The Heart of Words (Matthew 12:33-37)

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. You can tell what a tree is like by the fruit it produces. You are a bunch of evil snakes, so how can you say anything good? Your words show what is in your hearts. Good people bring good things out of their hearts, but evil people bring evil things out of their hearts. I promise you on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken. On that day they will be told they are either innocent or guilty because of the things they have said. (Contemporary English Version)

Words are important. They have meaning and power.

Our speech is the outward demonstration of what is really within the heart. There really isn’t any room to believe that a constant stream of gossip, backbiting, slander, and negative comments is anything but coming from a heart of evil. The person who speaks such words is not a loving, gracious, merciful person. Conversely, the person who continually encourages, uplifts, and seeks to be positive, reflects a deep heart of love for others.

Therefore, simply altering our speech when we’re around particular people is not the point; and it does no good. That kind of talking only breeds hypocrisy and is two-faced. Instead, the place to aim is the heart because that’s where the words come from. And the way to truly renovate a heart is to sub-contract the project to Jesus.

The people we typically hang-out with the most are the people that most influence our attitudes and our speech. 

So, if we spend copious amounts of time with Jesus, it’s inevitable that our hearts will become more like his heart, and thus, our words will be in alignment with the words and ways of Christ. Be rooted in Christ and the fruit of the tree will demonstrate it.

I always find public confessions on TV to be a rather disingenuous affair. Typically, celebrity apologies only take shape when one has been caught saying something and are called on the carpet. Then, when the apology comes, it’s predictably odd and incongruent, with the person saying something to the tune of, “I’m sorry if I hurt anybody by what I said. Saying that really wasn’t me. I’m not really like that.”

Well, apparently you are. It came out of your mouth. Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The words we say out loud betray what is truly inside us.

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree to illustrate his point. If the roots, the trunk, and the branches are good and healthy, then you can be sure the tree will produce good healthy fruit. However, if the tree is diseased, or infested with insects and rotting from the inside out, then no one can expect anything other than bad fruit, not fit to consume.

If the fruit is bad, the tree is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, ignorant, mean, unjust, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Conversely, if the words are affirming, encouraging, loving, compassionate, gentle, caring, direct, helpful, peaceful, kind, giving hope and life, then there is a good heart behind it.

Yes, bad hearts can parrot good words. However, those words are not genuine but mere rote recitations to achieve some sort of personal agenda. And, of course, good people will occasionally say dumb or hurtful words. In such times, let it be a reminder that we all have some shadowy places within our hearts – and that we must depend on God’s grace to enlighten those dark spaces.

Let’s observe patterns, rather than focusing on isolated events where either good or bad words were said. A consistent pattern of invalidating another’s experiences or feelings; intimidating or threatening others; dismissing or discounting someone’s input; or being unnecessarily blunt, are all major red flags pointing to a severe heart issue.

Evil exists in the world. And if we are not vigilant to the power of language, wickedness can easily smack us upside the head when we aren’t looking.

The heart cannot be concealed forever. Eventually, the virtuous person will be shown as such by the stream of gracious speech which pours forth from the heart, as if it were living water for others to drink and enjoy. Their words reflect their good character.

The wicked person, however, cannot keep the bad words down. Those vile words sit in the soul, poisoning and making the person ill. Then, all of a sudden, the evil words come up and out with a great vomitous heave and spew impurity and unholiness all over the innocent. Their words betray their foolish and poor character.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus: Introvert or Extrovert? (Luke 5:12-16)

A 4th century mural of Jesus from the Catacomb of Commodilla, Rome, Italy

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (New International Version)

Occasionally, I ask fellow clergy colleagues this question: “Was Jesus an introvert, or an extrovert?”

Let me be clear that extroversion and introversion are neither sinful nor blessed – they both are personality traits that cannot be changed any more than tiger stripes. That’s important to state upfront because some clergy make it about personal choices instead of inherent brain wiring.

So, setting aside the anti-reality kooky answers to my question, I’ve found that extroverted pastors, almost without fail, tell me Jesus was an extrovert. And they make a solid case for it. 

Conversely, with solid consistency, introverted pastors tell me Jesus was an introvert. And they give compelling reasons for it, as well. 

