Thursday, February 13, 2020

Mouth Almighty

Mouth almighty, that is what I’ve got,
 Mouth almighty, telling you
    what’s what.
 Mouth almighty.
 I wish I’d never opened my mouth
    almighty …
— Elvis Costello (1983)

Some years ago, I was working at a Christian summer camp.

By all evidence, it had been an excellent year — many children’s lives touched, many young people growing in knowing God, good friendships formed, spiritual growth on every side, and a safe and successful physical program.

Most of this was due to the staff. We had some really stellar young men and women working with us, some as counselors, some as assistants, a few as grounds staff, and all, at one time or another, in important leadership roles that had made the camp possible. When tough times came, these fine young people had ground it out, staying cheerful, positive and kind throughout. When challenges arose, they stepped up. They had, in all, been exemplary in unselfishness, nurturance, enthusiasm and diligence; and as it would turn out, years later a good many of them would still be my very close friends.

But at the time, it was the last official day of camp. I was asked by the director to serve as the emcee for the ceremony to honor the staff and volunteers. It was nice of him to ask; and I was glad to say yes. I’ve always been a words guy, you see; words come easy to me. And not exactly a shrinking violet in front of any audience either.


So I was walking across the camp field, on my way to my cabin. Naturally, I was mentally processing a few things I could say during the program. I started going down the list of the honorees: “I should mention the time Tom fell off the dock … what a dorky thing to do. How about Sally’s big, floppy sun hat: I could make a joke about how goofy she looked. Or Marcus — he runs really funny, like his knees are tied together …” and so on.

Suddenly a realization pulled me up short. I could think of a thousand teasing or vaguely offensive things to say about everyone … but I hadn’t been thinking of one positive thing. And how could that be? These people were, by all accounts, wonderful human beings. How come the first thing that came to me as I was thinking of what to say was a litany of snipes, gripes, jibes and sideswipes? Everything was negative.

Was that it? Was my entire stock of “golden” words merely dedicated to making people feel less than they were? I was horrified at myself. Did God give me a tongue to use it like that? What small-minded, miserable petty impulse in me made me more quickly inclined to taking shots than to building people up?

Worse still, I suddenly realized I was chilled by the very prospect of standing up in front of people and offering compliments instead of irony. Why did it so gall and frighten me to think of saying one sincere, kind, and obviously honest compliment about such wonderful young people, while at the same time I felt no fear at all in standing up and acting like a crass clown, mocking those whose shoelaces I would, in truth, have been honored to bend down and tie? What did this say about me? How could I be so small of soul?


I was completely ashamed. Thunderstruck. And standing right there, I made a decision. Whenever I saw someone doing something extraordinary, it would be my duty to tell them, and to tell them sincerely, as eloquently as I could, and without irony.

Proverbs says, “The power of life and death is in the tongue.” I think that’s really true. On the positive side, I remember reading a story about a man named Malcolm Dalkoff, whose life and career aspirations were transformed when his English teacher wrote four simple words on the bottom of one of his papers: “This is good writing.” Dalkoff went on to a long career in professional writing, and years later looked back on this simple compliment as the force that launched him in the right direction. That’s the power of life in the tongue.

But the power of death is there too, isn’t it? Think of how a single mean word can crush the spirit. Someone points out to you some flaw in your body, and years later you see nothing but that every time you look in the mirror. Or someone runs down your contribution to a situation, and you quit and never try again. Or a casual negative speculation becomes a running rumor, and then becomes a hard slander that destroys a relationship forever. It’s easy, so easy, to be negative and wound a soul.

Crushing a Soul

Further confessions: I will never forget an incident early in my career as a teacher. I was having an argument with a very weak and unruly student over her staunch refusal even to try an assignment. (I was new in the teaching game at the time, but that was really no excuse.)

I had been warning her that she was in danger of failing the course because of a mere lack of effort; and she spun around and yelled at me, “I don’t care!”

“Well, I responded calmly, “if you don’t care, then I don’t care either.”

I didn’t really mean it. I was intending to keep working with her. It was just a quick comeback to her defiance, an attempt to throw the responsibility back to where it actually belonged. But I’ll never forget the stunned and rejected look in her eyes. I immediately regretted saying that, but it was too late.

