The Bible has a lot to say about the tongue and the kind of power it has. In his New Testament letter, James tells us that it can corrupt the whole body. The book of Proverbs claims that "death and life are in the power of the tongue."
Biblical, encouraging, and humorous, New York Times bestselling author Karen Ehman will help you:
- Learn the essential practice of using your words more constructively.
- Understand what God has to say about our tongues and how we should use them.
- See how your words have power—whether it's in private, in public, online, or in prayer.
- Gain practical insights into breaking habits of gossip, flattery, verbal retaliation, and people-pleasing.
Keep It Shut explores the hows (and how-not-tos) of dealing with our own words (and our silences), so that you can reduce regret and relational tension and deepen your relationship with God, the one true Word.
Also available: Keep It Shut small group video study and study guide.
|5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.15(d)
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Keep It Shut
What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Say Nothing at All
By Karen Ehman
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Karen Ehman
All rights reserved.
FROM SPARKS TO RAGING FIRE
The Awful Power of the Tongue
* * *
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. PROVERBS 18:21 ESV
I sat alone at a corner table in the sterile, gray, middle-school lunchroom fiddling with the peas and carrots on my mustard- colored plastic lunch tray. I wasn't sitting at the usual table near the front of the lunchroom. That privilege was reserved only for those in the popular group at my midwestern school in the late 1970s.
Oh, how different things had been just a week prior! I was privileged to hang out at the "cool table" then, occupying one of its sought-after metal and Formica spaces. But that was before "it" happened: my banishment from the popular group, which resulted in my need to sit at a normal table like the rest of my eighth-grade class.
I could feel the clique of teens staring at me even though I never looked up from my tray. I can only imagine the things they were saying about me. How could I have let this happen? How could I go from being one of the popular kids to now dreading school so much, especially lunchtime when the hierarchy of middle-school culture was on full display there in the lunchroom. Why?
Because of my words.
My words had brought me to this place. Just a week earlier I had been with a group of the "in" crowd of boys. I was the sports reporter for the school newspaper. We were laughing and discussing our basketball team's latest triumph over our crosstown rival. But soon the conversation turned to what many middle schoolers talk about: what boys liked what girls, and vice versa. The wintertime dance was coming up, and so naturally the topic rose to the top of our talk.
One of the boys was considering taking a friend of mine whom I'll call Janet. I knew Janet really liked this boy, but I also knew a secret about her, a secret that, although nothing serious or scandalous, was embarrassing nonetheless. You see, at the last dance in the fall she had snuck a kiss with another boy in our class under the bleachers when no chaperones were looking. That boy was one of my good friends, and he confided in me just what his opinion was of the stolen kiss: he thought that she kissed like a fish!
Now I should not have taken this juicy piece of information and wielded it against my friend, but I loved to get attention from the boys in my class (and I secretly had a crush on the boy who wanted to take Janet), and so I let the words tumble out. "Hmm ... You might want to think that one through. You see, Bill Warner said he thinks Janet kisses like a fish."
At that the entire group of boys burst into roaring laughter. I assumed that this meant Janet would get no invitation to the winter dance and the top secret info I leaked would never be divulged to her. But I was wrong. Instead of this information deterring any boys from asking her to the dance, the one who had been considering taking her instead proceeded to tell her what I said. And to ask her to the dance anyway.
To say that she was upset would be an understatement. She was livid! She gathered all of the popular girls around, and together they shook their heads in disbelief, their Farrah Fawcett – style bangs swaying in the air, as they expressed their horror that a girlfriend could do such a thing to another sister. It didn't take long for the mob of middle schoolers to make a choice and then take action. They completely banned me from the popular group. No longer could I sit at their table, occupy a space next to them on the bleachers during a sporting event, or even sit near them in any of our classes. For the first time in my nine years of going to public school, I absolutely dreaded going. I had a stomachache every morning riding the bus to school. I was lonely walking through the halls between class periods. And once home, the phone never rang with one of the girls calling, wanting to chat.
Trying to find a new group of kids to hang out with halfway through the school year in eighth grade can be rather difficult. Cliques have formed. Friendships have been forged. And it just didn't seem there was any room for a "cool kids" reject like me. My only relief came from a group of three girls who took me in and allowed me to sit with them in the lunchroom. But the weekends were torturous and lonely.
No longer did I get invited home after school to hang out for a few hours with one of my former friends. There were no more invitations to roller-skating parties. Or Friday night sleepovers. Not even an invitation to hang out at the mall, grab a soda and an afternoon matinee, and just enjoy being thirteen.
The remainder of the year was hard, and I was so thankful to see summer vacation. Thankfully, the next year when I entered high school we would be joining with another middle school to form our freshman class. I hoped and prayed that this would mean I could find a new group of friends and begin to enjoy being a teenager again.
