The Use and Abuse of Words
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The Use and Abuse of Words

From Series: Lessons for Life, Volume 2

James 3:1-12  (ID: 2924)

Our word choices can cause strife and dissension, or they can encourage, and help the hearers. When our words are honest, thoughtful, gentle, and based on God’s Word, we can build up others in a way that honors God. Alistair Begg encourages us to consider our words carefully and to avoid empty, pithy words that offer no value to the hearer.


Sermon Transcript:

Let’s take our Bibles and turn to the book of James and chapter 3:

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he[’s] 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[’re] 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 person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

“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? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

Amen.

They say if you listen to your pastor preach for long enough, you will be able to detect his sins. I was thinking about that today as I determined that this evening I would move to another issue which I felt would be important for you as you begin this academic year. We began last evening by thinking about the nature of our limitations and our weaknesses—not in the toleration of sin, which needs to be repented of and turned away from, but in the experiences of life’s challenges and in the exigencies of our own personalities and so on. And then this morning we addressed the matter of attitude, which is, of course, a very internal thing. It displays itself, but it is largely internal. When the psalmist says he is concerned that the meditation of his heart may be acceptable in the sight of God,[1] that has a great deal to do with his attitude, for what he ponders and cogitates on is indicative of what is there attitudinally.

And this evening I want to spend the time that we have—a little less than this thirty-minute period—addressing a question of great importance—namely, the use and abuse of words. Words. And I invite you, actually, to turn away from James. It’s not my purpose to expound that chapter but to turn you to the book of Proverbs, and perhaps to begin in Proverbs 13:3. I don’t want to be tedious by giving you a lot of cross-references this evening, but you’ll be able to, for homework, follow up on some of these things.

But I think it’s fitting to begin with 13:3: “He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.” It’s a quite staggering thing, isn’t it? “He who guards his lips guards his life.” You know, if you were to say to somebody, “What do you think you need to guard in order to guard your life?” we might say a number of things. Of course, Solomon also says we should guard our hearts, because it is the wellspring of our lives.[2] But it is quite striking that he says here, in what emerges from our mouths, if it comes in a way that is not pleasing to God and honoring to his Word, it may be the very thing that brings us to ruin. Solomon in chapter 18 says that “the tongue has the power of life and death.”[3] James says it is incongruous to think that out of the same mouth would come both the wonderful praise that we’ve enjoyed this evening and then the cursing of our fellow men when we’re driving in our cars. It is an inconsistency that clearly is not impossible, but it is for the Christian incongruous.

And the fact is, as each of us know, our words are seldom neutral. We employ words every day. In fact, your whole university career is essentially about words. Writing words. “How many words do you want?” you say to your professor. “How many words do I have to give you?” At the moment, the sword of Damocles hangs over my head from Moody Press as they demand from me fifteen thousand more words before the thirty-first of this month. And every time I go on my laptop and I punch the word count, it never is enough. And I hate that little word count thing, actually, to tell you the truth. I’d rather imagine that I was doing better than I was. Incidentally, I dislike intensely the grammar corrector as well. Whoever wrote that jolly thing doesn’t understand the English language at all. And most of the Microsoft suggestions are rotten as alternatives. That wasn’t a plea for Apple computers; that was just an observation from somebody who should be being very more careful with the things he’s saying, in light of the subject that he is addressing. But the spelling’s all wrong in that thing as well! It’s all wrong. But we’ll address that on another occasion; that’s not for this evening.

If you just let somebody talk for long enough, you will find out what that individual is really all about.

Our words can be formed in such a way so as to engender strife, create dissension. They also may be put together in such a way so as to encourage, to nourish, and to heal. And as the searchlight of the Word of God scans our vocabulary this evening, I want to think about it from three perspectives. First of all, to consider using words in a way that is harmful; and then the way in which we may use words in a fashion that is helpful; and then also to recognize that it is possible for us to use words as a mechanism to hide behind. So, words to harm, words to help, words to hide behind.

Brooks, one of the old writers, said, “We know metals by their tinkling, and men by their talking.”[4] If you just let somebody talk for long enough, you will find out what that individual is really all about. For out of the abundance of the heart, says [Jesus], our mouths speak.[5]

Words to Harm

Well, let’s consider this harmful element in the use of language, first of all. Clearly, it is wrong to use words in such a way as to harm another, and therefore, it is a sin to be repented of and turned from.

