July 7, 2015

Words — both good and not so good

1 Samuel 14:1–52, James 3:1–12, Psalm 119:97–120

From a child, most of us learn the hard lesson that our words can get us into trouble. Those who haven’t learned talk too much. Those who have learned are often very quiet people, sometimes to the extent that they are silent when they should speak up.

Our words can work for good, but they can also be harmful. In today’s readings, the Lord prompts me to think of both. First, He reminds me that when He puts an idea on my heart, I should verbalize it. I might have no idea of what will happen, but speaking the thoughts of God can have long-term ramifications.

The example is Saul’s son Jonathan. He was with his father in battle against the Philistines but went out from the rest of the army accompanied by his armor-bearer.

Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.” And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” (1 Samuel 14:6–7)

Had Jonathan thought about this before opening his mouth, he may have reconsidered. The Philistine army was large, certainly more than enough to destroy two young men. Yet he said the words, and his companion agreed. They took on at least ten times more than themselves, defeated them, and their bravery motivated the rest of the army. When Saul’s soldiers got into the fray, many of Israel’s enemies were defeated that day — all because Jonathan was not afraid to say what was on his heart, and then follow through by doing it.

Yet words can also get us into trouble. If God is not in it, our grand plans can defeat us. James warns against speaking when it is better to remain quiet.

“So 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! And 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:5–10)

It’s easy to see the difference. Jonathan spoke from a God-fearing heart, but the people James talks about have no fear of God or much of anything else.

One thing God has been teaching me for many years (I am a slow learner), is to listen to Him before I open my mouth, then to say only what He commands me to say, nothing more and nothing less. In Jonathan’s case, those words were from the Lord, identical to the testimony of the psalmist: “Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me.” (Psalm 119:98) Both listened for God, heard Him speak, and were able to defeat the enemy.

A few verses later, the psalmist gives an added thought. He says, “I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.” (Psalm 119:100–101) Hearing God speak means even young people can be wise if they listen to God and do what He says.

As for me, sometimes the Lord tells me to speak up, and sometimes He tells me to shut up. Learning to control my words means learning to listen to His words — and then obeying what He says.

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