Sometimes I still think about that lonely eighth-grade year and how my choice to repeat something that was said brought about such a horrible time in my life. Now, what I said was not a lie. Bill Warner had said that she kissed like a fish. But my decision to repeat those words was a poor one. Especially when he later denied he ever said it! (And of course that was way before text messaging, so I couldn't save his words as a screenshot for proof later.)
My little middle-school drama taught me one important lesson:
Our words are powerful, and they have consequences.
Whether it is a string of words screamed out in anger during the height of a marital spat, or a politician who chooses to lie in order to win votes, or even just a middle schooler trying to impress a group of boys. Our words are powerful, and our words have consequences.
It only takes a spark ...
"It only takes a spark to get a fire going ..." So started the popular campground song I sang growing up in my local youth group. Each night as we sat staring at the flickering flames of the campfire, someone would start to sing that popular chorus. One by one, each of us would join in, proclaiming the power of sparks to get a fire going, until all of the voices were singing in unity, making loud praise with our voices.
Our words are like sparks. They may start small, but they can ignite a wildfire of destruction and devastation. The author of the book of James was the first to make the analogy: "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" (James 3:5 – 6).
Yes, what starts as a little spark can soon gain momentum and become a booming blaze.
In the early summer of 2013, I flew to Colorado Springs for a radio show taping. I have been to the Springs several times in the past and always look forward to my visits there. Although the plane ride is a long one, the descent into Colorado is always breathtaking. My heart leaps as I view the mountains and the lush green grass and the natural rock formations.
This landing, however, was different. Just a few days prior, a horrible fire had broken out, and now the Black Forest Fire, as it was called, raged all around. Off in the distance I could see smoke. At other places I could see the blackened, charred remains of what had once been green foliage.
A friend had lost her home. Others on Facebook asked for prayers for relatives and friends of theirs who also were affected by the flames. When it was all over, 486 homes were destroyed, and two people died. The Black Forest Fire was considered the most devastating fire in the history of the state, and the images I saw and the social media about it were terrifying. All in all, over 14,000 acres were burned, and the damage was estimated at over $85 million.
Just how did this disaster start? Record-setting heat had been in the region and a red flag warning from the National Weather Service had been issued. In the early afternoon hours of June 11, a man reported a tiny structure on fire, so small that he could capture the flames on his cell phone camera. However, the record heat coupled with the blowing winds soon fanned the flames, and the fire spread to over 100 acres. And then it spread to 1,000 — and on and on and on.
How fitting that James should use fire as an analogy for how our words can quickly spread, causing untold damage. No wonder the Bible cautions us to be very careful with our words. They are fiery indeed!
Corrupt and untamable
The passage in James also talks about how the tongue can corrupt our whole body. I myself know very well from the times I have wished I could take back my words; often my whole body is affected. My mind races with regret. My heart pounds. My stomach churns and becomes tied up in knots as I fret and stress over what now might happen. My fingers fidget, and I can't seem to concentrate. Sometimes my feet pace as I ponder what I possibly can do now to get myself out of the royal mess I now find myself in.
If we read a little farther in James, we find that the tongue cannot be tamed (James 3:7 – 8). Every creature, reptile, bird, or animal can be tamed, but not the tongue. Imagine a colossal circus full of every kind of creature: dancing bears, prancing horses — even a ferocious looking feline or two performing tricks or jumping through hoops when their trainers give the signal. But way off in one corner stands a booth with a closed curtain and a sign that reads: "The Utterly Untamable." Then, at a very strategic time during the spectacular show the ringmaster hushes the audience in order to display this beast that will not bend. When he throws open the concealing curtain, sitting behind it is a woman on a cell phone, chatting away!
With our tongues we curse men and women who are made in God's likeness and then, at other times, we praise God. Out of our mouths flow both praising and cursing. But, says the New Testament writer, this should not be! James tells us that a spring cannot suddenly shoot out both sweet and bitter water. Neither can a fig tree produce olives or a grapevine decide to grow a whole mess of figs instead of grapes. You can't get salt water from a freshwater spring (James 3:9 – 12). Lesson? We should not have both righteous and evil words coming from our tongues.
Misusing My Mouth
Often my mom used to say to us kids, whether we were leaving to go to school for the day or headed off to a weekend social gathering, "Be sure your sins will find you out." There was no shortage of sins to choose from growing up as a midwestern teenager in the seventies and eighties. However, I chose to stay away from the cigarettes and booze and drugs. My problem was not with what went into my mouth. My problem was what came out.
My words, sometimes even my lack of words, have caused me much pain over the years. It hasn't always been that I have gossiped or lied. Sometimes I just talk too much. Or I repeated the words of others, which I should not have. Other times I have tried to say the right thing, but it came out the wrong way. Or I have said the right thing but in the presence of the wrong people or at the wrong time. There was just no shortage to the ways I could misuse my mouth.