What are the characteristics of words which harm others? Well, there are many, but I can’t go through them all. Let me just give you an inkling of it.

First of all, reckless words are harmful words. Reckless words. Solomon says in 12:18 that “the reckless word pierces like a sword.”[6]

Such words are also unguarded words. “He who answers before listening—that is,” says Solomon, “[to] his folly and his shame.”[7] And it’s not uncommon to meet individuals like that. You haven’t even got your question out, and they’re already giving you the answer. You haven’t even explained to them what was on your mind, and they’re already beginning to pontificate on the subject. They’re just a nuisance.

Harmful words are also to be found when words are too numerous—too numerous. The nineteenth verse of chapter 10: “When words are many, sin is not absent.” One of the Puritans said, “An unbridled tongue is … the chariot of the Devil.”[8]

By words we may destroy our neighbors, crush the feelings of a friend, set loved ones at animosity towards one another, destroy relationships. One wrong word from your lips may spoil a character, smear a reputation, mar the usefulness of a life. Oh, it’s customary for us as children to trot out amongst our friends, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” when in actual fact, we know that that is not the case. For the things that were inflicted upon us in a physical way, either with a stick or with a stone, we can’t even find the bruise, probably; the mark has long been forgotten. But things that have been said of us and to us and about us may live in our recollection for a very long time. And that’s why Solomon speaks to his son, and he says to him, “It is very, very important that you recognize the importance of guarding your lips, and so guarding your life. Because reckless, foolish use of your language may bring you to ruin.”

At Sunday school in Scotland, we sang—as probably many of you have done—about how important it was for us to “be careful, little feet, where you go,” and “be careful, little hands, what you touch,” and “be careful, little eyes, what you see.” And we were supposed to touch all the various body parts as we were going on: “And be careful, little lips, what you say, for there’s a Father up above, and he’s looking down in love, and so be careful, little lips, what you say.” Think how many words you’ve used already today. Any harmful ones? It’s not very good poetry, but I found it somewhere:

A careless word may kindle strife,
A cruel word may wreck a life,
A bitter word may hate instill,
A brutal word may smite and kill.

If you were paying attention, you would notice there when we read from James 3—it may be familiar to you—he says that the very source of all of this kind of animosity and abusive language, its very source is none other than hell. Its course is such that it runs throughout the totality of a human personality. And it is so forceful in its impact that when he goes for illustrations to try and instill in his readers an awareness of that of which he speaks, he is using the rudder of a ship, he is using the taming of large animals and creatures of the sea.

The abuse of the tongue does many things, but it certainly does this: it divides people. It divides people. Pascal, the mathematical philosopher—or the philosophical mathematician, whichever way you want it—said, “I lay it … as a fact that, if all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.”[9] Now, even allowing for cynicism, we recognize that there is a distinct measure of truth in that. How easy it is for us, how convicted I am, even as I reflect upon my own conversation today, to realize that I am in violation of this very principle. It’d be difficult for us to estimate how many friendships are broken, how many reputations ruined, the peace of how many homes destroyed, through careless words.

The fact that something is true does not demand its repetition. We need to ask not only ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it kind?’ and ‘Is it necessary?’ And if it isn’t, then forget it.

“A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.”[10] I have never been able to understand my supposed friend coming to me to tell me what another supposed friend said of me in my absence—especially when it was unkind, and definitely if it was untrue. What possible motivation is there, then, on the part of the purveyor of this news? What does this individual seek to gain by this? “I’m only telling you this,” he or she says, “because it’s true.” The fact that something is true does not demand its repetition. We need to ask not only “Is it true?” but “Is it kind?” and “Is it necessary?” And if it isn’t, then forget it. For the illegitimate use of words divides people.

The illegitimate use of words also destroys our praise. In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul says, “I want you not to be drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but I want you to be people who are filled with the Spirit of God. And as you’re filled with the Spirit of God, so you will speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”[11] He then goes on to point out how easy it is for that praise to be diminished as a result of allowing the works of the flesh to gain ascendancy in our lives. And back in chapter 4, he runs through a whole catalog of these, pointing out right at the very core of it the way in which our speech belies our profession.

