The Tongue—A Power for Good or for Bad
“I tell you that every unprofitable saying that men speak, they will render an account concerning it on Judgment Day; for by your words you will be declared righteous, and by your words you will be condemned.”—Matt. 12:26, 37.
1, 2. Upon what might our future life depend, and how can we control the outcome?
WHEN Jesus spoke the above words he may have had in mind Solomon’s words at Ecclesiastes 12:14: “The true God himself will bring every sort of work into the judgment in relation to every hidden thing, as to whether it is good or bad.” It makes one stop and think. Is speech so important that it can determine one’s future life? If so, it would appear profitable for every person to ‘take inventory.’ Is it worth the effort so to control our lives from now on that we can hope for life in God’s new order of things?
2 For the effort to be rewarding it must be purposeful. Recall that the apostle Paul said he would rather browbeat his body and control it as his slave than face the consequences of rejection. Realizing that “man’s course lies not in his own hands; it is not in a man to have control over his actions,” we must seek proper guidance. (Jer. 10:23, Mo) The source of such guidance is the Bible, God’s inspired Word. “Trust in Jehovah with all your heart and do not lean upon your own understanding. In all your ways take notice of him, and he himself will make your paths straight.” (Prov. 3:5, 6) With such divine guidance we ought to be able to talk straight, to control our speech intelligently, and to bring “every thought into captivity to make it obedient to the Christ.”—2 Cor. 10:5.
3, 4. About what condition in the congregations was James concerned, and to what could he attribute it?
3 To realize the magnitude of the job, consider what the disciple James has to say about what he calls “an unruly injurious thing.” (Jas. 3:8) He appreciated that there was power in the tongue, which could be an influence for good or for bad. An overseer in the Jerusalem congregation and a member of the governing body of the early church or congregation, he was deeply concerned about the internal difficulties of the congregations, as had been the apostle Paul concerning the congregation at Corinth, where there existed strife, jealousy, anger, contentions, backbitings, whisperings, conceit and general disorders. (2 Cor. 12:20) James therefore called on “the twelve tribes that are scattered about” to consider carefully the need of putting away all filthiness, moral badness, class distinctions and things that bring about stumbling.—Jas. 1:1, 21; 2:4, 9.
4 James asked them to acknowledge their imperfections and the natural tendency to stumble. He said: “If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle also his whole body. If we put bridles in the mouths of horses for them to obey us, we manage also their whole body. Look! Even boats, although they are so big and are driven by hard winds, are steered by a very small rudder to where the inclination of the man at the helm wishes. So, too, the tongue is a little member and yet makes great brags! . . . Well, the tongue is a fire. The tongue is constituted a world of unrighteousness among our members, for it spots up all the body and sets the wheel of natural life aflame.” Then James tells how this inconsistent little member, the tongue, can act: “With it we bless Jehovah, even the Father, and yet with it we curse men who have come into existence ‘in the likeness of God.’ Out of the same mouth come forth blessing and cursing.” Yes, the tongue certainly has power for good or for bad.—Jas. 3:2-6, 9, 10.
5, 6. (a) What questions might each person consider? (b) By keeping our lips in check, what favor may be ours?
5 Just to read these words probably causes you to bring to mind persons who are just as ‘double-tongued’ as that. But wait; does a deeper consideration of James’ words force you to apply them to yourself? Are you an exception to the rule? Do you ever let your tongue get out of control, like a forest fire, to the harm of others as well as yourself? Do you forget to use your tongue to reflect love of neighbor as well as love of God? That is to say, do you praise or bless God part of the time and berate your fellowmen at other times with the same tongue? Do you even use your lips to curse God, or misuse His name when you speak uncomplimentarily about others? Searching questions these, but keep them before you; by no means minimize their importance!