I believe the answer to my own question is that both are correct. Jesus, as the perfect human, displays the best of both extroversion and introversion. And Christ’s personality comes through wonderfully in today’s Gospel lesson.

This short story of healing begins with Jesus fully engaged in walking the city, a man of the people, interacting with the crowd, attentive to even the most marginal of them. Christ’s extroverted nature is on full display. Jesus, as the superb Son of God, is willing and ready; he fully heals the man from his leprosy. 

Jesus healing the leper, 12th century mosaic, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

As the news of this people-centered Healer spread, more and more people flock to Jesus. An extroverted person would bask in the situation of having more people to connect with. 

However, the story ends with the note that, instead of engaging the mass of people and gaining energy from the crowd, Jesus would withdraw to quiet and deserted places in order to pray. I can think of no better description of an introvert that could be said.

Jesus lived on this earth in a way that modeled and demonstrated how humanity was truly meant to live. 

Christ had consistent rhythms of both human and divine engagement. He spent time with people – lots of them. The Lord talked and taught, healed and moved, from one person to next with all the seeming random activity of the extrovert. 

Yet, the Lord Jesus also consistently withdrew from all the people to be in solitude. He spent healthy amounts of extended time alone with his heavenly Father, deeply connected with him. 

We, too, need good healthy rhythms of being with others in effective and prolonged interaction, as well as extended time alone with God in silence and solitude.

Extroverts must understand that nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find that we have been called by God to be talkers. But instead, you will find a lot of biblical references on being called to servanthood. The Lord does not accept us because of our many words; God approves of us because of divine grace and the state of our hearts. 

My children, we should love people not only with words and talk, but by our actions and true caring. (1 John 3:18, NCV)

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

And introverts need to appreciate that the spoken word, not just the written word, is important and powerful. The world was created through divine speech. Jesus healed with words that people heard. And conversations with others are the effective means of restoring this fallen planet to Paradise.

By speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15, CEB)

Encourage each other every day while you have the opportunity. If you do this, none of you will be deceived by sin and become stubborn. (Hebrews 3:13, GW)

Perhaps we might encounter more of the miraculous in our lives if we emulated the healthy rhythms of Jesus. The Spirit works in us and through us so that the words and ways of Jesus on this earth may impact a mass of humanity that desperately needs Christ’s healing from a heart that is deeply connected to God.

Loving Lord Jesus, I am in awe of your capacity to engage all kinds of people, as well as your close relationship to the heavenly Father. Let me be like you in the ability to move freely and effectively between human interaction and divine prayer so that the church is edified, and the world is blessed. Amen.

Psalm 29 – The Power of Language

Praise the Lord, you heavenly beings;
    praise his glory and power.
Praise the Lord’s glorious name;
    bow down before the Holy One when he appears.

The voice of the Lord is heard on the seas;
    the glorious God thunders,
    and his voice echoes over the ocean.
The voice of the Lord is heard
    in all its might and majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars,
    even the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes the mountains of Lebanon jump like calves
    and makes Mount Hermon leap like a young bull.

The voice of the Lord makes the lightning flash.
His voice makes the desert shake;
    he shakes the desert of Kadesh.
The Lord’s voice shakes the oaks
    and strips the leaves from the trees
    while everyone in his Temple shouts, “Glory to God!”

The Lord rules over the deep waters;
    he rules as king forever.
The Lord gives strength to his people
    and blesses them with peace. (Good News Translation)

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

I have always felt comforted during thunderstorms. Having grown up in the Midwest of America, strong thunderstorms are a given every summer. When my daughters were small children and frightened by the loud clap of thunder, I routinely said to them, “That’s just God letting us know he is powerful and watching over us.”

God spoke and stirred up a storm… So, they cried out to the Lord in their distress, and God brought them out safe from their desperate circumstances. God quieted the storm to a whisper; the sea’s waves were hushed. (Psalm 107:25, 29-30, CEB)

Yet, there is even more going on in today’s psalm than a reminder of God’s glory and power throughout creation. God’s very voice is the source of all the power.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – with words. The Lord Almighty spoke the entire world into existence. God’s words are generative, that is, the speech of God creates and gives life. When God’s voice goes forth, things happen.

