George Everard, 1866
The prominence given in Scripture to any subject, is usually a fair criterion of its importance. If it be seldom referred to, if little is said upon it directly or indirectly, we may infer that it is not a matter upon which great stress need be laid. If, however, we find it again and again touched upon by the sacred writers, if the Spirit directed the minds of Prophets and Evangelists frequently to dwell upon it — then be sure that it demands very careful consideration.
The talk of the lips is a point in which we see the truth of this statement. Most people think that words are trifles, and as light as air. Judge the matter aright, weigh it in the balance of Holy Scripture, and you will see that men's words are of the most solemn importance.
The Book of Proverbs, from the beginning to the close of it, abounds in counsels and cautions with respect to the tongue. The Book of Psalms has continual reference to the same subject. The most practical Epistle in the New Testament, that of James, has one chapter entirely directed against the dangers to be avoided, besides other passages to the same effect. The great Teacher Himself, in His Sermon on the Mount, and on other occasions, taught His disciples to take heed what words they uttered.
What reasons may be assigned why Scripture takes so high an estimate of the importance of words?
Words reveal a man's true character. What a man is, may usually be gathered from the general character of his ordinary conversation. If water from a spring is sweet — the fountain itself will be sweet also. If the stream is bitter — so also is the source whence it flows. "How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks."
An illustration from nature may bring this home to us. The bee and the wasp, the fly and the gnat, have each their own peculiar hum, by which, without difficulty, the one may be distinguished from the other.
Consider also how easily the soldier or the sailor is recognized by his talk. So likewise, a man who comes from another country, or even from another part of England, or Scotland, can scarcely avoid its being known, as soon as he opens his lips.
Apply this to higher matters. What is a man's inner character and disposition, whether or not he belongs to heavenly country, will come out before long in the free interchange of thought.
The worldliness and vanity of one,
the frivolity and profligacy of another,
the ingrained covetousness of a third,
the genuine piety of a fourth —
cannot long be concealed. Some word or expression let fall, perhaps without reflection, will be sure to reveal the secret.
True it is, painfully true, men may put on a cloak of hypocrisy. Bunyan's "Talkative," alas, is still alive. A great deal of religious talk may be upon a man's lips, he may be able to quote or explain Scripture for an hour together — yet all the while his heart may be dead as a stone! But even this will only be occasionally. It will be when he speaks to a Christian minister, or is thrown among godly people. Times there will be when his tongue will tell a true tale. By his words, he will make plain what manner of spirit he is of.
Equally true is it that few words may be spoken directly on religious subjects — yet at the same time there may be great depth and reality of piety in the heart. "Still waters run deep." "I cannot speak much for Christ," said a Scotchwoman, "but I think I could die for Him."
Such Christians are often foremost in every good work and labor of love, where self-denying zeal is required. It will still hold true, however, that the tone of conversation in such people bears witness that the heart lies in the right place. The words may be few, but there will be in them a savor at least of Him they love.
Words are not only an index of that which is within — but are also SEEDS OF ACTION.
They exercise a powerful influence on those who utter them. The leaves of a tree manifest the life that is at the root, but they also feed it. Without that sunlight which they take in from the atmosphere — the tree must wither and die. In the same way words manifest the character — and deepen it. An unchaste word spoken with the lips, feeds the flame of unhallowed lust within. The utterance of a passionate word, disturbs still more the raffled spirit. A word spoken for Christ, quickens and cheers the soul of him who speaks it. "He who waters, shall he watered also himself."
Especially do words leave their mark on those who hear them. They prove to be means of untold evil or good to those around us. "The tongue has the power of life and death!" Proverbs 18:21
A single thistle-down, wafted by the wind, may in time cover a whole field with thistles. A single word, incautiously dropped, may spread evil until a whole village is the worse for it.
Trace the course of an ANGRY word. See what harm it may do. It may be lightly and heedlessly spoken — yet nevertheless it may awaken resentment in the breast of him to whom it is addressed. Thence arises mutual recrimination. The peace of a family is disturbed. Any rising spirit of thoughtfulness in serious things is checked, perhaps entirely driven away. Sometimes revenge is cherished, and violence follows. Who can tell from that one word how great the evil that has arisen? "Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by Hell." James 3:5-6
Or, trace a word of SLANDER or DETRACTION. A snowball consists at first of but a few handfuls, but it gathers as it proceeds — and at last it may be so large that a man can scarcely move it. An evil report is very like it.
