Our mouths can get us into trouble. More specifically, what we say and how we say it can get us into trouble.
I think Disciple said it well: “They say the tongue is like a fire / Nothing but empty promises around your flame.”
When it comes to our speech, we should speak in love. Sadly, though, that’s not always what we do.
In reading 1 John, God showed me that my words can accomplish one of two things: they can help others or they can hurt them. Let’s take a look at that.
4 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
– 1 John 4:1-6 (ESV)
In these verses John is addressing the problem of false teachers. He indicates that these spiritual charlatans are hurting the church by leading some away from the gospel truth. However, the words of biblical teachers help the church by enabling us to grow in Christ.
As I read this passage, God was showing me that just like the words of false and true teachers can hurt or help, so can my words hurt or help those around me.
Avoid using Words that Hurt
Those who know me know that at times I can be blunt and direct. This can come across as condescending, arrogant, cold, and uncaring.
I don’t mean to be that way. Yet, despite my intentions, sometimes what I say, how I say it, or both, ends up hurting the other person.
It can be difficult to realize when we’re being hurtful because all we might see is our intentions. But as is often pointed out: others can’t read our minds.
So, how do we know if we’re being hurtful? Here are some examples of hurtful words:
Criticizing others without offering ways of improving. When we say “Oh, that’s bad” or “I can’t stand that,” it says to the other person that they are bad or that you can’t stand them.
Talking down to others. Telling the other person they are incapable or inadequate tells then that they are inferior. When we lecture others about something as if we know everything and they know nothing, we’re indicating that they lack intelligence.
We need to take a step back and look at things through the eyes of the other person. We needs to ask ourselves: if they said this to me, would it help me or hurt me?
If it would hurt you, then don’t say it to them. Instead, convey your message in a helpful way.
Start using Words that Help
When people say we should speak in love, and when I say to use words that help, some may think that means only to be nice. However, biblically, that’s not the case.
Helpful words come in two forms: critiques and encouragements.
Critiques can be helpful if done correctly.
Yes, despite what some may think, critiques can be helpful and words of love. That is, if they are done in the right way.
A helpful, loving critique is one that points out strengths and weaknesses; it then offers ways to improve on those weaknesses. That way the other person has a better chance of recognizing ways to improve and acting on them.
This differs from criticism (or judgmentalism) which simply states that the thing being evaluated, and by extension the individual, is worthless.
Encouragement can be helpful, but also if done correctly.
Encouragement is always helpful when done correctly.
You can encourage incorrectly? Yes!
When disingenuous praise is offered merely to make the person feel good, the other person can generally tell. Such encouragement is merely empty words.
Sometimes, when someone is going through a hard time, offering a string of platitudes, no matter how heartfelt, can be meaningless, empty words.
These are examples of incorrect encouragement.
Encouraging words that are helpful are when the praise is authentic. If we mean what we say, then it’s helpful words. When we are highlighting genuine strengths so the other person can build on those (and maybe even showing how to build on them), then the encouragement is helpful.
Bringing it Home
Throughout my life I’ve struggled with what I say and how I say it. I don’t often mean to hurt those around me, but sometimes that’s exactly what I do.
God’s shown me–reminded me–that I need to be aware of my words. I need to be sure the things I say help others, not hurt them.
I’ll leave you with this question: what words would help you be a better person? Those are the words others need to hear from you.