The wireless mic I wear every Sunday when I lead worship makes me nervous. A couple times I have forgotten to turn it off after the service, and my conversations out in the hall were broadcast for all who hear. When I was told that my mic was on, I immediately shut my mouth, turned off the mic, and then did some quick thinking back, wondering if I said anything embarrassing. I never have, but this is a worry. We all say dumb things that we would not care to broadcast for the whole world to hear.
Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me… You discern my thoughts from afar… you are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you already know it.” Psalm 33 says, “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind… He considers everything they do.”
God knows all and sees all. It is as if we all are fitted with a wireless mic, the switch is always on, and God, who is far more important to our life and destiny than any human, is always listening. It is a terrifying thought to be so altogether known. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Every thought is known by Him, every emotion is known, every moment of doubt and jealousy is known, and every selfish motivation is known, including those that from the outside look completely unselfish and noble. Mark Twain once said, “We all have thoughts that would shame the devil.” God sees what is in our thoughts, so he commands us to keep a tight rein on our tongue.
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.” In the next verse, Paul describes how deeply concerned God is about who we are and what we say and what we do: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” God, says Paul, is grieved by our shameful thoughts, our careless words, and our sinful actions.
One of the biggest challenges to our moral life before God is learning to tame our tongue. Jesus has much to say about that, the book of Proverbs is full of good advice about watching what we say, the book of James has an entire section on the matter, and there are many other verses in many other Biblical books. What we say is heard by God, and if what we say is sinful or unkind, God is grieved. The negative things we say about other people might sometimes be heard by them, and it of course, grieves and angers them, just as what they say may irritate us.
William Law, a British preacher and moralist of a couple hundred years ago, would often teach the virtues by writing detailed descriptions of people who were good (or bad) examples of whatever virtue he was trying to teach. In one essay he describes Ophelia, a high society woman who was very proud. He describes her as being easily offended by even the slightest remark, but her own conversation was filled with the most bitter and malicious slander, spoken against anyone and everyone, including her friends. Her words and actions were outrageous, but she herself could never see the double-standard of her behavior.
The lesson is that if we want to become upset by the careless words of others, we should make sure that all of our words could be said in the presence of those we are talking about. If not, we ought to be more than ready to do as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer, and forgive as we have been forgiven.
I take it as a matter not to be disputed, that if all knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world. This seems proved by the quarrels and disputes caused by the disclosures which are occasionally made.
James 3:5b-10 — 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. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being 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 human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Proverbs 11:12 — Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.
Proverbs 12:18 — The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Proverbs 21:23 — Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.
I Peter 3:10 — Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.
PRAYER ON THE 8th COMMANDMENT by Martin Luther (1483-1546):
I confess and ask for your grace, because I have so often in my life sinfully spoke with malice and contempt against other people. They depend on me for their honor and reputation, just as I depend on them for the same. Help us all to obey this commandment, giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and explaining their actions in the kindest way. Amen.