6 The fact that one is imperfect does not excuse him for continuously making the same mistake. If he does, his employer will find little use for his services. So it is that “in the abundance of words there does not fail to be transgression, but the one keeping his lips in check is acting discreetly. The tongue of the righteous one is choice silver; the heart of the wicked one is worth little. The very lips of the righteous one keep pasturing many, but for want of heart [or, good motive] the foolish themselves keep dying.” So do not stop speaking for fear you will err, but determine to keep your lips in check, and this is especially important concerning those so signally honored today by God to be ‘shepherds’ in “pasturing many.”—Prov. 10:19-21, margin (1957 edition).
7. (a) In what wrong practice do many indulge? (b) How might this be avoided?
7 It is difficult for sinful man to keep his lips in check today when all around there is such a disrespect for healthful words. So many are inclined to ‘pay back with the same coin,’ that is to say, to answer with the same kind of speech. (Prov. 24:29) Without stopping to consider that they are really lowering themselves to a low level that they deplore, they lose their temper and let their tongue get out of control. Bad temper makes a man speak his mind when he should be minding his speech. David was one who was repeatedly provoked to anger. But did he give vent to it? He said: “I will guard my ways to keep from sinning with my tongue. I will set a muzzle as a guard to my own mouth, as long as anyone wicked is in front of me.” (Ps. 39:1) He knew the sinful tendency of man: “With error I was brought forth with birth pains, and in sin my mother conceived me.” So he prayed for help: “Do set a guard, O Jehovah, for my mouth; do set a watch over the door of my lips.” (Ps. 51:5; 141:3) We, too, can and should not only do everything to bring our tongue into subjection but, acknowledging that “it does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step,” we should pray to Jehovah to make us do his will.—Jer. 10:23.
BRIDLING THE TONGUE
8. (a) What addiction must we avoid, and why? (b) How may one brand himself?
8 This bridling of our tongue does not prevent speech. But it helps to purify speech. Some say they find it difficult, after associating with people of the world so long, to converse even briefly without using “curse words.” The habit has become as difficult to break as an alcoholic, drug or tobacco habit. Without being allowed to use words that bring God or Jesus into the conversation in a “loose” way, or to use vulgar words that they have been accustomed to using, they feel ‘tongue-tied.’ This is a bad habit that brings dishonor, not only to the one who is addicted to its use, but also to Jehovah God, the Creator of the tongue. Shall we just shrug it off and continue to use God’s name in a worthless way when we know it brings sorrow to Him? Is there any logical defense for the vicious habit? Remember: “You shall not use the name of the Eternal, your God, profanely; for the Eternal will never acquit anyone who uses his name profanely.” (Ex. 20:7, Mo) There is nothing commendatory about such speech. While he may not realize it, the person indulging in such speech automatically puts a brand upon himself and puts himself in a distinct class. It is nothing to brag about. “They keep bubbling forth, they keep speaking unrestrained; all the practicers of what is hurtful keep bragging about themselves.”—Ps. 94:4.
9. What Scriptural reasons dictate that Christians today keep their tongues under control?
9 Christians are authorized to be “ambassadors substituting for Christ,” to shine “as illuminators in the world,” to “‘declare abroad the excellencies’ of the one that called you out of darkness into his wonderful light,” to be “the light of the world.” (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil. 2:15; 1 Pet. 2:9; Matt. 5:14) To prove ourselves worthy of this high honor, we must keep that important little instrument, our tongue, under strict control so that the very purpose of its use in God’s service will not be defeated. What Christians say and do today reflects upon the message they bear as well as upon the one they represent. As light bearers of the good news of God’s established kingdom, they can bring glory to God, but only if they are proper light bearers. So “let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heavens.”—Matt. 5:16.
