05 March 2021

Guarding our mouths

There is a well-known quote from the movie Bambi, where Thumper the rabbit says to the little deer, ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all!’   It’s a phrase I used to say to children in school when I was teaching and wise advice!  

Just as you can’t get toothpaste back into a tube once it is squeezed out, when we have said something, either verbally or in writing, it is out there and it is impossible to take it back.  We need to make sure that we think before we speak because what we say can cause untold damage to a person or their reputation. 

Often, we may be more guarded in what we say to another person’s face, but I have noticed that on social media platforms there seem to be no such filters on what people write, particularly to, or about, people they don’t personally know. Nevertheless those written words can cause hurt and pain to others.  I have noticed that even Christians sometimes write things on social media that are sarcastic, critical, nit picking, judgmental and unkind, often to or about people they don’t even know.  I sometimes wonder as they write if they consider the feelings of the person on the receiving end or if they would be so harsh if they were standing face to face with the person?

Jesus said that ‘out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:34b) and you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the words they use. This is to me quite a challenging thought, and I wonder what overflows from your heart and mine in our speaking and writing?  When people listen to us or read comments we have added on Facebook, Twitter or other platforms what do they see and hear?

Do we gossip and backbite or do we build others up?  Do we grumble and complain or do we give thanks?  Are our words encouraging or discouraging?  Do we lie, exaggerate or flatter or are our words truthful and sincere?  Do we boast and promote ourselves or do we seek to bring glory to God and lift others up?   Do we prejudge someone’s motives or seek to understand where they are coming from?  Do we find fault or look for the good in others?   

Wesley in his sermon on speech says, ‘Evil speaking is speaking evil of an absent person or telling something evil they have done when he or she is not there to answer for himself.’

It is highly likely that all of us have fallen into this trap and are guilty of doing this, sometimes even in the guise of sharing concerns for prayer! 

So why do we do it?  Often it gratifies our pride to speak of someone’s faults or to put someone down.  We can feel a little bit smug about ourselves when we are putting someone else or their reputation down, forgetting that none of us are perfect and others could just as easily be finding accusations to level at us behind our backs. 

We often forget that our words have great power – either to do good or harm.  You will know this is true is someone has ever said something really hurtful to or about you – many people can quote a story about their childhood in which someone, maybe a parent or a teacher, told them something negative and those words have stuck in their minds all their lives and still have a sting in their tail.  Conversely you may also remember something encouraging someone said to you that helped spur you on to do something you never thought you could do. 

It is also easy for us to speak in a negative way about ourselves, saying things like ‘I was an accident’, ‘I’ll never clear my debt’, ‘I’m so stupid’ or ‘I could never do that.’  Our words, even about ourselves, are powerful can affect the way we see ourselves, our self-confidence and our self-image.

Although Peter denied Jesus three times, after the resurrection he was given the opportunity three times to cancel out that negative speaking and declare his love for Jesus instead.  That’s exactly what we need to do when we have got into the habit of speaking badly about ourselves.

I believe that we need to change the way we speak (and write) about ourselves and others.  For every negative thing we have spoken we need to ask God’s forgiveness and pray that God will give us self-control over our tongues and our keyboards, remembering we don’t have to say everything that comes into our minds!   The acronym THINK is a helpful one to consider – before we speak or write.  Are my words, True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind?

The Bible says that we will one day have to give account for every careless word we have spoken and I pray that we will allow Jesus to transform our hearts so that what overflows will bring blessing, encouragement and joy to all those who hear or read them.

Carolyn Lawrence is Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, 2020-21


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