Monday, May 12, 2008

Taming the Tongue

“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”

~ James 3:7-11 (NIV)

After writing the column titled “A Better Way,” I received an email from a dear friend of mine named Jack whom I would describe as a man after God’s own heart. So when Jack shared his own struggles with keeping his words in check, it really touched my heart.

“There are those who speak rashly like the piercing of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” ~ Proverbs 12:18

I’d like to share a portion of Jack’s encouraging email:

“Every night I read as one of my little prayers before going to bed, ‘Guard my tongue, O God, from silly, useless chatter, from words that would confuse or disillusion. Instead, Lord, cause my mouth to speak soothing, uplifting and healing words; words of praise and encouragement and words of love. Amen.’

I depend upon this as one of my prayers which I need continuously with three kids, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren . . . because I find times when I am not pleased with what they do or say, not to mention my friends in my church and neighbors in my condominium which has 99 units. I am trying to think before opening my mouth to avoid saying things I would be sorry for later . . . .”

In my reply, I told Jack that it helped me to learn that even positive, kind-hearted people have to work hard and pray hard to keep from saying something they will regret or acting in a way that doesn’t build up the people in his or her life.

“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength; one is pushing down and the other is pulling up.”

~ Booker T. Washington, educator, author, civil rights leader

For a short while I was in the habit of praying Psalm 141:3 every morning: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips,” and, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord.” (Ps. 19:14) I think I need to get back to that.

“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…” ~ James 1:19

But all too often I fail to remember how much trouble my mouth can get me in and I neglect to pray for God’s help to control my tongue. As a result, I have a “knee-jerk” reaction to stressful situations and end up with a severe case of “foot-in-mouth disease.”

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart . . .”

~ Ecclesiastes 5:2a

It’s like that one prayer that goes: “Dear Lord, so far today, I’ve done all right. I haven’t cussed, gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, selfish, or overindulgent. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot more help.”

My friend Mae shared a great quote recently from H. Fred Ale who said: “My green thumb came only as a result of the mistakes I made while learning to see things from the plant’s point of view.” I think we would all benefit from trying to see things from others’ points of view more often. For example, rather than just seeing the overgrown lawn at our house in Manhattan, I could have taken into consideration the fact that both of our sons are full-time college students making good grades and holding down jobs while doing their own cooking, cleaning and laundry. But all I saw at that moment was the length of the grass. And truth be told, the main reason I was so angry was because of how it made us look. Silly pride.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t guide or correct your children. But if we want our kids to hear and receive our instruction, then we have to deliver it in a way that doesn’t get clouded by our anger or the pitch of our voice. My whole life I have followed the wrong pattern of expressing my anger. Somehow I’ve had the mistaken notion that if I don’t scream at the top of my lungs then the recipient won’t realize how serious I am – and I really want them to know that I mean business! But people young and old have a tendency to shut down when someone is yelling at them. A wall goes up in an effort to protect them from the verbal assault.

So even though you may be right in what you’re trying to say, a message delivered with unbridled anger puts you back in the wrong. As the saying goes: You may have the right to be angry, but that doesn’t give you the right to be cruel.

Oh what a fire one tiny spark can ignite. Lord, help me remember that it is much easier to “prevent forest fires” than to put them out once they’ve already started.

“We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 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.”
~ James 3:2-5