Moral Responsibility with Our Words

El-impacto-de-tus-palabrasTo be careless with your words is to invite problems. I remember challenging a young college student once to think more carefully about her words, to be intentional with word choice and sensitive to their potential impact. Her response was telling: If I have to think about everything I say before I say it, then I won’t say anything. Most of us are like this young lady, content to be reckless with our words and thoughtless with our speech. But Christians especially have a moral responsibility to use our words in a way that is honoring to God.

The apostle James makes this point abundantly clear when he speaks about the power of the tongue. His lengthy excursus on the tongue is worthy of consideration in this post. He writes:

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 are 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 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. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:3-12)

James use of analogy is helpful here to picture the power and potential danger of the tongue. He teaches us that it has the power to drive the whole man. It’s like bit in the horse’s mouth that is used to steer and direct him. It’s like the rudder on the ship that, though small, can shift the massive vessel. He then goes on to tell us that it has the potential to corrupt the “whole course of one’s life.” It’s like the tiny spark that can set ablaze an entire forest. He tells us here that our tongues are fallen, damaged by the curse of sin. They are “set on fire by hell.” In fact, so damaged are they, James says, that no man can tame the tongue. Though he might tame many wild beasts he can never, by his own will power, tame the tongue. As an illustration of this point he causes us to see the hypocritical ways in which we use our tongues: praising God one minute, cursing those whom God loves the next. The need, then, is to have new hearts. To have the source of the tongue changed – the salt spring can’t produce fresh water, it needs to be transformed into a fresh spring if it’s going to do that.

Jame’s discussion of the tongue reveals the power of the tongue. Paul gives us more specific instruction about the use of the tongue, urging us to use our tongues in ways that honor God. He writes to the Ephesians, saying:

29 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. (4:29)

In other words we have a responsibility to use our words in ways that conform to God’s design and desire. This is our moral responsibility, and being morally responsible with our words involves some key practices.

First, to be morally responsible we do need to think about our word choice. Not every word that comes into our brains is befitting a singular situation. The human language is dynamic and diverse and we have many words at our disposal, choosing the right ones for a specific situation is important. Are there “bad” words? I am not sure if I believe that just yet – I need to put more thought into it. But there are definitely words inappropriate to a situation or a conversation. If our words are able to set ablaze, wound, and carry “deadly poison,” then I need to do the best I can to choose my words carefully and wisely. It’s my responsibility.

This means in particular, that I need to think about how my words might be perceived. We may grant the possibility of getting carried away this line of thinking, such that we might never say anything. This is not, however, an excuse to simply be thoughtless. Being sensitive to the perception of my words demonstrates responsible speech. It involves an understanding that my words have the potential do real harm or real good and that the way they are perceived can enable them to do one or the other. I can’t always control the perception of others but I can do my best to communicate clearly my intent. My moral responsibility involves making myself clear. Listeners and readers certainly have a responsibility to read with integrity, to do their best to understand me. Yet, the greater burden falls on me the communicator to make myself clear.

Finally, I would consider the rhetorical situation. Who am I writing or speaking to? What is the context of this conversation? How will my words be understood and perceived by this audience in this situation? Understanding your audience and your context are of paramount importance to effective, ethical communication.

If this seems like a lot of work it’s because there it is. Communication is important and therefore deserves far more effort and thoughtfulness on the part of communicators. We are too quick to fire off words, but our words are powerful. They carry deadly poison and can set the whole course of life on fire. We need redeemed tongues, and redeemed hearts that understand the moral responsibility we have with our words. Christians are to be linguistically ethical. For God created human language as a means to honor Himself. It is our moral responsibility to strive for god-honoring speech.

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