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I briefly mentioned in part one, five ways in which God intends for us to use our tongue. But as fallen, sinful creatures, we have rebelled against God and His purposes for our tongue. When we consider our lives, have we obeyed God’s command to use our tongue in these five ways? When we don’t obey these commands we commit the sin of “omission,” because we have “omitted” what God has told us to do. We also commit the sin of “commission,” which means we do the things with our tongue that we aren’t supposed to do. Even as a pastor, who is supposed to shepherd God’s flock to maturity, I have many times sinned against God with my tongue. Here are some of the ways we as pastors and Christians sin against the triune God and grieve the Holy Spirit with our tongue.
1. We Use Words That Kill
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18a).
You are not a wise pastor until you have grasped the power of your words. Words pierce like swords. They get into your heart and soul. When you say a hurtful word, it’s like the wound from a sword. The wound may heal, but your body will never be the same as it was before. The scar remains.
Words of a reckless church member can spoil your reputation. Thus, making it hard for people to ever fully trust you again. Words can even kill. Words have triggered murders, suicides and actual wars. Also, words kill psychologically. If you call a child “stupid” or “useless,” then that person may spend the rest of his or her life trying to get rid of self-doubt.
Some pastors are careless with the labels they place on people. Some say ‘Oh, this person is a legalist.’ By definition, a legalist is someone who trusts in his own works to be justified in God’s eyes. Therefore, a legalist is not regenerate. We can use this term carelessly. Tim Keller says, “When you curse someone, you not only wish them evil, you give them evil.” Sometimes we use words to curse people. Words matter, and rash words are like sword thrusts.
We have all sinned against God by using rash words.
2. We Use Words That Divide
“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov. 16:28).
Friendships are strengthened through words. However, hurtful, dishonest, inappropriate words can give a blow to a friendship that sometimes it may never recover from. Two types of people divide with their words. The first type is a person who creates quarrels. He stirs up conflict by arguing and criticising you. He loves to debate and is eager to give criticism. He always seems to be in the middle of an argument with someone. The second type is a person who is a gossip. He is a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others behind their back. But they share one thing in common. Both the types of people tear down others in order to build themselves up. Because of this reason, it is difficult to have or make close friendships with such people.
As an example, some pastors like to quarrel about minor doctrines, such as eschatology, head coverings or worship style. These fights might happen face to face or on WhatsApp. Having a viewpoint on minor issues is great, but to become contentious over it with words is sinful.
We have sinned against God by using words that divide
3. We Use Words To Interpret Incorrectly (False Words Spoken About You)
“The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the innermost parts” (Prov. 18:8).
Negative words about someone are like choice morsels—like the chicken leg, or the filet. In other words, they have so much appeal. The reason the words of a gossip are so attractive is that deep down we want to believe these words. Negative words about someone ‘go down to the innermost parts.’ In other words, they influence how we see a person. Words of gossip keep us prejudiced against a person. For example, someone tells you that another church member has financial problems. If untrue, then the next time you see that person with a new shirt, you will think ‘Oh this fellow is simply wasting money.’ Gossip can also make us want to avoid a person. Someone says ‘Oh this young man in the church is misbehaving with girls.’ If untrue, then when you see that young man you will see a pervert you want to stay away from. This is because words of gossip go down into the innermost parts, and they will influence how we see a person. If unchecked, the thoughts that gossip produces will be virtually impossible to uproot. Our job as pastors is to find the truth in all things.
Instead of gossip in our innermost parts, God wants us to have truth [“Behold, You desire truth in my innermost parts” (Ps. 51:6)]. We should look to Jeremiah as a model when he ate God’s word and delighted in it (Jer. 15:16). If we delight in God’s word, then distorting words will not take a hold of our innermost parts and create a false opinion of another.
Pastors also can gossip. We can share false and unverified information. We can share correct information with wrong motives. At some point in our speech, all of these are ways through which we have sinned against God.
We have all sinned against God by using words to interpret incorrectly.
4. We Use Words To Inflate (False Words Spoken To You)
“Those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet” (Prov. 29:5).