A neighbor suspects such a thing has happened,
someone else states it as a fact,
a third give some imaginary reason for it,
a fourth adds to it out of his own mind some additional aggravation
— until at length the mole-hill has grown into a mountain — and it all arose from a mere suspicion! Heart-burnings, strifes, family quarrels, and these forming a sad stumbling-block in the way of the Gospel, have repeatedly arisen exactly in this way.
But look at words, as to the GOOD they may effect. "A word spoken in due season, how good is it!" A kind word may heal a wounded spirit. A soft answer turns away wrath. The men of Ephraim sharply chided with Gideon, because he did not call them to fight against the Midianites. Wisely, gently he answered them, "God has delivered into your hands the princes of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb — and what was I able to do in comparison of you? Then their anger was abated toward him, when he had said that." (Judges 8.3.)
Often a few words spoken in love have arrested the sinner in his course, and saved a soul from death.
A young person, once a professor, was leaving the church after service. "One thing is needful!" said the minister to her as he passed, and he added no more. It was the right word. By it, the Spirit recalled her to the fold.
A woman had brought shame upon herself and those belonging to her. Friends and relations would no longer speak to her, and she was left to the wretchedness and despair that now brooded over her soul. She meditated suicide, and for this very purpose left her home to cast herself into a river. As she walked along she heard a kindly greeting. "Good morning, Mary," were the words addressed to her by a clergyman, who once had known her. "Someone, then, will speak to me," she said to herself; "I will not despair." Three words saved her life, and were a first step on the road that lead to her repentance and salvation.
In Burmah, that devoted missionary, Dr. Judson, was passing up a river. The boat rested for a few minutes at a station on the river, where several natives were standing. Dr. Judson gave his hand to a noble looking woman that attracted his attention, and asked her if she were well. "Well, my lord," she replied. "Peace be unto you," he added. That short interview was a turning point in her history. That night she was asked to join in a heathen ceremony — the dead bone burial. She said, "No, these many years have I served Gandama, and he has never kept my husband from beating me. I have seen one of the Christians. The white man spoke kindly to me, and gave me his hand. Henceforth his God shall be my God." For five years she prayed for light. "Great Angel, mighty Judge, Father God, in the Heaven, in the earth, in the mountains, in the seas, in the North, in the South, whoever You are, pity me, I pray You. Show me Yourself, that I may know You." Such was the substance of her petition, nor was it disregarded. He who never leaves in darkness those who desire the light, sent to her village the light of His Gospel. She became a mother in Israel, and many through her were taught in the way of life. Rich indeed was the blessing that might be traced back to a stranger, in a strange place, seizing the opportunity of speaking a few words of kindly sympathy.
Words spoken through life, will form an important item of the strict account that must be rendered at the great day. "I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned!" Matthew 12:36-37
Shall it be even so? May we believe that words, so soon spoken and so soon forgotten, shall yet be brought back to our remembrance before the bar of judgment? Nay, we dare not doubt it. The Judge Himself has left it on record! What can be clearer, if men are willing to abide by the verdict of Christ?
Words of every description — lying words, cheating words, profane words, unchaste words, angry words, envious words, murmuring words, foolish words, words that do harm, and words that do no good — as also words of truth and love, the stammering word spoken by a young Christian for the Savior, the determined "no," when tempted to go astray — these all shall bear their witness for us or against us.
It is well to have it engraved upon our memories, that our thoughts and words are alike marked by the All-seeing Eye. "O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely!" Psalm 139:1-4
This affords an amazing idea to us, of the Omniscience of the Most High God. Unnumbered thoughts pass through the mind, unknown even to those nearest to us — multitudes of words are ever being spoken, from morn to eve, from day to day, from year to year — and all are registered, photographed as it were, forever! And at the final tribunal they will reappear, to give in their evidence with respect to us.
One of our Reformers, Latimer, was being examined by Bonner, previous to his trial. At first he answered without much thought, but after a while he imagined that he heard the scratching of a pen behind a curtain. He hearkened again, and it was plain and distinct. At once he perceived that every word he uttered was being written down, that it might afterwards be brought up against him. From that moment he spoke not a single sentence without first thoughtfully weighing it.
Even so, invisible to us, is there a pen recording all that we speak, and even more — the word that is unspoken — the inner thoughts of the heart!
