Maybe you’ve had a bad sprain or a broken bone or two. Maybe you’ve been put up for weeks due to surgery or an illness, but as terrible as these were they are likely not the hurts that scarred you the deepest. They are not the ones that haunt you, keep you up at night, or make you unable to face certain people or situations. Only words do that. “A pointing finger may turn back, but a word does not return.” Angry, hurtful words, once spoken, take on a life of their own and continue to cause damage – often for years to come. Words cannot be called back or unsaid. Like a lit match in a dry forest, a hurtful word quickly ignites a chain reaction of offense, anger, pain, guilt, rumor, slander, deception, and hostility.
You might think then, that knowing how much they can hurt we would be more likely to control our words, think twice before saying them, or just stop using certain ones altogether. That would be the prudent thing to do wouldn’t it? 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. The one who controls their tongue controls the direction their life will take. Controls how that life will intersect with others’. But we don’t control our tongues – too often they control us. And the result isn’t pretty.
As Luther diagnosed in the Large Catechism … [God] forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure or approach too closely to our neighbor. For to bear false witness is nothing else than a work of the tongue … For it is a common evil plague that every one prefers hearing evil to hearing good of his neighbor; and although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that any one should say anything bad about us, but every one would much rather that all the world should speak of him in terms of gold, yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others. (LC 263-4)
5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
It takes only a small spark, a burning match carelessly thrown aside, to start a fire which may consume many square miles of forest. That’s also the destructive power of the tongue: it is a fire, a world of unrighteousness; the tongue steps forth among our members and stains the entire body. Like the careless spark that causes the devastating forest fire, so also is the tongue in its unbridled state. Yet how carelessly we throw these devastating sparks around with our callous words and thoughtless judgments.
We Christians are absolutely forbidden to speak evil of other people. Even if what we might say is technically “true” we are never allowed to be hurtful. But the eighth commandment also enjoins a number of positive good works of love and service to others. “We should use our tongue,” says Luther, “to speak only the best of all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbours, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor.” The right use of words is so difficult (and rare!), and the abuse and perversion so pervasive, that Luther concludes, “There is nothing around us or in us that can do greater good or greater harm in temporal or spiritual matters than the tongue, although it is the smallest and weakest member.” And why is that? James tells us:
2For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
It should be obvious (though perhaps it should be pointed out) that what is called a sin of the “tongue” by James (and Luther) is now performed and extended on a shocking scale with the help of technology, even if we don’t utter a word out loud. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, email, and who knows what else all serve as powerful amplifiers for our flaming, poisonous tongues—or rather, our flaming, poisonous hearts. In fact, technology seems to give us license to fling nasty words out into the world that we should be ashamed or embarrassed to say aloud, or to someone’s face. Every day we are invited to slander people and spread lies and filth by simply clicking “like” or “share.”
But the “tongue” itself is not the real root of the problem. It is merely the hired henchman of a much dirtier boss. Our words are a vicious, contagious symptom, but the disease is one of the heart. As Jesus told us only a few Sundays ago “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mk 7:21–23). And so the indictment stands even for us Christians who should do better – especially for us Christians who DO know better.
9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
A scorching indictment indeed … but notice this dear friends … not merely an indictment. For those whose hearts are defiled their tongues should spew nothing but vile and incendiary rhetoric at will. Yet we do not. While we cannot control our tongues, God can. In spite of the restless evil of our tongues (and hearts), we have been harnessed by a new Master and turned to a different kind of speech: “blessing our Lord and Father.” This, in fact, is the miracle of faith and salvation in Christ. The evil power of our words is common human experience; but our Creator has done something new and wonderfully surprising: He has “worded our mouths” with praise and prayers and blessing. He has indeed made the fig tree bear olives, and the brackish pool spring forth fresh water. He makes the foulest and filthiest of hearts and mouths into vessels and vehicles of something pure and life-giving.
In short, he makes Christians out of us. “A pointing finger may turn back, but a word does not return.” And God’s word of mercy does not turn back, either, and it does wonderful things—for us, in us, and through us—with a power that comes from God. For unworthy though we are, we bear the name of Christ and confess His holy name. These terrible tongues, touched and cleansed by the glowing coal of faith, can be used by believers for the praise of God, who is our Lord and Father in Christ Jesus. That is as it should be; for we can never adequately sing the praises of Him who has touched our hearts and our tongues with His healing forgiveness and brought us out of the darkness of spiritual death into the marvelous light of His grace.
Thus redeemed and always reminded, our tongues can become positive good works of love and service to others. “We should use our tongue,” says Luther, “to speak only the best of all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor.” In a world of hurtful words we can become that word of compassion. In a world of name-calling and character assassinations we can be the word of understanding and patience. In a world so full of damaging words we can be the word of healing and hope. In this world of angry words so rarely held back we can become the word of forgiveness that is never withheld. By God’s good and perfect gift we can share the better word this world needs to hear … the little word that defeats the devil and all his works … the word of the Gospel in Jesus Christ.
Thus we have now the sum and general understanding of this commandment, to wit, that no one do any injury with the tongue to his neighbor, whether friend or foe, nor speak evil of him, no matter whether it be true or false, unless it be done by commandment or for his reformation, but that every one employ his tongue and make it serve for the best of every one else, to cover up his neighbor’s sins and infirmities, excuse them, palliate and garnish them with his own reputation. (LC 285-6) In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, let this be our final word on the matter.