God said, “Let the waters under the sky come together into one place so that the dry land can appear.” And that’s what happened. (Genesis 1:9, CEB)

God generously gives through speech.

Yes, the mechanism of God’s provision for us is language. The Lord creates, gives, sustains, and blesses us creatures through language. Out of all creation, humans are the only creatures formed in the image and likeness of God with the power of connection through speech.

God said, “Now we will make humans, and they will be like us. (Genesis 1:26, CEV)

Not only are we as people capable of speech, but we also have the ability and the capacity to form our own generative words. We have the God-given means to give life with how we use our power of language.

“Life and death lie in the power of language”

Helen Keller

I believe we all intuitively know this is true. As we reminisce the history of our lives, we can observe events where another’s words impacted us so significantly that it was as if they gave us the gift of life. We never forgot those words.

Unfortunately, we also have had times when another’s words cut us emotionally and it felt as if a part of us died. We remember those as well, and they hold us back in our own life-giving speech to ourselves and others.

“The godless destroy their neighbors by their words, but the righteous are saved by their knowledge.” (Proverbs 11:9, CEB)

We must listen to the voice of the Lord. God’s speech neither disappoints nor destroys. God’s Word is eternal life. The better we listen to God, the better we can have the generative power of words to provide life for others.

It only takes a cursory look at Holy Scripture to realize that words are powerful and are to be used with great care. We are all to continually develop the craft of wordsmithing so that we might ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, as well as bless the world.

“As a tree gives fruit, healing words give life, but dishonest words crush the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4, NCV)

The language we use—spoken and written words, sign language, facial expressions, bodily gestures, singing—helps us understand ourselves and lets us create relationships with others. Our words give us the power to describe our past, define our present, and dream of our future. 

“Words from wise people are like water bubbling up from a deep well—the well of wisdom.” (Proverbs 18:4, ERV)

We adults may balk at the notion that words are anything more than a creative expression. Yet, as I believe is typical with most things, children are closer to the kingdom of God than us bigger folk. Kids effortlessly make connections between words and reality – whereas older people barely have an idea this even occurs.

My grandson once remarked, when I was talking to him about being cautious at the playground, “How am I supposed to meet new people if I can’t talk to strangers?”

“When I asked my son (5 years old) how his day was, he said it was awesome. I asked him what made it so awesome – his response was ‘because I wanted it to be.’” – Tanya Niedzwiecki (Huffington Post, November 2015)

The voice of the Lord exhibits a mighty God who has the power to create and recreate with but a word.

As people in God’s likeness, our words are powerful tools to be used with wisdom and care. Our speech allows us to praise God and encourage one another. Even more, the use of language enables us to speak into existence new realities for ourselves and others.

May our words bring forth hope and blessing to a world in need of healing.

Mighty God, the Lord who is King and all powerful, I am overwhelmed before such awesome majesty, and my response to your voice is reverent worship through Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

James 3:1-12 – Taming the Tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (New International Version)

Words and speech are the most powerful tools we have in the Christian life. And the tongue is the means of forming the words and using the speech God gives us.

The problem is, we may too often underestimate the importance and the great power of the tongue to effect both good and evil. We might not believe that our particular words carry much weight.

Yet, in reality, our words are very powerful.  In fact, what we say with our tongues is either the vehicle of praise to God, or the ruin of another person. We must measure our words because the tongue is a beast to control and tame. 

The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life.

The horse is a strong animal, and the strength of a horse must be respected at all times. Yet, a small woman, even a young girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit, can make a horse do whatever she wants. Ships can be massive and carry thousands of people and huge amounts of cargo. Yet, it is controlled and directed by the rudder – a very small piece of the ship.  In our own day, we know the devastating power of a very small handgun trigger which can literally snuff out a life in an instant.

Likewise, the tongue is quite small among the parts of the body. Yet, it sets the course of a person’s life and has the power to determine its destiny.  A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble.  An undisciplined pilot of a ship is in danger of shipwreck.  A gun owner loose with gun safety is a danger to others. And the loose, unbridled, untrained and undisciplined tongue is on a one way course to destruction.