I don’t care either. She knew it was my job to care; more than that, it was my responsibility, as her teacher and as an adult, to persist in caring and seeking her welfare even when she was having a kid fit. Moreover, she knew and had seen that I cared for my students. And that made it all the more hurtful. What she was hearing was that I might care about the others, but I wouldn’t care about her.

I’m pretty sure that that girl had been rejected by adults before. And when I had time to reflect on it, I came to see that what she was really doing was daring me to care, and being tough until she found an adult who loved her enough to stick with her despite her anger.

But I had told her that that adult would not be me.


I wish I didn’t have to tell you that story. But if it helps you not do likewise, then so be it. We can kill with the tongue — so easily!


Where words are many, sin is not absent,” says Proverbs. Proverbs has a ton of good advice on the subject of keeping your tongue in check. It’s almost like it’s important or something. Meanwhile, everything we find in Proverbs on that is expanded in the New Testament, and particularly in the Book of James. (Side note: I believe that James is the NT companion to Proverbs. Every major subject repeatedly handled in the latter is developed in the former: interesting, no?)

James has a lot to say about the tongue: it’s a rudder that steers us, a small flame that sets on fire the whole world, restless, unrestrained, evil, a whole world of iniquity, a thing set on fire by hell, and a cause of judgment to us. With it we praise God and curse men who are made in God’s image … the picture is shocking and the warnings are dire. Those who live by Mouth Almighty will eat their words.

But under the guidance of the Spirit of God, the tongue also has in it the power of life, to build up our brothers and sisters, to restore the joy of the fainting, to lift up the discouraged, and to rejoice the heart in praise.

We just have to be very, very conscious of what we do with that thing.


So I resolved to be far more deliberate in offering compliments, and to do my best to shut my mouth when I was inclined to cut somebody to pieces. It’s a battle I’ll probably fight until the Lord comes, but I see the importance of it.

I’ve tried to stick with that. I still like joking or teasing my friends sometimes; but I’ve tried to get the proportions much better. I try to give compliments where they’re deserved, and I try very hard not to be too stingy with my thanks. I’m sure I fail sometimes; but I do think it’s better that I’ve decided to use my tongue to build people up and to add some positivity to people’s worlds.

I ought to have done that all along. But the flesh is strong, and our natural inclination is sometimes to pull others down and promote ourselves. We’ve got to fight it. We have to measure our words, for the sake of our service to God. For, as the Lord told us, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Building Up

My thought here is that we should really watch what we say … especially in regard to the church. The Lord’s people are still flawed human beings, and their flaws will invite our acerbic comments all the time. Or perhaps there will be those who love the rumor mill and the dissemination of scandal under the banner of “concern”. (And by the way, it doesn’t make it better if you turn it into a “prayer request”.)

The Church is besieged and beleaguered today. It’s hard for sincere spirituality to survive our toxic secular ethos, with its consumerism, its rampant pornography, its empty distractions and its callous disregard for God. We need all the encouragement we can get.

What we do with the tongue will have a lot to do with how things go. May I humbly suggest that we use our words to build each other up, not tear each other down? I’m not suggesting we ignore problems, or even fail to identify faults in people or in our congregations when that’s essential — reform depends on it. But I do really think some sober second thought is in order when it comes to our tendency to leave the positives unspoken and to maximize the negatives.

Too Quick

Maybe we should ask ourselves, “Is it really necessary for me to speak here?” Or perhaps, “Is there really any merit in pointing out these flaws?” Or maybe we should ask, “Where can I find some positives to emphasize, so that my conversation, my relationships and my whole life don’t become characterized by negatives?” Or maybe, “Have I done enough good with what I’ve said to justify offering a bit of criticism at this particular moment?”

We’ve all got tongues. And every tongue is too quick. So the Lord reminds us that “If a man (or woman) does not bridle his tongue, he deceives his own heart, and his religion is useless.”

So if life and death are in the tongue, why not choose life?

Now, that puts our job in perspective, doesn’t it?

1 comment :

  1. Amen. As someone in my 80th year, this one of the things that I often lie awake at night over. I can look back many years to times when I have spoken too quickly (and/or glibly) and realized that once the words have been uttered, they can't be called back.