God has a Plan for your Tongue

We live in the Age of the Tongue.  We have more means to talk than ever before. I can blog, update my status, tweet, text, voice record, video, and even phone, write on paper or have a face-to-face conversation! Our speech lasts longer than ever before. The internet’s ‘way back machine’ ensures that anything I foolishly said ten years ago can be used against me now. We are also more worried about what we say than ever before. Our sentences sometimes become our identity to the world. We had better make them either perfect enough to be unimpeachable or vacuous enough to be harmless.

We also live in a ‘speak up’ culture in which we are exhorted to ‘say what we feel’, not ‘bottle it up.’ It has also become a social obligation to express disgust at anything popular culture wishes to decry. To fail to speak up is sometimes regarded as a positive vote for whatever evils activists are presently aiming their sites at.

So, how do people cope with living in the age of the tongue? Some people just let it all out. Whatever enters their minds goes straight out their mouths! Others merely react to the speech of others. They become trolls, providing witty (or offensive) commentary on whatever it is everyone else is saying. Alternatively, some become activists. They take up the cause du jour and speak up. Others watch, read, and wait for their turn to speak which seldom arrives. In the age of the tongue, the one who waits usually has no one who listens.

Okay, enough of the broad strokes cultural criticism. The main question I want to answer is: does God have a plan for our tongues? Is there something it is supposed to do? And why does such a small thing matter so much?

Facts about the Tongue

Let’s start with some facts about the tongue. First, the Bible tells us that the tongue betrays the heart. If the heart is bad, eventually the tongue will give it away. Just like bad poker face, everyone will be able to tell the state of your heart from the contents and manner of your talk.

Jesus tells that Pharisees that he can tell the state of their hearts from what comes from their mouths: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matt 12:33-35)

Jesus tells them that they will be judged according to their words: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt 12:36-37)

In Poker, everyone has a ‘tell’. A ‘tell’ is a sign that indicates you are bluffing. Your words are your ‘tell’, and, when Christ hears them, he can see whether you are bluffing.

Second, the tongue is our most Powerful organ. James writes “if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set a flame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” (James 3:3-6).

Tumultuous events have been set off by little books. The French revolution, Russian Revolution, Jihads, Crusades, Communism, and Fascism all got sparked by tongues. And, in a smaller way, we can do the same. Gossip at school, criticism at home, backbiting at church, and fake news in the world all start small, but can lead to disastrous consequences.

Finally, the tongue is the most uncontrollable organ. This is the most troublesome fact about tongues. You’d think they’d come with a safety catch, but they don’t and so they fire off at the worst times in the worst ways. As James goes on to say, “every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.  But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7-8). Isn’t that amazing? We can tame a tiger, but not our own tongues!

If the tongue is the most uncontrollable organ, then it is the organ with which we are most likely to sin. As I look back over my life, I am aware of much sin and most of it is what I have said or not said. My tongue is my own worst enemy!

Sins of the tongue include lies (intentional deceit), cheating on a test, plagiarizing (taking other people’s ideas and words and attributing them to ourselves), people pleasing (saying whatever you think the other person wishes to hear), hypocrisy (deceiving people about your holiness), and slander (see social media…in fact, all media, for examples). 

Perhaps you are wondering why God has given us such a tool of disaster, a weapon of mass destruction? Surely, we’d have been better off without it. NOT SO. The tongue was given to us for a purpose.

The Purpose of the Tongue

So, what exactly is the point of the tongue? The first purpose of the tongue is to proclaim the excellences of its creator. The tongue is supposed to communicate truths about God to other people.

Peter tells his readers that they have been set aside for the Lords purpose so that they might proclaim the excellent characteristics of God: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;” (1 Peter 2:9)

So, the tongue is designed to proclaim the character of God to the world. It is designed to magnify his glory to others. In our present context, it is supposed to be used to proclaim his goodness to a lost world, one in which not everyone worships God. Thus, we are supposed to use the tongue to declare God’s goodness to our neighbors, his holiness to a school friend, his mercy to a sibling, or his love to an unbelieving family member.

The second purpose of the tongue is to teach the truth. In a world in which no one questions the phrase ‘your truth’ or ‘my truth’, truth has become whatever it is you or I believe. It is up to us. But truth is not subjective. It is given to us in nature and in the words of God himself. Our tongues are supposed to be used to speak this truth.

In his last command to his disciples, Jesus tells them (and us) to use our tongues to teach the truth, to pass on what he has given to us: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

We are all involved in teaching others. What we teach will be whatever we use our tongues for. The question is: will we be involved in passing on the truth to others? We should be passing truth to everyone we can, to our sons and daughters, to our grandchildren, to our congregation, to our neighbor, to the colleague crying at the coffee station, or to our school friends.  

Finally, and most importantly, the tongue is supposed to be used to sing the praises of God.

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet experiences the presence of God. He is overwhelmed and hears a magnitude of angels whirring around him singing, “Holy, holy, holy” In the presence of the Lord, he hangs his head low and proclaims, “woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips of a people of unclean lips” 

Isaiah’s problem was that his tongue could not sing with the angels. And the tongues of his people couldn’t either. The voice of the prophet was restricted from doing what it was supposed to. Sin blocked his praise. 

What he needed was someone to cleanse him from sin. An angel does so by touching his lips with a hot coal symbolizing atonement. Isaiah was then rendered capable of speaking for his God to the people.

This is what we need as well. We need a savior to wipe us clean so that we might sing praises to the Lord. And Jesus atones for our sin so that we might do just that. 

If you find yourself unable to praise the Lord, perhaps you might need to ask for him to cleanse you of unrighteousness. Repent, trust in the Lord, and discover the real purpose for your tongue – to sing his praises, to worship him, and ascribe to him his glory. 

The Practice of the Tongue

Perhaps you find yourself without a tongue, or with a bad one, or with one that has nothing to say. Perhaps you have a tongue that has done much harm, it has lied, damaged, slandered, and manipulated. Perhaps you are scared of what will happen if you speak, you are wrapped up in worry about your words and so stay silent when you should speak. Wherever, you and your tongue find yourselves, I want you to know that God has a purpose for your tongue.

If you want to place your tongue in the purposes of God, then you need to do three things: 

First, confess and repent of sin. If what comes out tells you what’s within, then, if you have a bad heart, you will deceive or be silent or sin with your tongue. If your heart is filled with malice, you will lie out loud or hold your tongue or say something wicked. So, cure the heart, cure the tongue. To do so, you must use your tongue – speak to God, tell him your sin, and repent. 

Second, bridle your tongue. The trouble you have with controlling the tongue is partly the struggle to stop it saying wrong stuff. To control the tongue, you must flee from its evil deeds. Don’t slander one another, cheat on an exam, spread rumors, cuss. Get that thing under control. And don’t attempt all this without asking God to help.

Finally, train your mind. If you want to speak right, you must think right. You need to go have a workout of the mind. Be in the word, be in thought, sit at the feet of the great teacher, Jesus. Learn, learn, learn.

In sum, God has a purpose for your tongue and, if you ask him, he will change your life so that your tongue can be used rightly. In case you think this is not possible, you might consider my story. I am a redeemed liar. God changed my heart and began to use me to bring truth into the world. He caused my heart to love him and want to sing his praises. He can do this for anyone who asks him.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.