Anyone who knows me is aware that I have a quick wit and I like to joke around with people. Generally I’m not hurtful, although I have been hurtful. Generally I know when to hold my tongue, however I have spoken when I should have kept silent. Generally I know when to quit, but I have crossed that line.
There was a time when I had little restraint. Words were long out of my mouth before I realized they were best held back. James tells us that, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:2, ESV). And further, “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…. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:5-6, 10, ESV). James 3:1-12 deserves to be read as one unit; I encourage you to take a moment to read it.
While James emphasized the power of the tongue for destruction, clearly delineating the mess it leaves in its wake, Paul gives us some direction: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29, NASB emphasis mine).
I think we tend to have considerably more restraint with regards to our speech with strangers and acquaintances. It makes sense that we do for those are the ones whose reaction we can’t accurately gauge. And it’s a good thing, too! The way we treat people will shape their view of Christ and the Church.
I imagine it works similarly to the black light in all of the crime shows on television. The black light reveals a lot of bad things as the crime scene people look for clues to catch the bad guy. The person we don’t know is walking around shining a black light on the church. When we speak “unwholesome words,” we take on a strange and condemning glow.
While we hold back with those we don’t know, the opposite is true for friends and family. We can easily get carried away and absolutely destroy them. An insult from a stranger rolls more easily off our shoulders. The same words from someone we care about can be devastating.
We “are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet” (Matthew 5:13, ESV). We need to know when to speak, and learn to keep silent when words can hurt. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11, ESV).
We need our words to be seasoning in the lives of those around us. Stranger. Friend. Family. We need our words to “give grace to those who hear.”