The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy another person.

Like fire, the tongue has an awesome potential for harm. The great Chicago fire of 1871, one of the costliest disasters of the nineteenth-century, killed three hundred people and destroyed seventeen-thousand buildings.  All the destruction was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern in a barn. 

The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 burned for several months and completely destroyed nearly 800,000 acres of the park.  At the peak of the fire there were 9,000 firefighters battling the blaze. All the devastation was caused by one quick flash of lightning.

The largest fire in American history occurred in 1871 and began in northern Wisconsin. The fire created its own wind system and turned into a tornado, moving into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time it was over, 3.7 million acres were scorched with 2,500 people left dead. All the destruction was likely caused by a small meteorite.

Whenever we underestimate the power of our speech and allow a stray word to fly off the tongue, the spark has the potential to start a huge conflagration of evil. A firestorm of destruction can be set off with just a few uncontrolled words. 

Through gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not say to their face), flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would not say behind their back), negative criticism, sarcastic humor, boasting, and a host of evil words, the tongue has the immense power to destroy life.  It is speech fueled and spread by Hell itself.

The tongue is so powerful that it cannot be tamed.

Animals can be tamed, even crocodiles.  I once took my oldest daughter to the circus, when she was a small girl, and watched as a guy had a trained crocodile open its mouth and stuck his head inside the crazy reptile! 

Yet, no one can tame the tongue. It is like a tarantula, biting its victim with paralyzing venom so that the arachnid can eat its prey alive. The untamed and uncontrolled tongue is like a poisonous spider which spreads its verbal venom, paralyzing other people and sucking the life out of them.

The Apostle James paints a hopeless picture because he wants to drive us to the grace of God for help. We cannot tame the tongue – but God can. When we begin to see the true nature of our speech, it reveals something of ourselves.

The tongue is so powerful that it exposes the duplicity of the heart.

Whatever comes out of our mouths reveals what is on the inside of our lives. If we can grasp the truth of this, I believe it could transform the way people talk to one another. Even more metaphors to communicate the point….

Salt water and fresh water cannot both come from the same spring. A fig tree cannot bear olives, and a grapevine is not going to produce figs. And whatever comes out of the mouth reveals the source. Evil words come from an evil source; good words come from a good source. 

A pattern of negative condescending speech is drawing from a well, pumping up words from the depths of Hell. Conversely, a continuous stream of helpful words that encourage and build up others, draws its nourishment from God’s Word.

Conclusion

The following are four ways to help bring the tongue under control:

  • Train your tongue for good. Speech is a skill to be developed. When starting an exercise regimen, we are deliberately training our bodies for health. When dieting, we are saying “yes” to certain foods, and “no” to others. The tongue needs to be trained to express gratitude, good news, and grace. And one of the best ways to do it is through speaking Scripture out loud in a daily regular regimen. Consider going on a fast from talking and seek only to be silent and listen for a specified amount of time.

Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8, NLT)

Solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14, NRSV)

  • Read a chapter of Proverbs each day for a month. There are thirty one chapters in Proverbs, one for each day of the month. Pay attention to the power of words. Notice the difference between the speech of a wise person and the words of a fool – and take to heart the consequences of both approaches. 

You will say the wrong thing
    if you talk too much—
    so be sensible and watch
    what you say. (Proverbs 10:19, CEV)

Careless words stab like a sword,
    but wise words bring healing. (Proverbs 12:18, NCV)

  • Build friendships with people who are positive and encouraging. If a negative person keeps being negative, even after you have warned them more than once about it, you likely need a new relationship. 

Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness, he cuts himself off.  (Titus 3:10-11, MSG)

  • Listen and learn before speaking. A judgmental spirit often comes from misinterpreting another person’s words and/or actions. We can too often jump to conclusions about something or someone with only partial information and without the whole story.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, MSG)

Right and Just God, teach us to speak wisely. Let us avoid useless thoughts and useless conversations. Help us to speak often of you. Grant that our words may never hurt others but always bring comfort to those in sorrow, and guidance to those in need. Take our tongues and make them yours. Take our minds and make them instruments of your goodness and a channel of truth. May you help us to use both words and silence in redemptive ways, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.