10. Why is it important to make a careful choice of friends today?
10 Some are always “running off at the mouth,” seemingly not caring what results therefrom, even if it adversely affects close friends. Such persons you have learned to shun; you even feel contaminated by associating with them, fearing that their inconsiderate conduct might rub off on you. Yes, you know that bad association spoils useful habits, that evil communications corrupt good manners, that bad company ruins good morals. (1 Cor. 15:33, NW, AV, RS) So be careful in the choice of friends. Why not choose friends who have resolved: “Through [Jesus] let us always offer to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips which make public declaration to his name”?—Heb. 13:15.
11. (a) To what can thoughtless and uncontrolled speech lead? (b) How can one rectify an injury done through an ill-spoken word, and when?
11 Such excuses as ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I didn’t mean to say it,’ ‘It was a slip of the tongue,’ ‘I spoke without thinking,’ do help to some extent to heal unintentionally inflicted wounds when one does not keep his tongue under control. But how much better to think before you speak! How much better for the mind to direct the speech along constructive lines! What wreckage thoughtless speech can cause! Uncontrolled speech usually is not thought-out speech. It can lead to disunity, division, heartaches. One desiring to observe the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor must, therefore, bridle his tongue. But when one unintentionally, through thoughtless speech, wounds another, he ought to be humble enough to swallow his pride and apologize, ask for forgiveness. He should not allow the breach to widen. He ought to heal it at the first opportunity. He should not let the sun set upon him in a provoked state. Making amends for indiscretions in speech is commendable. Not only will one be healing what might become a deep wound, but his own conscience will be clear before God and the one offended.—Eph. 4:26; Acts 24:16; Eph. 4:31, 32; Matt. 5:22.
12, 13. (a) Why must a Christian not use “smooth lips” or a “double-tongue”? (b) What danger is there in listening to “smooth speech”?
12 The days in which we live David prophetically pointed forward to, saying: “For faithful people have vanished from the sons of men. Untruth they keep speaking one to the other; with a smooth lip they keep speaking even with a double heart. Jehovah will cut off all smooth lips, . . . those who have said: ‘With our tongue we shall prevail. Our lips are with us. Who will be a master to us?’” (Ps. 12:1-4) Those with a “double heart” today are like the unfaithful priests and elders still remaining behind in Jerusalem after a token number had been taken captive to Babylon in 617 B.C.E. Ezekiel records their boasting and attempted justification for engaging in false, detestable heathen worship: “Jehovah is not seeing us.” (Ezekiel, chapters 8 and 9) Peter counsels against such double heart and double-tongue: “He that would love life and see good days, let him restrain his tongue from what is bad and his lips from speaking deception.” (1 Pet. 3:10) He echoed Solomon’s words at Proverbs 4:24: “Remove from yourself the crookedness of speech; and the deviousness of lips put far away from yourself.” One of the requirements of the ministerial servant in the Christian congregation is that he be not “double-tongued.” Smooth talk, complimentary speech and pious greetings are aimed at seducing or turning away the hearts of guileless or unsuspecting ones.—1 Tim. 3:8; Rom. 16:18; Matt. 23:6, 7.
13 All too often today people like to have their ears tickled. They like a ‘soft religion.’ They like to hear things that give them a feeling of security and well-being, not necessarily things that would awaken them to responsibility. Paul said a time would come “when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth.” (2 Tim. 4:3, 4) So guard yourself from those who offer complimentary speech, who indulge in smooth double-talk, for “smoother than butter are the words of his mouth, but his heart is disposed to fight. His words are softer than oil, but they are drawn swords” that can cause incalculable damage. David could well speak those words recorded at Psalm 55:21. In Jesus’ day (as in the days of Isaiah) there was such ‘double-talk’ that he denounced, quoting what God said through the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, yet their heart is far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach commands of men as doctrines.”—Matt. 15:8; Isa. 29:13.
USING IT POSITIVELY FOR GOOD
14. What is involved in controlling the tongue?
14 The control of the tongue is not limited to avoiding the saying of things that dishonor God and man, anymore than the approval of one’s employer is obtained by avoiding making mistakes. There is a positive side. Controlling the tongue means using it to bring honor to the Creator, to oneself and to one’s fellowmen. What a valuable use of the tongue when it is used to uphold the name, supremacy and kingdom of Jehovah God! Every Christian should resolve in his heart to set aside some time every day to do that very thing, and the resolve should be made now. There is no more opportune time.—Col. 4:5, 6.
