As a woman of many words, I find that the stuff on the tip of my tongue has an almost tangible presence. It is real and needs somewhere to go.
At a party, I've got engaging stories to share. At a work function, I can make strategic small talk. Among friends, I've shared hushed, juicy morsels. In my anger, I've let out a few well-chosen words that, like heat-seeking missiles, burned their path to their intended target.
You can imagine my chagrin when I recently surveyed God's Word on the topic of words. I was reminded of His overall message: Be quiet.
It appears as though words are not so cheap to Him. "When words are many, sin is not absent," according to Proverbs 10:19. And "a fool's voice is known by multitude of words" (Ecclesiastes 5:3, KJV).
The more you talk, the more likely you are to find yourself in trouble. I looked up the "seven things God hates" recorded in Proverbs 6:16, and it turns out that three of them relate to the words that come out of our mouths-a lying tongue, a false witness, and stirring up dissension. Gossip, slander, and boasting complete the list of last-day depravity, according to Romans 1:29-31.
As compelling as this is, what really makes me shudder is that the God who created the universe by speaking a word acknowledges that the words of a mere human also carry force, power, and life. It sounds too mystical and unreal. Can that be true?
"Absolutely," says Andrea Trusty- King, a San Diego pastor, evangelist, and radio host. "James 3:5 says that words set on fire the course of nature. I believe that's true." In ancient Hebrew culture words were almost creatures that sprouted limbs and wandered about until they found completion. Why else would Esau have been so angry about a mere verbal blessing of Jacob?
Perhaps Scripture's most telling illustration of the influence of words is the story of the spies' report upon returning from Canaan. The 12 Israelite spies dispatched to Canaan were to come back to camp with a reconnaissance report about invading Canaan. They each recognized the attractive spoils of a rich, verdant land, but their human opponents appeared to be too much of a challenge for them.
"We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them," they reported (Numbers 13:33). "If we do this invasion, our wives will be widows, our children orphans," they claimed. On the other hand, it was Caleb who spoke with confidence: "We can certainly do it" (Numbers 13:30).
Ultimately, "everybody got exactly what they said," Trusty-King expounds. Numbers 14 reveals that God allowed each person?s words to create his own destiny. Each person with a negative report lost his life. But Caleb, as an old man, fought his way into Canaan just like he said he could 40 years earlier.
Hold your tongue
I remember shuddering at the thought of damage done by careless words when my sister, Kim, was in medical school. She spent several months observing the technique of a well-respected and trusted cardiothoracic surgeon.
During one particularly dramatic surgery, she watched as an elderly man lay helplessly with his chest "cracked open" on the operating table. She stood beside the surgeon as he confidently thrust his hand into the chest cavity. This was one of perhaps thousands of surgeries for the doctor, and he animatedly talked, cursed, and joked with profanity and vulgarity while he worked. His words just seemed to hang in the air, Kim remembers. Finally, he stuck his hand in and pulled it out one last time, but a thick spurt of blood erupted where his fingers had been. The damage was irreparable, and the patient was gone.
"You don't go in there cursing in front of God," Kim whispered to me on the phone later. "You have respect for life."
How is it that words are this important?
Words reflect the mind. "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks," Jesus told His listeners in Matthew 12:34.
Most people accept this even today. The words of a mere human carry force, power, and life. Last year minister and African- American activist Al Sharpton almost paraphrased this text when he considered the apology of Michael Richards. Richards is the former Seinfeld star who sank himself when his loose lips blathered the ethnically offensive "n" word during a stand-up routine. He has a lot of "self-healing" to do, Sharpton said. "It could not come out of you if it wasn't in you."
Words not only reflect what is in the mind, but they also infect what is in the mind. That influence leads to action, and actions lead to irrevocable circumstances.
Worse, your words can create the same influential cycle in someone you know. If you talk out your feelings, every doubt you express not only reacts upon yourself, but is also a seed that will germinate and bear fruit in the life of others. In fact, it may be impossible to counteract the influence of your words (see Ellen White, Steps to Christ, pp. 119, 120).
Words entrap. You've seen it happen when someone gets caught in a lie. But words entrap in other ways, too. I am close to a couple who recently lost their marriage. One day I stopped to ask the husband how he was managing since the separation.
"Just fine," he said confidently, and went on to tell me the ways in which things were better than ever. When I heard that their attempts at reconciliation had failed, I wondered if each of them had not painted themselves into a corner by speaking so concretely about their "better" state. Were they now just too proud to retreat from the stand they had taken in front of family and friends?
Satan also uses our own words against us. Our lapses of faith, as expressed in a word of doubt, can take on wings. Further, the enemy then knows how to tempt and how to attack, striking the areas he has learned are our weakness.
There's no question that controlling the power of our words is central to our role as followers of Christ. No wonder Jesus warned: "Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned" (Matthew 12:36, 37, KJV).
So what now? Is it best to take a vow of silence? Actually, we can use our need to talk as a power for good, if you will. Sometimes people need a word of direction, comfort, support. Solomon could hardly describe the relief those words could bring: "A word spoken in due season, how good is it!" (Proverbs 15:23, KJV).
Carmela Monk Crawford is an attorney in Dayton, Ohio. She has also served as an associate editor of Message magazine and a journalist and freelance writer.