What have I been saying? How have I been saying it?
by Mark Buchanan
Watch your mouth! I heard that a lot growing up, mostly from my mother. My father was a famous curser, a foul-mouthed minstrel. For him, tirade and expletive were art forms—he could swear with an almost poetic force and his rants were worthy of Italian opera. So he hardly noticed what came out of my mouth. My mother, on the other hand, held constant vigilance on the matter, and so I rarely got away with anything.
In early adulthood I became a Christ-follower and only then realized that my mother, for all those years, was speaking for God: Watch your mouth!
It matters to God. Greatly. This odd configuration of lip and muscle, sphincter and bone, is holy ground—or not. What comes out of your mouth, and how it comes out, is at the very core of your spiritual life.
Think Isaiah. “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” That’s Isaiah’s startled confession when he comes face-to-face with the living God. Of all the ways the prophet might feel exposed, caught, skewered by divine encounter—was he tithing? Had he peeped at an unsavoury internet site? How’s my driving?—it’s his tongue he’s instinctively worried about: What have I been saying? How have I been saying it?
Or think Paul. A man who once went around “breathing out murderous threats against the disciples”—his mouth dripped curses—later writes, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only that which is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
If you think this is a simple matter, commit to it for one day. From now until this time tomorrow, let no unwholesome talk—no cynicism, no criticism, no sarcasm, no vulgarity, no complaint, no gossip, no boast, no slander, no inanity, no self-vindication—pass your lips. What would be left to say? A commitment like that would strike most of us nearly mute.
Or think James. He dismisses outright anyone’s claim to piety if they have a loose tongue. “If anyone considers himself religious,” he says, “and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” Self-deceit and worthlessness.
Those are potent indictments. All our Bible knowledge, all our financial contributions, all our committee work, all our church attendance, all our volunteer efforts—all reduced to a junk pile of lies if we’re running off at the mouth.
James goes on to conjure vivid images to describe the tongue’s destructive power. He compares it to a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, a fire’s spark—a tiny thing with outsized influence: the bit controls the horse, the rudder the ship, the fire the forest. Then he compares the tongue to an unruly wild thing: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
It’s no wonder Isaiah needs divine help for this—a six-winged angel to cauterize his lips with altar fire. We all need divine help with this. Paul crowns his call to holiness—including, especially, how we use our tongues—with this command: “be filled with the Holy Spirit.” His next line: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
Be filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can speak to one another these ways. There’s no way to do it otherwise. Indeed, the Bible makes clear that the primary manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us is the ability to speak in tongues. Only, I don’t mean glossolalia, speaking in a “heavenly language,” with the “tongues of angels.” I mean using the tongue you already have, speaking your native language, to bless and not curse, praise and not revile, build up and not tear down, thank and not complain, honour and not gossip. That’s Holy Spirit manifestation enough. That’s evidence, supreme and abundant, that God himself lives within you.
Watch your mouth.
Mark Buchanan is an author and pastor living on Vancouver Island. The author of several bestselling books, his most recent title is Spiritual Rhythm. He is a speaker at the Legacy Conference in Winnipeg on March 11 and 12.