15. In what various ways may the tongue be used to do a healing work?
15 Today the uplifting use of the tongue can be applied to practically every phase of our lives. “As apples of gold in silver carvings is a word spoken at the right time for it.” (Prov. 25:11) True, “there exists the one speaking thoughtlessly as with the stabs of a sword, but the tongue of the wise ones is a healing.” (Prov. 12:18) Perfect control of the tongue may be beyond the reach of us in this present wicked system of things, but a greater work of healing with the tongue is possible for most people than they are accomplishing. Words from the healing tongue can be given in the home when a member is sick; when one is injured; in time of sorrow; when there are worries about health, insecurity or failures; comforting words can be offered when there is fear that others may dislike one; or even to compensate for a fear of being alone. A person of insight can tell of true values and can assist in overcoming anxieties. “Anxious care in the heart of a man is what will cause it to bow down, but the good word is what makes it rejoice.”—Prov. 12:25.
16. When only can real comfort be given, and how then?
16 As a medical doctor is useless unless he knows how to effect a cure or at least some improvement, so unless one knows how to pass along to those in need of it the “good word,” he is, in effect, tongue-tied. So to have control of the tongue means to use it effectively. A diligent study of God’s Word, the Bible, is rewarding. The Bible is the only source of real comfort, for it is the word of the God of all comfort. It is to Jehovah God that we look so we can have a properly directed tongue and so use our tongue for good. At Isaiah 50:4 the prophet said: “The Lord Jehovah himself has given me the tongue of the taught ones, that I may know how to answer the tired one with a word.” To comfort the tired, weary ones, we need such tongue of the taught ones and should petition Jehovah for it. He welcomes a righteous one’s prayer, as James assures us: “A righteous man’s supplication, when it is at work, has much force.” So such prayer, being “at work,” must be accompanied by works.—Jas. 5:16; 2:14-26.
17. What assures the proper direction of the tongue?
17 The educated mind is responsible for the proper direction of the tongue. So the mind must be fed on truth. It must be led by God’s active force, his holy spirit, so that it can direct the tongue to speak the “sayings of Jehovah [which] are pure sayings, as silver refined in a smelting furnace of earth, clarified [purified] seven times.” (Ps. 12:6) There is a group of people today who have prayed for such divine direction and have accepted it and dedicated their lives to serve Jehovah. They have petitioned: “Make me know your own ways, O Jehovah; teach me your own paths. Make me walk in your truth and teach me, for you are my God of salvation.” (Ps. 25:4, 5) Hence they use their time, effort and such resources as they possess to do those things that please God. They are an organization of talkers. They endeavor to exercise strict control of their tongues. They are not tongue-tied. They would be embarrassed if they could not use their tongues. More than that, they would be unfaithful to their commission. (1 Cor. 9:16) They realize, therefore, the need of rendering their praises intelligently. So they study the Bible.
18. How valuable is congregational study, but what else is a necessary part of our worship of God?
18 A study of the Bible is necessary to give acceptable worship to God. There is no substitute for personal study, but it is not sufficient. For that reason Jehovah’s witnesses throughout the earth (except in countries where demonistic anti-God authorities, political or religious, prevent it by totalitarian law) arrange for five occasions weekly to meet to study God’s Word together and also to discuss how they might best use their tongues in praising God. They realize that more than meeting together is involved in worshiping God; they must ‘obey the message’ and not ‘merely listen to it’ to have God’s approval. Thus our keeping the tongue under control and our worship of God are interlocked. The servant of God must be a daily praiser of God: at home with his family, in association with friends, at work, at school, and at play. Never may he “let down the bars” and take temporary leave from having his controlled tongue used in a proper manner. We must remember that “we have become a theatrical spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.”—1 Cor. 4:9; Jas. 1:22.