It is our wisdom, in remembrance of this, fervently to pray for grace both to think and speak aright.
"Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account!" Hebrews 4:13
"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer." Psalm 19:14
A FEW PRACTICAL DIRECTIONS may be of use for our guidance in "daily talk."
Wear continually the bridle of a holy self-restraint. Plainly this is our first duty in the matter. "I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth." Psalm 39:1
"If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless!" James 1:26
"Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips." Psalm 141:3
These passages imply, that we must not only pray for heavenly assistance, but also ourselves diligently guard "the door of our lips." Nothing is more dangerous than speaking at random, giving utterance to the thoughts and feelings that may be uppermost in the mind. "I always speak my mind," a reader may say. It is often the very last thing you ought to speak. Consider how changeable is the human mind. What you may imagine to be right in a moment of passion, within half-an-hour you may see to have been thoroughly wrong; yet if the wrong word has been spoken, it goes on to do its deadly work.
Depend upon it, that random words, words spoken unadvisedly, are perilous in the extreme. What would you say of a man who should take up red hot coals from off the hearth, and scatter them hither and thither about his house? Or, what would you think of one who would go forth into the streets with a quiver full of poisoned arrows, and shoot them right and left around him?
Yet what are spiteful, malicious, angry words — but burning coals and poisoned arrows? It may greatly be doubted, whether such a man would do nearly the harm and mischief in the world, which is done by an ungovernable tongue.
Make it a custom inwardly to challenge your words, as a sentinel would challenge a stranger, before allowing him to pass through the gate of a fortress.
Ask a question or two.
Is it true?
Is it kind?
Is it wise?
What is its aim and purpose?
Many a word so challenged would be forbidden a passage.
Guard against the least approach to deceit or untruthfulness. Though it may be against your interest, learn to say "yes," or "no," as truth demands. Let neither your speech nor your silence give a false impression. Be a follower of Him who "did no sin, neither was any deceit found in His mouth."
"Lie not; but let your heart be true to God,
Cowards tell lies, and those that fear the rod.
Dare to be true. Nothing can need a lie.
A fault which needs it most, grows two thereby."
Guard against unchaste allusions. There is many a remark that suggests evil, if it does not plainly express it. Such things stick like pitch, and when we would we cannot get rid of them.
Guard against spreading an evil report, or taking up a reproach against another. "You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people." "Speak not evil one of another, brethren."
Especially be careful how you speak with respect to others, in the presence of children or young people. Readily will they learn the habit of slander from those older than themselves, and this may tinge their character through life with a leaven of uncharitableness. In the conduct of a family, nothing is more important, in matters of detail, than checking, in ourselves or in them, the beginning of this malicious spirit. If it is necessary for parents or others to speak together with respect to the failings of a neighbor or a friend, let it be when they are alone, and not in the midst of the family circle.
Guard against putting a gloss on words you have heard. The least omission, or addition, or alteration, may give them an entirely new meaning. The difference between "will" and "shall" in a sentence may wholly turn the sense. The very tone of voice has much to do with what the speaker intends. In a joking way a clergyman said to one of his flock, "Oh no, I shall never forgive it." She understood it herself, but it was reported that some grave offence had been committed which the minister would not forgive.
Guard against profitless bitter disputes about religion. In these the Devil glories — under the guise of an angel of light they effectually do his work. The spirit of piety is lost in strifes about words — true love waxes cold, and temper runs high, while men dispute about baptism, and election, and whether Christ died for all; and this minister is disparaged, and another praised, and faults are found with this service, and with that prayer, and all the while . . .
Christ Himself is forgotten,
and the Spirit grieved,
and weak souls wounded,
and the ungodly hardened,
and the Great Adversary rejoices in having turned the Gospel of peace and love, into a means of man's undoing.
I speak not against needful controversy. Truth is above all things precious, and is not to be sacrificed even to peace. But there are right times, and there is a right spirit in which to conduct it; and there is a spirit which is of self and party, and not of Christ. "Speaking the truth in love."
The words of Richard Hooker deserve to be remembered: "There shall come a time when three words, uttered with charity and meekness, shall receive a far more blessed reward, than three thousand volumes, written with disdainful sharpness of wit."