You see, let’s be dead honest about this. And I don’t know this for sure, but I fill in a lot of these applications. I read a lot of college and university applications, and they ask questions always about the top six external and obvious “code violations”—sins. But I don’t recall a lot of questioning about whether this person who’s about to come into this institution has a critical mouth, a foul mouth, a deceitful mouth, a harmful mouth, lying lips. Now, that’s interesting when you think about it, because the Bible has so much to say about the havoc that is caused as a result of that. Oh, it’s legitimate to ask about our moral purity; we’re going to come to that. It’s legitimate to ask about the nature of our lifestyle, and whether it is in concurrence with the framework of Christian deportment, and all of these questions are valid. But you may destroy your relationships here, and you may destroy your enjoyment of worship, because of the abuse of the tongue.

And to use words that harm not only divides people and destroys praise, but it also diminishes the progress of God’s people. For your homework, you can read a little section in Jeremiah 7; I don’t have time to turn to it. And Jeremiah is speaking to the people, and he says, “You think you’re going forward, but you’re actually going backwards. And at the heart of it all,” he says, “truth has vanished from their lips.”[12] ”Truth vanished from their lips.” They were going through the motions. They thought they were going forward; they were going backwards.

Young people, listen carefully. Three things come not back: the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity. Soon as that word is out into the atmosphere, you can’t get it back again. I suppose scientists could tell us where it is in terms of matter; I don’t know. But it’s somewhere, because it is going to be called into account at the day of reckoning, because we will give an answer for every careless word we’ve spoken.[13] That’s what the Bible says. I think if we took that seriously, we would be a lot more careful than we are—a lost less cavalier, a lot less reckless.

You know the story of the Puritan? The lady comes to her pastor, and she says, “I’ve been guilty of slander, and I want to repent of it and be done with it, and I want you to help me.” So he said, “Well, take chicken feathers, and lay them on every front doorstep of the houses in the community.” So she goes out with a big basket of chicken feathers, and she puts one on every doorstep. And then she comes back, and she says, “I did it.” “Then,” says the pastor, “I want you to go tomorrow morning and gather them all up again and bring them back to me.” “Well,” she said, “I can’t do that.” She said, “The wind has blown there everywhere.” He said, “Exactly. You may turn from your sin and be forgiven, but the wind has blown your words everywhere. And the spent word, like the fired arrow, isn’t coming back.”

Now, I can see you’re looking very subdued, so let’s turn to the positive side of things before we bury ourselves and all start bursting into tears. And quit nudging each other the way you’re doing, like, “I told you, I told you, I told you.” This is supposed to be for you, not the person sitting next to you. Leave his rib cage alone, all right? I always spend far too long on the first point. I apologize for that, but I’ll catch up now.

Words to Help

Secondly, we’re going to consider using words to help. “The speech of a scoundrel is like a scorching fire”[14]—16:27—but “the mouth of the righteous is [like] a fountain of life.”[15] “The healing tongue is like a tree of life.”[16] It’s a wonderful picture, isn’t it? As opposed to the scorching, searing, destructive use of the tongue. He says that when the tongue is employed in a way that is righteous, then it is like a fountain of life. Because our tongues may be employed to encourage, to affirm, to enrich, to reconcile, to forgive, to unite, to smooth, to bless. And this use of language is described in Solomon’s words, first of all, in terms of lovely earrings that are an adornment to the beauty of the wearer,[17] or as beautiful ornaments which are an enhancement to the loveliness of the decor of a home. Perhaps the most classic statement about it is in 25:11, where it’s said, “Like golden apples in silver settings are words fitly spoken.”[18]

Words are fantastic, aren’t they? Don’t you love words? I love words! I want to know more words. I don’t know what my vocabulary is; I don’t think it’s very good. I just purchased twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. The twenty-volume! I have the two-volume; I like that. But the twenty-volume, I just sit and look at it now. I wish somehow or another I could just assimilate it, you know. Just by looking at it, it could be there. But it can’t. You look up definitions, and they go for pages and pages and pages. It’s fantastic! And you can find all these wonderful words to use at just the right time. To tell your girlfriend that you really, really, really, really, really like her, then you tell her that you cherish her. Cherish. Give me a synonym for cherish. You can’t. You need three or four words, ’cause it’s such a good word. And words fitly spoken, rightly used, as Shakespeare knows… (Incidentally, when you think about Shakespeare: Shakespeare lived before the phrase “look it up” meant anything. ’Cause there was nothing to look up! Which makes his language and his sonnets and his plays all the more unbelievable. But that’s for the English department. Enjoy that tomorrow.)

