This Sunday I preached about the power of the tongue—the potency of our words and voices—to either build up or tear down; advocate or condemn; unify or divide; speak love or hate. The biblical writer, James, speaks of the immense power of our tongue by using three analogies: a bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, and a spark that can set a forest ablaze. Like each of these metaphors, our words are loaded with potential for incredible impact. This gift must be used with great care, or it can easily be destructive.
But one observation that was cut from my sermon for lack of time was the biblical idea that our tongues are intimately and inseparably connected to our hearts. Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths originates in our hearts: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). We can’t divide the two. Whatever is inside us will eventually and inevitably ooze from our mouths. Words of encouragement, honor, unity, and love cannot proceed from a heart of discouragement, shame, division, and hate. Essentially, we are what we say.
Which is why we can’t just contain our mouths, but must also guard our hearts. We must tend to what’s deep down inside, knowing that those thoughts and emotions will eventually emerge, for better or worse. We can’t just publicly regulate our words, but must privately regulate our character. We might get good at keeping those dark and insidious thoughts and feelings stuffed down within, but we can’t perfectly contain them forever.
I was thinking about this recently in the baseball world, as a TV commentator for the Cincinnati Reds was caught uttering a highly offensive homophobic slur, live on air. It was in-between games of a doubleheader, he didn’t know the camera was rolling, and promptly issued a public apology for his hurtful comment. But the problem wasn’t just that the words escaped past his lips; the problem was the thoughts and feelings that produced those hurtful words were in his heart in the first place. The fact that these words were uttered at all that means that there’s some hatred and bigotry deep down inside that he hasn’t dealt with and owned up to. He had obviously done a good job, thus far, at hiding his thoughts publicly, but he hadn’t done the hard work of actually exposing and reforming his heart.
Jesus wants all of us to be in alignment with the ethics of his new kingdom. It’s not enough to manage our speech; we must also transform our hearts. Jesus is looking for complete, holistic followers, so let’s be committed to aligning both our hearts and our tongues with his beautiful new way. If there’s anything in our speech that doesn’t sound like Jesus’ speech, let’s do away with it swiftly. But let’s also do the hard work of examining our insides, calling out the depravity, and journeying toward a more holistically faithful existence.