In Psalm 12, David writes the following in verses 1-4:
Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.
Everyone utters lies to his neighbor;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is master over us?”
To say that the “faithful have vanished from among the children of man” paints a bleak picture. And what are the tell-tale signs of this absence of godliness? The words people utter, “flattering lips,” the “double heart” with which people speak, the “tongue that makes great boasts”—in other words, the things that people say.
This is a recurring theme in the Book of Proverbs, not to mention James 3:1-12, which couldn’t offer a more dire warning against the danger of the tongue.
But here’s what I now realize: The biblical authors don’t quite say what I want them to say, or what I expect them to say, about our speech. I want them to say that the words we speak are, at worst, a symptom of the problem in our hearts.
Not that they aren’t a symptom: Jesus himself tells us that “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). David makes the same point here when he refers to the “double heart.”
One problem with “flattering lips,” for instance, which Proverbs also warns against, is that they don’t tell the truth. They don’t come from a place of integrity, in which thoughts, words, and deeds align perfectly.
All this makes sense to me.
But the biblical writers go beyond that. In the scripture above, for instance, the problem is not merely the sinful pride in one’s heart that gives rise to “great boasts,” but the boasting itself. The words are a problem. From the perspective of the biblical authors, speech is something far worse than the outward manifestation of what’s in our hearts. In other words, while it’s one (sinful) thing to have the impulse to boast, it’s something worse—dare I say far worse—to give voice to this impulse.
Again, this is not the way I want to see it. I want to believe that words—like cursing and gossip—are superficial. “Solve the problem in your heart, Brent, and your angry cursing and gossip will cease.” (Most of my sinful speech relates to my anger.)
This perspective simply doesn’t do justice to the Bible’s teaching. Words have more power than that. Perhaps we can’t “solve the problem in our hearts” without, at the same time, solving the “problem in our words.”
So I need to change. I tend to be very forgiving of myself when it comes to sinful speech (and often very unforgiving when it comes to other ways in which I fall short!). When I confess my sins in prayer, for example, I rarely even think of sinful words I’ve spoken. They are, at worst, “breadcrumb sins” (Dylan, “Gates of Eden”). I see now that I’m wrong.
Merciful God, I am “a man of unclean lips” who has tolerated this sin for too long. Give me the grace and the power to rein in sinful words. Amen.