Have you ever said something and instantly regretted it? You just wish you could rewind reality 5 seconds to take back those words — words that accidentally insulted someone, words that crossed the line in that argument, words about someone not knowing that someone was within earshot… We’ve all been there. Sometimes we use our words carelessly - we can toss them around like they’re insignificant, but maybe we should think to use them more carefully because perhaps they have more impact than we think they do. How much impact do our words have and how should we be using them?
The book of James, written as a sort of handbook to proper Christian living, gives us powerful imagery to show us just how impactful our words really are. James 3:3-6 says,
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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
If you’ve ever ridden a horse, you know just how strong of a beast it is - and yet, it can be controlled by the smallest piece of metal in it’s mouth. We’ve all seen cruise ships and how massive they are, and yet they are steered wherever the captain wants to go by a comparatively tiny rudder. Thinking of how devastating a forest fire is, then to think it can all be started by an unattended campfire… This is how James says how impactful our words are - they may seem as little as a bit in a horses mouth, a rudder on a ship, or a tiny spark - but the impact of our words is great. Although our words can seem small and insignificant, whether for good or for bad, they hold tremendous power.
What kind of impact do our words have? Whether you know it or not, your words have massive impact. Think about how you use your words on a regular basis: with your friends at lunch table, in the comment fields of Instagram, talking with family members, or people you disagree with… Do you say things without realizing the great impact your words can make? If we trust in God’s Word, we believe James when he says just how powerful our tongues are, let’s understand that our words have massive weight to them — whether we think our words or noticed or not, if we think no one will hear, or if we believe no one cares what we have to say to begin with…
So how do we use these powerful words of ours? Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, provides more guidance on proper Christian living — specifically how we use our speech. Ephesians 4:29 says,
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Unwholesome talk. Our minds likely go straight to — “F” word, “S” word, “A” word, etc… But theres much more to unwholesome talk that just a few select words. Dirty jokes riddled with sexual profanity or jokes that tear others down. Gossiping about others, making others look bad, talking down to your peers. Disrespectful talk to people in authority (parents, teachers, bosses). Language that brings others down and takes life away, Paul says this type of speech is simply not for Christ followers. Our words should be to benefit others and build them up.
How should we use our impactful words? Make sure your impact is fueled by love. Our followers of the perfectly-loving Jesus Christ, our words should always build one another up, make people feel loved, make others feel respected, and should reflect words that Jesus Himself would say. So, again, think of how you regularly use your words… do they consistently build others up or tear them down? Are your words full of unwholesome talk, or words that reflect the heart of Jesus? The comments you leave on Instagram - are they comments Jesus would type (or that you’d be okay with Him seeing)? I encourage us all: consider the weight of your words and reflect on how you regularly use them. There may need to be some re-adjusting in your word choice, and recognizing that is the first step. Ask God’s Spirit to change our tongues and how we use our words, and give us the wisdom and love to reflect the words of Jesus.