James doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the tongue. He focuses on its destructive capabilities, calling it “a fire, a world of iniquity” that “defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. … It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8).
It’s not hard to find examples of the kind of speech James is talking about. It’s everywhere.
But the tongue can do some truly incredible things, too. Solomon said, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). He also said, “A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23).
Words—fitly spoken, offered in due season—can be as beautiful as an ornately crafted work of art. But the focus here is on when and how the word is given. There is a joy in giving a thoughtful and accurate answer that meets the needs of those hearing it. Inaccurate and unhelpful words, spoken at the wrong time and delivered in the wrong way—those can quickly become the destructive fire and deadly poison that James warns us about.
It’s on us, then, to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19)—to wait for the right window, to carefully consider the impact of the words we’re choosing. In that vein, Paul tells us, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, ESV).
The ability of the tongue to encourage is just as potent as its ability to destroy … but it’s so much easier to tear down than it is to build up. As Christians, we’re supposed to be doing the harder thing: edifying, building each other up. We are “living stones … being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5-6).
So … are we doing that? Are we going out of our way to find opportunities to encourage each other? To build up this spiritual house through the power of our words? Mark Twain once wrote, “I can live on a good compliment two weeks with nothing else to eat,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. When someone comes up to Mary or me and tells us that we’re doing a good job parenting, or that they appreciate this, that, or the other about us—well, we’re always a little surprised, but that compliment, that encouragement, it hangs around. It builds us up. We draw some strength from it.
What about the last time you had a sincere compliment—especially one that came unprompted and out of the blue? How did it make you feel? Isn’t it such an uplifting thing to know that someone else sees the work you’re putting in—and values it?
How would it make others feel if you made a point of doing the same thing for them?
That’s what it comes down to. Yes, we can do some incredible damage with our tongues—but we can also choose to be handing out apples of gold in settings of silver to those around us.
Make the effort to choose the fitly spoken word.
Until next time,