Our words should be kind and affirming, but Proverbs 29:5 warns against flattery. Flattery is when you excessively compliment someone for something good for its own sake or to build up the person in love, but instead to gain some advantage for yourself. Like if your child wants something and in order to get it, he says, “Daddy, you’re the best daddy in the whole world.” Then you would say, “Ok, what do you want?”
The person who flatters makes claims that have no basis in reality. He exaggerates in an effort to appeal to the ego and gain benefits from the grateful recipient.
But Proverbs 29:5, says that those who flatter their neighbours are spreading nets for their feet. “Spreading nets for their feet” means that the one who flatters is setting a trap for their neighbour. How? Instead of the listener getting an accurate picture of himself, namely his strengths and weaknesses, the flatterer deliberately gives him an inflated, unrealistic view of self. For example, someone from your church says to you, “You are the best preacher I’ve ever heard.” It’s possible that this person is speaking the truth to you in love. However, if it’s flattery then they are not speaking the truth, and it's not spoken in love. This verse says that the flatterer is setting a trap for you and one day when the trap springs you will be helpless. Christians must never use flattery in any area of life; not in business nor in evangelism (1 Thes. 2:4-6).
Sometimes we pastors can engage in flattery. For example, if a person is difficult and easily offended in the church, then sometimes a pastor will flatter him, so that he will calm down. Pastors can flatter rich people in the church, so that they might open their wallets. Sometimes we flatter those who are more educated than us because we’re intimidated by them. Sometimes we flatter those who have a lot of connections because we might need their help in the future. When we do this, we are laying a trap for them according to Proverbs. All of us have sinned against God in this area at one point or another.
We have all sinned against God by committing the sin of flattery.
5. We Use Words To Spread [Falsehood]
“A scoundrel plots evil, and on their lips it is like a scorching fire” (Prov. 16:27).
Words can spread and go viral quickly. Due to Facebook and WhatsApp, we now can have fake news and false rumours. These rumours can spread like a scorching fire to ruin people’s reputations and can destroy friendships.
James may have had this proverb in mind when he wrote: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire” (Jam. 3:5-6a).
Many Christians in India, including pastors, have received a degree from “WhatsApp University.” They assume everything seen on social media is true and forward a message without thinking to fact check it before sending it to all their contacts. When you do this, you are the “useful idiot” to the scoundrel who plotted the evil. This is another way we sin against God.
We have all sinned against God by using words to spread falsehood.
6. We Use Words that Deceive
“A truthful witness saves lives, but a false witness is deceitful” (Prov 14:25).
The opposite of truth is deceit. When someone says something you should evaluate not only what they say, but also their motive. If their words are technically factual, yet said in such a way as to mislead, then they are being dishonest.
For example, you ask someone in ministry a question about money, such as “Who is supporting you financially?” If he says, “The church gives me Rs. 5000/-,” but he doesn’t mention the fact that he gets Rs. 15,000/- from an organization and another Rs. 20,000/- from his friend from overseas, then that’s deceitful because it is misleading. When a friend from overseas asks you about your ministry, do you report selective facts to make him think you’re the next William Carey?
Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing, but the truth. Don’t exaggerate and leave out crucial parts of the truth that might make you look bad. “Speak truthfully to your neighbour (Eph. 4:25) and follow the example of Jesus who came to testify to the truth (Jn. 18:37).
In conclusion, the tongue reveals who you are. Your words show the type of heart you have which is why Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” A person who is truly saved and regenerated will have a transformed tongue. James 1:26 says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.” A person who says he is a Christian, but shows no evidence of changed speech may not truly be regenerate.
Probably no other passage in the New Testament talks about the tongue more than James 3. The context of the passage about the use of words is primarily addressed to pastors, to those who would be teachers in the church. There’s a strict warning of judgment to them, because they have the potential to teach error to God’s people. So, it is even more important for pastors to show evidence in their speech of a transformed tongue. But how can we do this? We will turn to that in the final article ‘How the gospel redeems the tongue.’