Nothing is more refreshing after a long summer hike than sitting down in the shade beside a sparkling brook and enjoying a leisurely drink of cool, clear water. And nothing is more distressing than to discover that the water is contaminated. In all probability, the water is polluted because its source is polluted.
In similar manner, nothing is more refreshing to a Christian who is struggling with the problems of daily living than to sit down with a fellow believer and hear pleasant words that encourage and strengthen. It is like a cool, refreshing drink of water. And few things are more distressing than to hear negative, critical, complaining or quarrelsome words instead. It is like drinking contaminated water. Jesus told us what the problem is. The source is contaminated. “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34).
The Apostle James was concerned about professing Christians whose lives have presumably been changed by the Spirit of God, but from whose mouths come bitter words. “But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?” (James 3:8-11).
To bless is to speak well of. Most of us Christians speak well of God, but we do not always speak well of, or speak well to other believers. In fact, we may even curse them. To curse means literally “to wish or pray down.” It does not require putting a magical hex on somebody, nor does it necessarily involve profanity or blasphemy. It is the desire that harm or ill-will come down on someone. James is probably using the term to include words that cause other people harm, whether we wish them to or not. That could involve any destructive words, such as angry, critical, cutting, accusing, belittling or gossiping words. They cause harm. It doesn’t make any more sense for harmful words to come from the same mouth from which words of praise to God come than for contaminated water to come from a pure source. What is the problem?
All of us struggle with areas of selfishness, self-doubt, insecurity, fear, guilt, anxiety and complexes of various descriptions. To protect ourselves, we sometimes lash out with words that wound others. Is it possible to be transformed into a pleasant person whose words consistently bring joy and encouragement to others instead of hurt? James certainly thought so. When he described the enigma of blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth, he said, “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
Evidently Christians can change. But how?
We saw in the last chapter that change begins when we yield our wills to Jesus Christ. His Spirit is then free to take control of the heart, the source or fountain of our words, and send out sweet water instead of bitter. He helps us relate to people as He Himself would relate to them—lovingly, kindly and graciously. In other words, He improves our temperaments.
That does not mean we are going to attain perfection at once. As a matter of fact, we will never attain perfection in this life. There are no perfect people on earth. But our goal should be consistent growth. Growth comes gradually, but it will come! As we allow the Spirit of God to apply the principles of His Word to our lives, our temperaments will improve. The fountain will be purified, and as a result, we will learn to talk to each other more pleasantly. There are at least three ways we can help clean up the source.
The experts tell us that one of the basic prerequisites to good communication is the possession of a healthy self concept. People who don’t like themselves, who feel they are not very good, or unworthy of being loved and accepted, find it difficult to love and accept others or to relate to them in healthy ways. They may be filled with resentment which surfaces in angry, cutting remarks. They may test other people’s love by pushing them to the limit with questions, accusations or irresponsible behavior just to see if they really care. And they tend to misjudge other people’s motives.
For example, a husband may be learning that his wife needs tangible expressions of affection, so he stops on his way home from work to buy her a box of candy, her favorite kind. Because of her poor self-image, she finds it difficult to accept his token of affection with gratitude. She doesn’t feel worthy of his love, but instead of admitting her feelings of inadequacy, she will probably insinuate that his expression of love is not genuine by saying something like, “What are you after this time?” His self-esteem isn’t very high either, so instead of responding with good-natured humor, he will probably fly off the handle to demonstrate how hurt he is and to punish her for doubting his intentions. “You never appreciate anything I do. See if I ever buy you candy again.” The evening is in shambles and the whole relationship is close to collapse.