Our tongues may be employed to encourage, to affirm, to enrich, to reconcile, to forgive, to unite, to smooth, to bless.

Let me just say that in contrast to the words that harm, the words that help are marked at least by this. Can’t go through it in detail. Number one, they have to be honest words. Honest words. “Kings take pleasure in honest lips; they value a man who speaks the truth.” Such helpful words need to be thought-out words. “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” Incidentally, honest, 16:13. Thought-out, 15:28. Sourced in God’s Word, 16:1: “From the Lord comes the reply of the [heart].” Helpful words are often few rather than numerous—17:28, and here’s one for you as you think of sitting in your first chemistry class tomorrow: “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” Now, you gotta learn this if you’re gonna get through your schooling. Sit next to somebody who knows the answers, and when they nod, you nod as well. As long as they’re not giving you a head fake—but just learn. Trust me, I’m telling you. Keep your mouth shut as much as you can; volunteer very little. Better to keep quiet and be thought an idiot than open your mouth and remove any doubt about it whatsoever.

The words that help are also calm words. 17:27: “A man of [understanding] uses words with restraint.”[19] Why? So that he may allow for a fair hearing. So that he may allow tempers to cool. That kind of word is potent in its influence. In fact, I found a staggering statement; in 25:15 it says, “The soft tongue breaks the bone.”[20] “The soft tongue breaks the bone.” Isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition of stuff? … Sorry. Go read your dictionary, cloth ears. But it is a staggering notion, isn’t it? But you know that with your children. You can rage at your children; they’re like, “Hey, talk to the hand!” I’ve found my children provoked to tears far more by a soft tongue than a raging forth of the gushing nonsense of an out-of-control dad.

And the words that help will obviously be gentle words. Gentle words. Because “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”[21] In the course of our daily lives—and if we haven’t realized this yet, we certainly will as time goes by—we’re confronted by unfairness, by unkindness, by generally disagreeable circumstances, and often generally disagreeable people. It takes far more to respond in gentleness than to give way to unbridled passion and anger. It is an indication of the Spirit’s work within our lives when this honesty, this kind of material that is sourced in the truth of Scripture, that is guarded, that is gentle, becomes the controlling element in our daily parlance.

I find this so dreadfully convicting; I really do.

Words to Hide Behind

Finally, just a word, lest some of us are here in our opening days of this new academic year, and we’ve become so adept at the use of words that we’re hiding behind them. Hiding behind empty words. We’ve now grown able to use language in such a way so as to conceal the reality. Sanctimonious jargon, pious platitudes. Using words as a disguise for a real heartfelt devotion. Such “mere talk,” says Solomon, “leads only to poverty”[22]—financial poverty, relational poverty, spiritual poverty. “Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.”[23] “Like a coating of glaze over earthenware are fervent lips with an evil heart.” Peculiar danger, isn’t it, for those of us who use so many words? It’s always struck me forcibly that the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 6, when he encounters God, the thing that he confesses when he is brought before the searing awareness of God’s holiness, what does he say? He says, “I am undone.” And then, how is his undoneness obvious to him? He says, “I am a man of unclean lips.”[24] In other words, the thing that was his greatest gift was his greatest dilemma—that God had given him a facility with language, had made him a mouthpiece for his message, and yet here he was before the gaze of God’s holiness, and he says, “You know, my problem, really, is my mouth.”

