Not too long ago we were introduced to a spiritual exercise called “The Tongue Assignment.” In a nutshell, you take one week and refrain from all of the following: complaining, criticizing, blame shifting, boasting, deceiving, gossiping, and defending yourself.
It just so happened that we were packing for a trip, so we decided to start the assignment as soon as we locked the front door and jumped into the car to leave. And just to give the assignment more muscle—as if that was something it needed—we upped the ante to two weeks since that would be the length of our time traveling.
Would you believe I actually looked forward to this? I thought, hey, I’m an introvert. . .I don’t talk that much anyway. . . this is no big deal. . . not much can go wrong here.
The departure day arrived. After going over our check list, we stopped and prayed— something we always do before leaving the driveway—even praying that God would help us to keep a guard over our tongues.
Not too far into the trip we turned on the GPS. Brian had already plotted out our journey in his head, so when the woman’s voice instructed us to take a different route than planned, he balked. Next thing you know, we were at a dead stop in traffic. In fact, nothing was moving as far as the eye could see. I looked at the GPS, smiled, and jokingly said, “You need to remember that he doesn’t listen to directions from females.”
Although the car was silent, I could hear a heavily punctuated thought emanating from the seat next to me. Nailed!!
“You need to put that one on the list,” Brian said very straightforwardly.
“Really? I was just joking. Anyway, I don’t think it fits into any of the categories.” Of course, guilt was written all over my words the moment they rolled off my tongue.
The trip progressed and so did our exchanges. Back and forth we went with questioning whether something we verbalized belonged on the list. “Do you really think that was critical? Was I really complaining?” And on and on it went, making me regret that I had chosen such a small piece of paper to list our trespasses.
Two weeks later, as we packed to return home, I did my usual checking under the beds and looking under tables for runaway socks and other prodigal belongings. I even dragged my hands over counter tops and dressers just in case my eyes betrayed me. One can’t be too careful, right?
About halfway home, Brian couldn’t find his glasses. “Have you seen my glasses?” he queried.
“No. I haven’t seen them. Did you have them at the hotel last night?” I began to tense up, knowing where this conversation was heading.
After a moment’s thought, he continued, “I don’t think so. How well did you check the lodge before we left?”
There it was—the subtle question insinuating that it was my responsibility to keep track of his glasses. I shuffled through my purse looking for the list, knowing there was no ambiguity this time around. I quickly scrawled B-L-A-M-E-S-H-I-F-T-I-N-G across the small remaining white space at the bottom of the sheet.
And did I defend myself, you ask. You better believe it.
Once we were home, unpacked, and rested, we began analyzing our two-week tongue adventure. What an eye opener this exercise proved to be! Here is what I journaled after some time of reflection.
I think there are multiple reasons that I failed in the tongue assignment. First, what is in my heart will soon make itself known in my words. Second, I forget that I am at war against my sin. Third, when I forget that I am at war, I leave my armor behind. Fourth, I let my momentary emotions blind me to the truth that God is my refuge and defense. Fifth, I forget that my heart is desperately wicked, full of pride and self-righteousness.
When my heart turns from God and back to myself, the spillover is inevitably a poisonous tongue. The battle begins in my heart, and it is here where Christ must reign. The moment I forget that I am clothed in Christ’s righteousness, I will begin grasping for my own, resulting in evil thoughts that quickly spin out of control and form into critical, defensive, and angry words.
James tells us that this tiny little thing in our mouths has the power to spark a conflagration that no one can extinguish, and yet it also has the power to bless and encourage. This sort of power should at the very least give us pause—if not outright fear.
Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 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. James 3:4-6
This unruly member needs taming, but it won’t happen by counting to ten, holding our breath, or hiring a life coach. Our speech is a mirror of our hearts. If we harbor anger or bitterness towards other people, our tongues will betray us. If we indulge in a critical spirit, our tongues will soon share it with the world. If we are prideful and arrogant, our tongues will boast whenever the opportunity presents itself. More than anything else, our tongues reveal what’s festering in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
Is there any hope for us?
In a debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther, Erasmus argued that grace is like one parent helping a toddler walk across a room to another parent. Luther disagreed and responded that grace is so much more than that. He likened us to a caterpillar that is completely surrounded by a ring of fire. Unless someone from above reaches down and rescues us, we’re ashes.
This is a picture of the Gospel. When our hearts open to the beauty of this Gospel, change happens. When we begin to dwell on what is true and what is honorable and what is lovely—Jesus Christ and His word—we will find truth, honor, and loveliness weaving their way through our conversations (Philippians 4:8). At the end of the day, there is only one power that can tame the tongue by captivating the heart—the power of the Gospel. And that is where this introverted, self-righteous, forgiven sinner puts her hope.
May the mind of Christ my Savior
live in me from day to day,
by His love and power controlling
all I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
in my heart form hour to hour,
so that all may see I triumph
only through His power.
Kate B. Wilkinson