Christian psychologist Lawrence Crabb suggests that a sense of personal worth is our most important emotional need, and that two factors contribute to that sense of personal worth. One is security—being unconditionally loved and accepted and having a sense of belonging. The second is significance—having importance and respect, feeling that we are making some profitable contribution, that we really matter to someone, and that we are capable of handling our situation in life. Women tend to need security more than significance, while men tend to need significance more than security. God assures us in His Word that both of those needs can be met in Him.11
Much of our unhappiness and consequently many of the unpleasant and unproductive words we speak can be traced to our dependence on people and circumstances instead of on God for the fulfillment of these needs. If our circumstances are trying, we feel at liberty to get irritable. If people fail to treat us as we want them to, we feel justified in wounding them with words. The key to change is to understand our position as children of God.
God made us just the way He wanted us (Psalm 139:13-16). We are continually in His thoughts (Psalm 139:17-18). He loves us dearly (John 16:27), and nothing can separate us from His love, absolutely nothing (Romans 8:38-39). We are accepted in His beloved Son (Ephesians 1:6), and He will never cast us out (John 6:37). We have been forgiven of all our sins (Colossians 2:13), born into His eternal family (John 1:12), made His heirs (Romans 8:16-17), and given a vital and worthwhile role to fill in carrying out His purposes (1 Corinthians 12:7,22). He values us highly, going so far as to call us His own glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:18). He says we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10), which means that in Him we have everything we need to sustain us emotionally and spiritually in time and for eternity. That means we can depend on Him to meet our basic and fundamental needs for security and significance rather than strive to have them met by others.
Think about how this works in everyday living. Maybe a husband leaves dirty dishes lying around the family room for the wife to clean up. In her lack of security, she interprets that to mean, “He doesn’t really care about me because he makes unnecessary work.” She becomes resentful, and her resentment surfaces not only by nagging him about the dishes, but by complaining about other things—the time he spends watching TV, the way he hung the picture, the people he wants to invite for dinner, the little jobs around the house which he has neglected. She feels that her worth as a person depends on the assurance of her husband’s love, expressed as she thinks it should be expressed. It would be good if he were more considerate and took his dishes to the kitchen. But her unpleasant reactions would have been eliminated if she had learned to find her security in the Lord instead of in her husband, and if she understood who she is in Christ and began to enjoy the worth He places upon her as His very own.
The same thing goes for her husband. He may decide she doesn’t respect him because of the innocent comment she made about not having enough money for the new dress she wanted. “She doesn’t think I earn enough money. She probably wishes she had married that guy who became a doctor.” So he strikes back by criticizing her parents, or complaining about her housekeeping, and life becomes unpleasant for both of them. All of that could have been avoided if he had learned to find his significance in the Lord and to enjoy the value he possesses as God’s child.
Much of our destructive communication occurs when we suspect that our self-esteem is being attacked or our worth is being questioned. God wants us to help each other and minister to each other’s needs, but learning to depend on Him alone for our security and our significance would help to improve our temperaments and sweeten our words. It’s one way to clean up the fountain.
God’s operating manual for the human machine He created is the Bible. He knows how we will function most effectively, and we would be wise to read His instructions. A proper understanding and application of Scripture can make us delightful people whose words are pleasant and edifying. Jeremiah said it best. “Thy words were found and I ate them, and Thy words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jeremiah 15:16). Building the Scriptures into the fabric of our being, learning to think as God thinks and to view things as God views them can fill us with joy. And we will discover, as the people of Nehemiah’s day did, that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10). We shall be strong enough both spiritually and emotionally to avoid the pitfalls that corrupt our communication.
Let me suggest an example. Things have not been going too well for you at work. You have made a couple of little mistakes and your supervisor has overreacted and jumped all over you. But this time it is unbearable. He is berating you in front of the other employees, telling you how stupid you are and threatening to fire you. The worst part is that others were just as responsible for the mistake as you were, and he is not saying a thing to them. Emotions are raging inside you—anger that almost approaches hatred, fear that you might lose your job, embarrassment in front of the others, resentment toward other employees who aren’t saying a word about their share of the blame, dread of what your wife is going to say if you get fired, anxiety about the future, inferiority and lack of self-esteem.
