At L’Arche we have one core member (resident with a developmental disability) who likes to remind assistants and other core members to “watch their language”. Usually this happens when someone is frustrated and lets one slip or sometimes when she interprets that although we are not saying a bad word due to the tone of our voice we may as well be swearing. One of my favourite moments was when my German co-worker uttered everyone’s favourite German explicative to which Sally replied, “Watch your language!” My German friend immediately followed it up with, “But, you don’t even speak German!”
Although I do not necessarily condone the use of swearing because I can see it being detracting from a good and fruitful ministry, my point of this blog is not simply to tell you to “watch your language” in case your great grandmother overhears a word and washes your mouth out with soap. Rather, I’d like to take it a step further and suggest that ALL Christians must watch their language – the way we speak and interact with one another in general.
Language is one of the most powerful forms of communication that we have, and although people in psychology related fields would tell you that 90% of communication is non-verbal, the fact still stands that what is conveyed to others through speech or writing has a profound effect to either build up and edify or to tear down and destruct.
This is why the Apostle James writes to us that although a tiny piece of our body, the tongue has immense strength and with a single careless word from it whole lives can be demolished.1 On the other hand in Proverbs we discover that, “a word rightly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”2 Therefore, we can see the contrast between words which heal and words which cause already bruised bodies to burn and fester.
As Christians, so much of what we do and say affects our presence to the world. The Apostle Paul writes that we need to be on our guard against slander, envious sayings, hypocrisy, and lies.3 These are items that all Christians must be on the lookout for. While it can be juicy to share in the latest gossip, when falsehoods are spread among the saints it has the power to not only split a church but to also tarnish our image of how non-Christians view us. Jesus reminds us that not everyone who says “Lord Lord” is truly a child of God, but only those who do the Will of the Heavenly Father.4 In other words, although we might be able to speak fluent Christianese, if we aren’t living the lifestyle of the Father – one in which we seek to edify the church, we are no more than illegitimate sons and daughters of the King.
Part of watching our language also means that we try to avoid quarrels and contentious debates.5 I’m the first to admit that I love a good debate. Get me going on some wild and theological topic and it’s like the Energizer Bunny on Steroids! But friends, there is a huge difference between wanting to discuss something, wanting to challenge our thinking on something, and arguments which lead to schisms in the church. In the first two instances, debate has the potential to be healthy and good. It is a way of exploring your opinions and the opinions of others and thinking of whether there is a better way to articulate your viewpoints. On the other hand, when debates get so heated that yelling and church splits take place – we know we’ve taken it too far. I believe that’s the kind of debate Paul was urging us not to get into. In the period when the Christian church was just a baby, it was so important for unity among its members to exist. Even today, I would go so far as to say the greatest enemies of the Christian faith do not lie OUTSIDE of the church, but WITHIN it – those who stir up seeds of controversy just for the sake of getting a knee-jerk reaction out of the members within it.
So, how can Christians watch their language? Here are a few suggestions that I would recommend trying if you truly want to serve Christ with the Words you speak and the way you speak them:
1) Get to know God and His Word. The more I hang out with my friends the more I discover that I begin to speak and think exactly (or almost exactly) like them. For example, when I was in university and living with my first year roomate, she used to always say “deal” and “awesome” – spending a lot of time with her made me start saying those exact same words. Also, consider the best friends in your life who you know so well that you can almost always finish each other’s sentences. Jesus reminds us that His Sheep (disciples like us) hear His voice and recognize Him.6 When you have a best friend even without caller ID (I mean, really who doesn’t have Caller ID these days, but just go with me on this one) you can immediately recognize who they are the minute they say hello. The more we spend time with God, the more our relationship gets cemented and we are able to discover exactly how Jesus would choose to respond with grace and love even when we are tempted to slander or argue back. Jesus is not in the emotional blackmail business, but He is in the business of peace and forgiveness!
The best ways to get to know God and to begin to start speaking like Him come from hanging out with Him in prayer, experiencing what He is saying to a body of faithfully committed disciples (such as a solid Bible believing church or small group), and through discovering first hand for yourself what He says in His Word.
Now, if you’re not used to reading the Bible this may seem like quite the challenge. Isn’t the Bible boring? Isn’t it a bunch of stuff that was said to people thousands of years ago that doesn’t even apply to me today? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you’re open to the adventure, you’ll soon discover how what the Bible said in that time period still relates to us today – such as choosing a life of service and being committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect. If you’re not sure where to even begin, I’d recommend that you check out Bible Gateway’s new website which was just recently laid out to be even more user friendly than it was before. On Bible Gateway’s website – https://beta.biblegateway.com/ – you’ll even be able to access a Verse for the Day, some interesting devotional and scholarly articles to take a look at, and even an audio Bible if you feel like listening rather than reading. Bible Gateway is also a great place to go if you’re looking for some help creating a Bible Reading plan or if you have an idea of what you’d like to read about but are not quite familiar enough with the Bible to know where that passage might be located (just use the Keyword Search)!
2) Watching your language also means asking people to help you watch your language. It takes time to break out of bad habits and to learn new ways of saying words and phrases that you’ve been saying for years. Just like you wouldn’t expect someone to pick up Mandarin or Russian in a few days, you can’t expect yourself to radical shift your speaking and thinking in a week either. Instead ask a mature Christian friend to help stop you when you are speaking words which don’t best reflect Christ and to help you come up with better ways of saying some of the phrases that you’ve been used to using before.
3) Lastly, watching your language does not imply that you cannot stand up for yourself or discipline an erring member of the body of Christ. Yet, the difference is, that the mature Christian will be able to call someone out on account of their sin in a way that reflects love, patience, and acceptance. Many Christians have a fear of telling someone that they are going against Scripture because they don’t want to be seen as judging the other person, but Christianity does call for a team approach where those who are wiser and older in the faith are to bring erring brothers and sisters back.7 Nevertheless, we are reminded that “a gentle word turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” – so when we do decide to call someone out for their sin we have to make sure we do it in a way that is respectful to them and with the best intentions on our part. We need to be sensitive to their needs and feelings and try to share with them in a way that shows our care and support.
When we watch our language we will be able to discover that we way we view ourselves as Christians and the way that others view us as disciples of God and His children will be radically altered to express more of Christ’s vision and mission in our lives.