I'm sure you've heard this idiom before: "talk is cheap."
Whoever came up with that saying was onto something, just like the person who came up with the phrase "actions speak louder than words" - it's much easier to talk about something than it is to actually follow through with it.
While these expressions may hold weight in the real world, I don't particularly appreciate them, and here's why: they're fundamentally unbiblical because they devalue the significance of our words.
Here's what I mean:
1. Your Tongue Is Powerful
Proverbs 18:21 says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (ESV) - talk about a bold statement! The Proverbs claim that there's no neutrality when it comes to your speech; you're either building someone up (towards life) or you're tearing someone down (towards death). Talk, according to the Bible, is not cheap at all.
James writes in his letter that "the tongue stains the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life [...] it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:6,8). That biblical truth doesn't align with the phrase "actions speak louder than words". According to James, words are very loud and active on their own.
I think we want to believe that our talk is cheap and that our actions speak louder than words, because it means that we don't have to work on taming our tongue. But the Bible tells us to believe that there are significant consequences not only to what we do, but to what we say everyday.
You and I utter thousands and thousands of words each day, communicated in hundreds and hundreds of conversations. Each one of those little moments is an opportunity for you to build up and bring life, but it's also an opportunity for you to poison and set on fire.
In the next conversation you have with your spouse, are you going to use your tongue to bring life? In the next conversation you have with your child, are you going to encourage? In the next conversation you have with your neighbor or co-worker, are you going to plant seeds for growth?
2. Your Tongue Doesn't Belong To You
There are two lines at the beginning of the Bible that have radically shaped the way I think about my tongue - Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning, God..." and Genesis 1:3, "And God said."
These two truths mean two things for my life: before there was anything, there was God, and the first Person to speak words was God. That means that my tongue doesn't belong to me, because God created it, nor do my words belong to me, because God invented them.
I don't own my words, so I don't have a license to say whatever I want; my words are "on loan" from the Creator, and I need to invest them wisely. So today, when you have an opportunity to speak into a conversation, think about the investment that you're making with your tongue (life or death), and think about the Creator and Owner of your words - would he approve of their use?
3. Your Tongue Doesn't Have Ears
When you speak, your ears pick up the vibrations of sound waves, and your brain comprehends the vocabulary that you've selected, but most of the time, you actually aren't "listening" to what you're saying. In other words, you're not interpreting your words in the same way that the hearer is interpreting them.
Our words cause a lot of pain and hurt because we're not hearing how the other person receives our words. That's one reason why James says we ought to be "slow to speak" (James 1:19). In your next conversation, be slow to speak and quick to consider how the other person might interpret what you have to say.
4. Your Tongue Needs A Substitute
Everything that I've written so far has the potential to be incredibly discouraging. I know for myself how powerful my tongue is, and how destructive it has been. I wish I could rewind time and delete conversations that I've had with my wife and my kids and my ministry colleagues and the people to whom I was called to care for.
I know, theologically, that my tongue and my words don't belong to me, but many times I live as if I'm the owner and creator of speech. And I recognize, in concept, that others hear differently than how I think I'm communicating, but I'm often too rushed to speak slowly and too selfish to actually care.
I know I'm not alone in these struggles, so where do we find encouragement? First - God knew that our tongue would need a substitute to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (James 1:2 - "If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man"), so he sent his Son to earth, who never said a sinful word in his life (Hebrews 4:15).
Second - God's timing is perfect. Maybe you became aware of your selfish speech later in life, or maybe you're just becoming aware of it today, through this blog post. God has you exactly where he wants you, and you learn the lessons he wants you to learn just at the right time. God has no regrets, and grace has never missed an appointment.
Finally - the Holy Spirit dwells inside of you; you have the ability to speak in new ways! I love what God promises in Ezekiel 36 - "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules ... And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses" (vv. 27, 29).
Don't be depressed with regret. Don't be discouraged with your present failings. Trust that God will deliver you from you and take the opportunity to speak words of life into the next little conversation you have today!