On the Power of the Tongue

Virtually every week there’s a new headline of somebody getting in trouble because of something they have said. Perhaps a lifetime’s work has been undone by a thoughtless remark.

One of the saddest things I’ve ever heard was when a woman who was about 65 years old said that when she was a young teenager, about to go out on her first date, her dad said to her, “You’re so ugly. Who would ever want to marry you?”

That lady went on to go through four marriages and four divorces. Obviously, she made a lot of bad choices for which she is responsible. But even about a half-century later, her father’s thoughtless remarks still inflicted a deep wound.

We grew up hearing, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” Really? Often wounds from words can last a long time, maybe even a lifetime.

Christian pastor and author Chuck Swindoll says, “How much hurt, how much damage can be done by chance remarks! Our unguarded tongues can deposit germ-thoughts of hurt, humiliation, and hate into tender minds which fester, become full-blown infections, and ultimately spread disease throughout an adult personality.”

He adds, “With little regard for the other person’s vulnerability, we have the power to initiate a violent emotional earthquake by merely making a few statements. They rip and tear like shrapnel in the person’s head. Such destructive words are like sending 800 volts through 110 wire.”

Many today, even some in our churches, have been so beaten down by insulting things said that they accomplish only a fraction of what they could achieve. They are the Walking Wounded.

I would hasten to add to any victim of such remarks: Consider the source. Don’t take what others have said as gospel. Sometimes thoughtless remarks are just that—remarks delivered without thought or when someone is just tired. But words can have power, for good or ill.

The Bible (in Proverbs) says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. It also says in the book of James, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Thankfully, for those who want it, He is willing and able to give them spiritual heart surgery. That’s what conversion is.

Even in humor, we need to be careful in what we say—even if it’s just a “joke.” In the New Testament, the Greek word for flesh is “sarx.” Our word sarcasm comes from that word. The idea is that sarcasm is a metaphor of tearing out little pieces of flesh.

Dale Carnegie who wrote the book on personal relations, as in his classic, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” said Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Most fools can and…do.

The late Christian motivator Zig Ziglar said they’ve never built a statue to a critic.

He also said, “We must point out the good as well as the things that people do wrong. Instead, we too often get involved in the terrible game of ‘Gotcha!’ The manager jumps on the employee with both feet. Like a cheap suit or an ugly rash, he’s all over him! One little mistake and ‘Gotcha!’ That is unwise and unfair and is devastating in its impact on productivity.”

Eisenhower said “You do not lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.”

Somebody once said that praising others (sincerely, not flattery) is like making deposits in a checking account. Criticizing others (even constructively) is like making a withdrawal. But too many of us are overdrawn and bouncing checks all over the place.

The need to think before we speak is even greater in our day of a 24/7 news cycle…in a day of Twitter, Facebook, email, and social media…nothing said can be taken back.

Just a couple months ago, a high level public relations executive sent out a thoughtless and derogatory tweet, which was a poor attempt at a joke, and it was racist. Then she boarded a flight in London and flew to Cape Town, South Africa.

During the 12 hours of that flight, she was offline and didn’t know that the digital universe was exploding below. By the time she landed, she not only found how she had offended many people, she also found out that she had been fired. She apologized profusely, but it was too late.

So put a guard around your tongue. For others’ sake and your own. As the famous old saying goes, “It is better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.”