A survey through the Bible reveals that God places great importance on the way we use our speech. In fact, the words tongue, talk, speak, words, mouth, and silence are used over 3,500 times in the Bible. The pages of Scripture are full of people just like you and me. Some of them serve as a great example of how we should use our words to build up, encourage, and speak for truth. However, there are others who seem to be the poster children for just how not to use our mouths. They gossiped, whined, lied, hurled sharp and angry words, or just said the wrong thing at the wrong time. They tempted and urged others to sin. They told half-truths that really were whole lies. Or maybe they said the right thing but at the wrong time or to the wrong person. This resulted in many outcomes: from hurt feelings to wounded relationships to even all-out wars between nations.
It really is the same today. Over the course of the last thirty years of my adult life, I have seen words bring about dire situations. I have also seen them bring about much good. Truly, death and life are in the power of the tongue. The key is knowing how to use our speech properly.
Psychiatrist Louann Brizendine states in The Female Brain, "Men use about seven thousand words per day. Women use about twenty thousand." (I do know of a few cases where I'm sure this is reversed, where the husband is a yacker while the wife is pretty quiet!) Although Brizendine's figures are still much debated, just using the numbers on the lower range of both of these estimates means that in the course of a year, women speak about 7.3 million words and men utter about 2.5 million words. All of these words flying off of our lips give ample opportunity for mistakes, fumbles, and foibles. It also gives lots of room for intentionally harmful words. But we must also think of the flip side! How many words of love and care and encouragement can we speak over the course of a year? The choice really is up to us, since we are the ones who control our flapping jaws.
The Origin Of Our Words
The Bible says that life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). Before the words can get onto our tongue and spill out of our mouths, don't they begin somewhere else first? Yes, our words may emit from our lips, but they originate in our minds and hearts before they find their way up to our mouths and then to the ears of others. If we really want to learn to control our tongues, knowing what to say, when to say it, and when to say nothing at all, we need to drill down deeper. We need to delve into our hearts and minds to discover the origin of our words, both the life-giving ones and the ones that deal the deathblows.
The apostle Luke says, "A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of" (Luke 6:45).
The mouth speaks what the heart has stored.
You see, my words don't just tumble out of my mouth randomly or by mistake. They are purposeful and intentional, having originated first in my heart. So if we have a mouth problem, in actuality what we really have is a mind and heart issue. Even in the case of my words gone wrong in middle school, it wasn't just that I spoke the wrong words. My mind entertained a wrong fact that turned into a wrong motive. My heart was intent on evil. I just couldn't bear the thought of my latest crush and Janet going to the dance together. So an idea first formed in my mind. Then it trickled its way down into my heart where a root took hold. Then, out of the abundance of my heart, the words bubbled up and spilled out of my lips, thereby causing pain, in this case not only for Janet, but mostly for me.
The truth is, words are never accidental. To be sure, there are times we utter careless words, but even then those words are first formed in our minds, filtered to our hearts, and then given permission to come out of our lips. So in our quest to use our words in ways that are good and honor God, we must first consider the heart and mind from which they come.
Care Of The Heart And Mind
Every two or three years, my husband and I go to a center that does (for a very reasonable price) an entire battery of medical tests. His mother paid for us to go the first time about ten years ago just after his father suffered a stroke. His grandmother had also suffered a stroke, and so my mother-in-law was very concerned that if there were any early warning signals of Todd or me possibly being susceptible to stroke, then she wanted us to know.
Thankfully, each year these tests have shown that not only are our bones good and strong, but our hearts are in excellent condition too. If we had trouble brewing under the surface and were not having these tests administered, we might perhaps one day wake up with chest pain or a heart attack or maybe even a stroke. But because we are being careful to monitor things underneath, we can be alerted if something starts to go wrong before we notice it.
Long before our words go wrong, our hearts are the place in which they fester and brew. We must take very careful care of our hearts and their condition so that the words that come forth will be pleasant and sweet instead of hurtful and bitter. But just how do we do this?
Excerpted from Keep It Shut by Karen Ehman. Copyright © 2015 Karen Ehman. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 From Sparks to Raging Fire: The Awful Power of the Tongue 9
2 Squabbles, Spats, and Such: How to Communicate with Family, Friends, and Other Necessary People 21
3 Stop Filling the Gap: Learning to Listen 42
4 Zip It and Pray: How to Talk to God Before You Talk to Others 59
5 Motives and Manners: It's Not Just What You Say; It's Why and How You Say It 78
6 Behind the Screen: Controlling Your Digital Tongue 95
7 But I'm Just Sharing a Prayer Request: Stopping Gossip and Hearsay 112
8 Lying, Loving, and People Pleasing: On Flattery and Speaking the Truth in Love 134
9 Hurling Hate or Healing: Containing Your Anger 155
10 Something to Talk About: Wonderful Ways to Use Your Words 168
11 Gotta Have the Last Word: Tips and Tricks for Tempering the Tongue 189
More Things You Can Do 211
About Karen 227