Guard against jarrings and bickerings at your own fireside. It is astonishing, what disputing frequently arises over little matters of no consequence whatever. The clock is too fast or too slow — the wind is east or west — the day is cold or mild — rain is probable or otherwise — such a thing happened on Monday or Tuesday — a walk would be pleasanter in this direction or that. Who has not known little matters like these bring cross looks and ill tempers, and break into the quietness of the family circle?
I once knew a family where grace had won marvelous triumphs. They were many in number, but they were all one in Christ — father and mother, sons and daughters, were bound together in the love of Christ, as but seldom is witnessed even in Christian England. Yet, even there, strange disputes would arise about unimportant matters, sad contentions would mar the fair beauty of that little Paradise — a home that would otherwise have been the very picture of the heavenly world.
Reader, in all these points be watchful. "Let your speech at all times be gracious (pleasant and winsome), seasoned [as it were] with salt, [so that you may never be at a loss] to know how you ought to answer anyone." Colossians 4:6. It will save you from painful regrets hereafter. It will take away many a stumbling-block out of the path of others.
Another direction is important. Desire sincerity, coupled with tender charity from the God of all grace. A mind adorned with this twofold grace would prove a great preservative; it would necessarily overcome the chief dangers to which we are exposed.
Let a man aim at thorough, genuine integrity, both in word and deed. Let him pray that whatever else he lacks, he may be real and true. This grace would teach him how to speak; it would save him from petty deceits, and little falsehoods, and colorings of the truth, both in society and in business, which are too often excused as if unavoidable. It would make him willing to own that he has been mistaken; and he would not strive, at any cost, to make good his own opinion.
It would keep the master or mistress from ever desiring the servant to give a wrong impression to a caller, by saying "not at home," or "engaged," when it was otherwise. It would keep the servant from adding to a fault, or concealing an accident, by lying words.
Tender charity would also be a great safeguard. Would this not make men watchful, not to wound or hurt the feelings of another? Instead of fabricating or circulating evil reports — would not one in whom this grace dwelt, take the more hopeful view of what he heard, and be ready to cover with a mantle of love the failings he might see in those around him? Would not such a spirit fast bar the door of the lips against those harsh, bitter, stinging words that are often dropped against the fallen one — and suggest rather the word of prayer that the wandering sheep might be restored to the fold? Would it not arrest, before it was spoken, the sharp reply, and teach men to speak gently, kindly, forbearingly — even when most provoked? Would it not deal a death blow to the dissensions of Christian people about minor points, and rivet together, as one man, all those who hold fast the saving truths of our holy faith? Oh, that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, might work mightily within our hearts, these His precious fruits! The more these graces abound, the less likely will Christians be, by unseemly words to dishonor the name of Christ.
Store the heart and memory well from the treasury of Holy Writ.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs."
God's words are better than our words. God's thoughts are better than our thoughts. It is well when the former displaces the latter. When the Scripture has been carefully read and well pondered, this will be the case. A word of the Master's, will often be spoken instead of one of our own.
Our thoughts also will be turned into new channels. The atmosphere of Scripture will leaven the whole tone of our conversation. It will impart a tenderness of conscience, that sees at once the wrong there may be in a word about to be spoken. It will give desires and motives, that will tell upon this, as upon every other part of duty. It will give the timid Christian words, at his own fireside or in visiting, that may edify those to whom he speaks.
Above all, speak ever under the recollection that God is near. It is said of Jepthah, that "he uttered all his words before the Lord." This refers probably to the special transaction in which he was then engaged. It suggests, however, a truth for us. Whatever words are truly "uttered before the Lord" will be right and good words.
Suppose someone stands nearby whose good opinion you value, and whom you desire to please. Would not this make you careful as to what you say? Often a man has checked himself, he has left unsaid the profane jest, or the passionate exclamation — because he saw close at hand his master or his friend.
Transfer this to God. There stands near to us — nearer than we can conceive — the Almighty Father. His eye rests upon us. His ear is open to all we speak. When we arise, He is there. When we hold converse with our friends, He is there. When we go forth into the world's highway, He is there. He is ever about our path — marking all that is amiss, registering in His solemn book, the word that ought never to have gone forth.
He is near also, most ready to accept, for Christ's sake, the words spoken before Him. He hearkens to the word of prayer: "Father, bless me." "Father! glorify your Name." He regards with approval fellow Christians strengthening each other's hands by mutual exhortation.
"Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. "They will be mine," says the LORD Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession." Malachi 3:16-17