A sermon by Rod Benson
There’s a lot you didn’t know about your tongue. The human tongue is the main sensory organ for taste, with between 3,000 and 10,000 taste buds. There are eight muscles in our tongues, four of which are attached to the bone, and the other four are the only muscles in our body that work without the help of the skeleton.
Your tongue-print is unique. The colour and smoothness of your tongue can give a doctor hints about your health. Taste receptors cannot actually taste food until saliva has moistened it, which is why we usually notice a salty taste first as salt dissolves quickly in moisture.
The tongue is very flexible, enabling licking, breathing, tasting, swallowing, speaking and kissing. In Tibet, poking out your tongue is considered a greeting.
But the tongue is also a metaphor for human speech, and the Bible has a lot to say about the tongue in this sense, as our text today alludes: “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (Prov 29:20).
Now there is a problem with taking isolated proverbs and using them as general moral rules. I don’t mean that proverbs must be interpreted in the context of surrounding verses, or the chapter, or the book. The whole point of gathering together these hundreds of proverbs is not to impose hundreds of rules on us, but to suggest what an integrated wholesome godly moral life looks like, to direct us to the need for godly wisdom in every area of our lives, and ultimately to point to its source in Christ.
In his book, Resurrection and Moral Order, ethicist and political theologian Oliver O’Donovan likens individual biblical commandments or proverbs to bricks in a building. He says:
Wisdom must involve some comprehension of how the bricks are meant to be put together … Not only is it insufficient to quote and requote the great commands of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount [or individual proverbs] … but it would be insufficient even if we added to them, if we could compile a complete list of things commanded and prohibited … We will read the Bible seriously only when we use it to guide our thought toward a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims. We must look within it not only for moral bricks, but for indications of the order in which the bricks belong together.
Taken together, the many references in Scripture to the moral use of the tongue indicate the very great difficulty we all face in curbing unhelpful speech and replacing it with words of grace, mercy, love, healing and encouragement. To quote a classic proverb from the book of Job: “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
One of the chief reasons for your salvation and progress in the Christian life is to turn that “trouble” into blessing. We are all to be peace-makers, modelled on the perfect example of Jesus. Some of us find that vocation harder to master than others.
“Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them” (Prov 29:20).
The Bible has much to say on the use of the tongue as a weapon, why that is always wrong, and how to avoid it. Strangely, or tragically, the transition from death to life, and from condemnation to regeneration, that occurs when we come to saving faith in Jesus, does not instantly make us perfect. And wherever two or more people are gathered, in Jesus’ name or otherwise, there is potential for strife, for tongue wars, for hurtful and harmful speech that breaks relationships and unravels community. The New Testament letters give helpful advice on addressing this pervasive and perennial problem among God’s people.
Where Proverbs 29:20 casts light on the dark side of human nature, Proverbs 28:13-14 offers a solution: “Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.”
It takes not only wisdom but humility to tame the tongue. And if I read James 3:5-12 correctly, we will never fully overcome the weakness of human nature with respect to hurtful and harmful speech in this life. But we must do what we can, with the strength that God provides.
What does Scripture teach on this topic? In summary, there are six kinds of speech or words to avoid. Whether quick or calculated, these are the things to avoid for the sake of peace, goodwill and unity:
- Reckless words
We may not set out to harm others with our words, but we may also make little effort to refrain from doing so. As well as Proverbs 29:20, consider the following:
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18).
“Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin” (Prov 13:3).
“Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Prov 17:28).
“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Prov 21:23).
- Grumbling and complaining
Like the people of Israel in the desert as they journeyed from Egypt to Canaan over 40 years, this can become a habit and overwhelm us.
Grumbling and complaining have no place in Christian community. Such sentiments irritate and discourage others; foster fear and doubt; and have the potential to add fuel to the embers of serious conflict from the past or the beginnings of disunity in the present.
Sometimes Christians lie to each other. Sometimes they unwittingly share false information. False information or allegation should never pass the lips of a person who claims to follow Jesus. Instead, speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
“Do not testify against your neighbour without cause – would you use your lips to mislead?” (Prov 24:28).
Counselling the troublesome Corinthian church, Paul writes: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2).
Notice too that John 8:44 and Revelation 12:9 describe Satan as “the father of lies” who “leads the whole world astray” with his false words, beginning with his first recorded words in the Garden of Eden, “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:1).
Sadly, this is a major cause of conflict and disunity in the church. In 2 Corinthians 12:20, Paul reveals that he knows some of the problems they face, and their causes, and warns them that he is on his way with what might amount to difficult words and disciplinary action: “I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.”
What is gossip? To gossip is “to betray a confidence or discuss unfavourable personal facts about another person with someone who is not part of the problem or its solution. Even if the information you discuss is true, gossip is always sinful and a sign of spiritual immaturity.”
Slander is “speaking false and malicious words about another person.” There are many biblical warnings against this form of talk. The Greek word for “slander” is used in Scripture 34 times as a title for the devil.
“Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Lev 19:16).
“Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good” (Tit 2:2-3).
- Worthless talk
This is the opposite of speech that is edifying. On certain occasions, Jesus had strong measured words to say to the religious leaders of Israel in his day who excelled in worthless talk. Here’s an example:
“You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Mt 12:34-36).
Likewise Paul counselled the Christians at Ephesus:
“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” (Eph 4:29).
Why is taming the tongue in each of these ways so important? Why is it so important for church health? Let me answer with these words:
When a local church teaches its people to live out the gospel in the conflicts of daily life, people are more willing to admit their shortcomings and ask for help before a crisis occurs. Families are better equipped to handle disputes, which makes divorce less likely. Members are encouraged to go to each other to discuss problems instead of letting them fester. The church is protected from divisions and splits, and offended members are less likely to leave. As a result, church growth is improved.
Pastors and other church leaders can experience many benefits as well. When leaders fulfill their shepherding responsibilities more fully, respect and appreciation for their work grows. As they are taken out of the day-to-day ‘complaint loop,’ they can spend less time dealing with disgruntled members and more time on forward-moving ministry. When members learn to stop gossiping, leaders are subjected to less criticism. As conflict declines in a church, stress on leaders’ families is often reduced. And when respectful discussion and reconciliation are the norm, pastors and other staff are less likely to burn out or be forced out of their jobs …
The more our relationships reflect the amazing love and mercy of God, the more people will want to know about the power that is working within us to maintain peace and unity.
Sermon 657 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 21 February 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (2nd edn; Wm B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 200. For further good advice on understanding Proverbs see Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 231-241; and How to Read the Bible Book By Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 144-153.
 I have taken this summary from Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (3rd edn; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), pp. 121-122.
 Ken Sande, op. cit., p. 121.
 Ibid., pp. 289-290.