We were in the car late one afternoon and my children were doing their normal back and forth sibling thing in the back seat. (I would call it "bickering" but was told by someone in my family that "bickering" is an old-fashioned word). I grew frustrated by their behavior. Then I got sarcastic.
Later, after returning home, I noticed my children were irritable. One was downright angry. I finally got them to talk and learned that my sarcastic comments hurt them both. I apologized and they forgave but the exchange was a glaring reminder that I do not have control over my tongue. And because I don't, I hurt my children.
Small Yet Mighty
James says that though the tongue is small, it is very powerful. "So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell" (James 3:5-6).
Proverbs has a lot to say about our words as well: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits" (Proverbs 18:21). "Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin." (Proverbs 13:3). "Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body" (Proverbs 16:24).
I know that words are powerful. As a writer, I know words can persuade, mislead, attack, comfort, or resonate. I know that words can build up or tear down. They can open doors or slam them shut. They can connect or rip apart. They can bring hope and healing or destroy altogether.
The Real Problem
What do we do when we realize we have a problem with our words? In the case with my children, I could resolve to be kind. I could have that guilty feeling I felt propel me to curb my sarcastic ways. But like the resolve we all feel at the first of a new year, on its own, resolve isn't enough to transform our words.
That's because the real problem is with our hearts.
Words are one of the greatest reflections of what is going on in our hearts. Jesus said that "For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). James 4 says that our problems and conflicts stem from our disordered desires, our idolatry, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight" (vs. 1-2).
A struggle with words reveals what we really love most. It reveals what we worship, what we've set our hearts on. Unkind words are not the problem but a byproduct of the real problem: idolatrous hearts. Deep down, we want life to be all about us. We want to be on the throne of our lives and have everyone else serve us. Our words reveal our selfishness, pride, self-righteousness, and envy. They show our desire to rule our own kingdoms. And above all, they reveal that God is not first place in our hearts.