“Oops, I did it again,” is more than the title of a 20-year-old Brittany Spears single. It is also the expression many Christian leaders have used (me included) after saying something that would have been better left unsaid.
A crucial part of ministry is knowing when and how to say a helpful or uplifting word, but also when and how to avoid saying things we wish we could have kept to ourselves. Our tongues are not easily tamed, but Christian leaders can grow in the careful use of language. Here are six biblical admonitions.
1. Pray for help from the Lord. King David’s prayer, recorded in Psalm 141:3, is a helpful guide. He says, “Lord, set up a guard for my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips.” This prayer is one worth remembering and praying for each day. Every leader needs help from God with their speech.
2. Eliminate harsh speech. Many misuses of the tongue could be avoided if we applied the words of Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” To be harsh is to be unnecessarily rough in our speech. That is normally a result of not considering how our words and tone are going to land on the recipient. We can get much further with a kind smile and gentle words.
3. Remember the coming judgment. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 12:36, “I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every carelessword they speak.” There is no doubt that these careless words include those used on Twitter, email, Facebook and more. While I know my sins are forgiven in Christ, I still find this verse troubling. It is a reminder to “be careful, little mouth, what you say.”
4. Keep your heart clean. Jesus’ instruction in Luke 6:45 is helpful to us. “A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” The mouth is the outlet for the heart. If the heart is full of criticism, resentment, judgementalism, pride and the like, then those are the things that will come from the mouth. We must clean our hearts by confessing these things and changing the things we meditate on.
5. Tell the truth and do it in love. Paul instructs the believers in Ephesians 4:15, “But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head — Christ.” We must always tell the truth. The truth is not always welcome to the listeners, but we must speak it in love.
6. Build up other people. In Ephesians 4:29, Paul instructs the Ephesians (and us too): “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear.” Author and speaker Henry Cloud defines “safe people” as those who help you become the best version of the person you were made to be, help you connect with other safe people and help you draw closer to God, your calling or higher purpose. There is no doubt that speaking to build up other people will make us the kind of people who help others walk with God and pursue His will for their life.
There is much more that could be said about careful communication. For most of us, we know what we should do with our speech, but just need an occasional reminder that our words matter, and that careful communication does not come by accident.
May the Lord use you to be a model for the rest of us in being careful about what we say and how we say it.