The Bible has advice on everything under the sun, even the words we speak. We can use its guidance to forge more peaceful interactions with others.
In today’s world, it’s admirable to speak your mind and argue your cause, and sometimes it’s appropriate. Recently, though, I had a few opportunities to spout off quick and clever remarks that in retrospect were unkind and uncharitable.
I know I’m not alone. We’ve all spoken words that make us feel superior and witty at first but later make us ask ourselves, Why did I say that? And it’s not only those sarcastic remarks that get us in trouble. Our words can take us down paths of gossip and lying too.
It turns out our tongues can be weapons, and in this time of political conflicts and COVID-19, it’s even more important we learn to wield those weapons carefully. Here is a simple five-step strategy that will help.
Perfect the Pause
Sometimes our mouths get ahead of our brains, and we spout off snarky remarks before we catch ourselves. Or worse yet, we don’t even realize what we’ve said until hours later, after the damage has been done.
The first step in training our tongues is perfecting the pause; everything else flows from that. If we stop before we speak, the Holy Spirit can help us choose our words well. Silence isn’t a bad thing, and we don’t have to fill every pause in a conversation with words.
Pausing helps us make better decisions. By reflecting before an automatic reply, I avoid saying yes when I don’t mean it. I avoid saying no about something to which I would have agreed with more consideration.
Another benefit of the pause is that it can help us become better listeners. It’s a common practice to interrupt others in conversation: “I know just what you’re talking about! Here’s what happened to me.” And even if we don’t say it out loud, we are thinking it, ready to jump in as soon as the other person takes a breath. Knowing I will pause before I speak allows a different approach. I can listen thoughtfully when someone else is speaking and give my full attention. I can stop thinking ahead to my response. When the person finishes, I can pause, carefully choosing my words before I say them.
Examine your Expectations
Once I have taken my simple pause and then decided to speak, the second step is to consider the “why” of my words and assess my intentions. Am I seeking revenge or retaliation? If so, I do best to hold my tongue. Am I bragging? The sin of pride is often a subtle one. If I am giving advice, is it to make myself look better—or maybe trying to make the other person look worse? If so, I should skip the comments.
And even if my response is well-intended, is it wanted? Will my words actually help the situation? Unsolicited advice can often come across as criticism. “The next time you cook this dish, you should cook it longer” sounds a lot like “You didn’t cook this right.” I ask myself, How would I feel if someone said this to me?
Monitor your Method
The third step is to consider how we deliver our comments, including words, posture, and timing. Our remarks should always be gentle and respectful, considerate of the other’s feelings. Sometimes our motives are kind, but our word choice is insensitive. Harsh words are rarely productive and generally put others on the defensive. Again, how would I feel if someone said this to me?
We communicate not only with words, but also through body language and facial expression. Am I saying something mean but delivering it with a false smile? Am I saying something nice but revealing my real thoughts by the look of contempt on my face? Other people can read our true feelings easily, and when our words and feelings contradict each other, we will not be trusted. Our words will not be helpful.
Finally, we should consider our timing. For example, I don’t have to share details about my great promotion right after my neighbor loses her job. I don’t need to tell a friend about my daughter’s scholarship award the day after her son gets his college rejection letter. Yes, people I love will want to celebrate my good news, but it is more considerate to choose the right time to share.
Build a Bridge
Words have the power to wound and hurt, but they also have the power to inspire and heal. Our sweet comments can do immeasurable good in this wounded world. There are opportunities each day to recognize and appreciate each other.
We can use our words to show gratitude for kindness instead of taking it for granted. Try to say thank you for even small gestures. We can use our words to compliment another’s hard work instead of letting it go unnoticed. Try to give at least one sincere compliment every day. We can use our words to remind those we love how much they mean to us.
Take time to tell your spouse or children you love them. Not just a quick “Love you!” as we run out the door to work or school, but with heartfelt attention in a quiet moment. Kindness begets kindness, and our appreciation for others soothes our own hearts as well.
Learn When to Leave
Sometimes, the best choice is simply to walk away. Despite what society seems to teach, I don’t need to have the last word. It’s OK to leave a conversation without getting in that clever jab, that smart retort that will prove how right I am. I don’t have to convince everyone of my opinion.
We can learn to recognize conversations in which we’d rather not participate. Some people are debaters who love to argue, some are complainers who find the fault in everything, and others are full of sarcasm or gossip. By holding our tongues, we avoid contributing to and encouraging those negative words, criticisms, and complaints.
I don’t have to take offense at each callous comment I hear; not everything is meant to insult me. Often it’s a lack of awareness on the speaker’s part. And those people who intentionally upset or offend me often do so just to make themselves feel better. I don’t need to justify myself to them—the only opinion of me that matters is God’s!
These are tough lessons, but they are worth learning. Matthew gives us a strong warning in his Gospel: “On the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (12:36–37). Especially in today’s fractious times, using the Bible’s rich advice can improve our interactions and soothe our wearied souls.
When our words are kind and gentle, our spirits will be too. We will have fewer regrets and be more charitable and peaceful. Today, let’s wield our words well, confident in the guidance of God’s word.