19, 20. (a) Describe a particularly enjoyable use of the tongue. (b) What inescapable responsibility falls on those who are assisted?
19 Not to be overlooked is the daily praising of God in the door-to-door ministry. What an enjoyable and rewarding use of the tongue! In such service the tongue, put to the test, is a real power for good. Persons of honest heart are seeking to know what they may do to have God’s favor, how they may qualify for being “men of good will” and getting life. Jehovah’s witnesses are glad for the privilege of acting as ‘lifesavers,’ taking the “word of life” to such people, sitting down with them in their homes and studying the Bible and showing them what is required in order to put themselves in line for life. No wonder they exclaim, as did the emissaries sent to arrest Jesus: “Never has another man spoken like this” man. How different from the usual things they hear!
20 Such honest seekers for righteousness realize, after having been assisted to come to an accurate knowledge of truth, that they now have a responsibility; that, having received, they must now give, and they find it a joyful responsibility, as Jesus said they would. (Acts 20:35) Solomon’s statement now applies to them: “Do not hold back good from those to whom it is owing, when it happens to be in the power of your hand to do it. Do not say to your fellow man: ‘Go, and come back and tomorrow I shall give,’ when there is something with you.” (Prov. 3:27, 28) Withholding life-giving information by keeping one’s mouth shut for any reason may result in the deprivation of life, for both the one withholding the information and the one who was denied it. But the proper use of the tongue can bring life to both. “It is written: ‘As I live,’ says Jehovah, ‘to me every knee will bend down, and every tongue will make open acknowledgment to God.’ So, then, each of us will render an account for himself to God.”—Rom. 14:11, 12.
21. What further assistance is provided?
21 One does not have to feel distressed today because of his inability to dig out of the Bible the truths so necessary for him to learn how to please God. Today Jehovah has his “faithful and discreet slave” organization on earth to provide spiritual food at this ‘proper time.’ (Matt. 24:45-47) That organization has associated with it 24,900 congregations throughout the earth today. There is a congregation in your neighborhood. You can identify the meeting place by the familiar sign, KINGDOM HALL OF JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES. That organization provides Bible-study aids in 166 languages for assisting persons of whatever nationality. This magazine, The Watchtower, is itself published in 71 languages and, at the last printing, the edition was 4,950,000. Additionally, that organization has associated with it over one million one hundred thousand persons busily engaged in using their tongues to magnify the Supreme Sovereign of the Universe, Jehovah God, and to exercise love of neighbor. That love is indicated by their persistent calls on people of all races, languages and religious persuasions to assist them to have a better appreciation of the heavenly Father, so that they may “be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) Welcome them when they call at your home to render such help.
22. What death-dealing mistake did Adam and Eve make, and so what should every creature today resolve to do?
22 Our common parents, Adam and Eve—created in God’s image and likeness with the unquestioned ability to use their tongues perfectly to honor their Maker—dishonored and defamed Him by siding in with the one who misused his tongue, the original liar, the Devil. They lost the right to future life. The privilege of using that divinely provided instrument, the tongue, in a right manner is extended to man today. All seekers for truth should acknowledge Jehovah as the giver of all good gifts, including the gift of speech, and dedicate their all to Him. We stand at the threshold of God’s new order under his everlasting kingdom of righteousness. During that new order “every breathing thing” shall praise Jehovah. (Ps. 150:6) Conversely, anyone who does not render such praise shall not be among those breathing. “Now is the especially acceptable time” to use our voices to honor our Creator, this course leading to life. (2 Cor. 6:2) The prayer of each one should be: “Let the sayings of my mouth and the meditation of my heart become pleasurable before you, O Jehovah my Rock and my Redeemer.”—Ps. 19:14.