude or rudeness, or who will hold you to your promises. When this inevitably happens, don’t jump to the defensive. Maybe they aren’t being gracious, but there is probably a kernel of truth in their reaction, and you would do well to take it to heart. Slow down and listen, really listen. I hope you will find, as I have, that God speaks to us even through those who don’t know him. And sometimes he teaches us gentleness through the harsh words of others.
4. Words begin in our thoughts.
I’ll close with this final lesson I’ve learned. Nothing that we speak can be said without it having been thought first. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But how often do we allow lies and judgment to fester in our minds before they eventually spill over into our words? Yet when we focus our thoughts on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), what spills over is more of the same. May this be so for all of us as we learn to live in deeper harmony with Christ, so that, like springs of water, his pure living water flows from our words.