That’s why James says, “Don’t volunteer too quickly and for the wrong reasons to become a teacher. For the person who teaches will be judged with greater strictness.” Paul says to Timothy, “Timothy, make sure that you’re an example to the believers,” and first on his list is “an example in speech.”[25] Be an example to the believers in speech. Jesus issued his strongest words for the religious show-offs—the people who said their prayers out loud and in public so that everybody would see them, and everyone would hear them, and everyone would say, “My, my, there’s a very holy person!” Beware of that in this kind of context. Beware of that.

Jesus says, “I hope you got your reward in the accolades of men, because there’s not going to be any reward in heaven.” One of my professors at London Bible College paraphrased this. He said,

Have you seen William Braggins while toiling in prayer,
How he’s pleading and weeping and tearing his hair?
You can hear him all night, famous Bellowing Bill,
’Cause he shouts all his prayers from the top of a hill.
Bill has had his reward in the praises of men,
And God’s not going to give him it over again.

If you want the classic piece of literature on this subject for homework, go to Bunyan, to Pilgrim’s Progress, and get to the section around page 81 where Talkative walks onto the stage—and how he dupes one of the characters, because he says he can talk about any subject. And then the warning that comes—I think from Faithful to Christian; I think it is. He says of this man Talkative, “He is best abroad; but near at home, he is ugly enough. All he has lies with his tongue.”[26]

I think one of the most staggering—and with this I finish—one of the most staggeringly challenging statements by Jesus in the New Testament is in that section in Matthew [12] where he says it is by our words that we will be acquitted or condemned.[27] By our words we will be acquitted or condemned. But if you think about it, if speech is an unfailing indication of character, it is very natural that it will be by men and women’s words, no less than by their deeds, that they will either be acquitted or condemned on the day of judgment. For out of the abundance of our hearts, our mouth speaks.

The little doggerel I probably quoted to you before—I fear that the older I get, the more I’m repeating myself; at least that’s what my wife tells me. But here’s a challenge as I finish:

 If all that we say
 In a single day,
With never a word left out,
 Were printed each night
 In clear black and white,
It would make strange reading, no doubt.

 And then just suppose,
 Before our eyes close,
We had to read the whole record through;
 Then wouldn’t we sigh,
 And wouldn’t we try
A great deal less talking to do?

 And I more than half think
 That many a kink
Would be smoother in life’s tangled thread
 If half that I say
 In a single day
Were to be left forever unsaid.[28]

The psalmist prays, “Set a guard over my [words] … keep watch over the door of my lips.”[29]

Lord, we pray that the words of our mouths and the attitude of our hearts, as we’ve considered them today, may be found acceptable in your sight—you who are our Strength and our Redeemer.[30] Amen.


[1] See Psalm 19:14.

[2] See Proverbs 4:23.

[3] Proverbs 18:21 (NIV 1984).

[4] Thomas Brooks, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, in The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866), 3:178.

[5] See Luke 6:45.

[6] Proverbs 12:18 (paraphrased).

[7] Proverbs 18:13 (NIV 1984).

[8] Edward Reyner, quoted in C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 6, Psalm CXX to CL (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 9.

[9] Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts, Letters, and Opuscules of Blaise Pascal, trans. O. W. Wight (New York: H. W. Derby, 1861), 228.

[10] Proverbs 16:28 (NIV 1984).

[11] Ephesians 5:18–19 (paraphrased).

[12] Jeremiah 7:28 (paraphrased).

[13] See Matthew 12:36.

[14] Proverbs 16:27 (paraphrased).

[15] Proverbs 10:11 (NIV 1984).

[16] Proverbs 15:4 (paraphrased).

[17] See Proverbs 25:12.

[18] Proverbs 25:11 (paraphrased).

[19] Proverbs 17:27 (NIV 1984).

[20] Proverbs 25:15 (paraphrased).

[21] Proverbs 15:1 (NIV 1984).

[22] Proverbs 14:23 (NIV 1984).

[23] Proverbs 26:23 (NIV 1984).

[24] Isaiah 6:5 (KJV).

[25] 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).

[26] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Paraphrased.

[27] See Matthew 12:37.

[28] Grace W. Castle, “Suppose,” The Christian Century 29, no. 3 (January 18, 1912), 16. Paraphrased.

[29] Psalm 141:3 (NIV 1984).

[30] See Psalm 19:14.

Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.