You want to tell him exactly what you think of him, and remind him of the stupid things he has done. You would like to tell him that he can have his dumb old job. But you are a believer! You remember that your security and significance are found in the Lord, not in this job, not in what this man thinks of you, not even in what your wife says to you. And you have been memorizing the Word of God, meditating on it, thinking through its application to your life and the specific ways it should affect your behavior.
James 3:10 comes to your mind: “From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” Matthew 5:44 comes to your mind: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (KJV). And rather than vent your wrath, you say something like, “I understand why you feel so strongly about this. I want to do everything in my power to see that it doesn’t happen again. Can you give me a few suggestions to help me?”
Some will protest, “But I don’t feel like being nice. Isn’t it hypocritical to say something nice when you feel nasty?” Doing what God wants us to do is not hypocrisy; it is obedience. It is helpful to understand exactly what we are feeling and to admit it honestly to ourselves, but it is more important at the moment to think properly and act properly. It is difficult to control our feelings, but we can control our thoughts and our actions. Thinking properly and acting properly will eventually transform our feelings, and maybe even our temperaments.
God wants us to act toward others as we would act if we were genuinely interested in their well-being (even if we are not). Their positive response will bring such satisfaction to us that we may find we want to be nice to them. Soon we are beginning to feel kindly toward them and genuinely interested in them. And that helps us feel better about ourselves. Applying the Word of God to our lives can actually improve our temperaments. And that is going to help us speak more pleasantly and kindly.
It seems to me that most troubled couples really want their marriages to succeed. They do love each other and long for an intimate and happy relationship, but their basic temperaments and emotional needs cause them to continue saying things to each other that drive them apart. The problem is that each one is more committed to fulfilling his own needs than fulfilling the needs of the other and building their relationship. In the middle of a discussion about doubtful things, Paul makes this helpful comment that reaches far beyond that subject alone: “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19). Those two things go together—peace and building each other up. Words that are designed to encourage others and build them up make for peaceful relationships.
The converse is also true. Seeking the advantage for ourselves causes discord. “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:16). As long as I am most concerned about my own happiness, my security, my importance, my well-being and my self-esteem, I will be fighting for the advantage and getting irritable with anybody who tries to put me at a disadvantage. My heart won’t change and my words won’t get any more pleasant until I establish as my goal building up the other people in my life and strengthening our relationships.
My wife and I tried to play tennis together a few years ago. We thought it would be good exercise, so we went out early several mornings a week to a nearby court. Quite frankly, she was not very good at it. The only way we could keep a volley going was if I lobbed the ball gently to her in the center of the court. But every once in awhile I would exert my male ego and competitive spirit, rush the net and drive the ball back into one corner or the other to gain the advantage. If I were in some kind of competition, that would have been a good thing. But if I merely wanted to keep a volley going with my wife, it is not very smart. She would try to hit it back, but would usually swing wildly and either miss the ball completely or hit it over the fence. There were times that she got a little irritated with me. We finally decided tennis wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Unfortunately, there have been times in our marriage when I have used similar tactics in our relationship. I have tried to gain the advantage by driving her back into a corner with anger, unkindness, accusations, criticism, put-downs, blame, exaggerations, silence, manipulation, incriminating questions, nagging, and a host of other unfair communication techniques. And she has done the same to me, because when we get in a corner ourselves, we usually try to drive the other person back into a corner as well. One of us may have felt like we had won a point now and then, but what value would that have been if, as a result, we had decided to quit playing the game, if we had called an end to our marriage.
That is where some couples are right now. They have given up, or are on the verge of giving up. How unnecessary! By understanding our position as children of God and applying the Word of God to our own lives, we can keep ourselves out of the corner of anger, anxiety, guilt and fear. Then by being committed to building the relationship rather than winning the game, we can keep our partners out of the corners too, in the center of the court, in a position of emotional and spiritual strength where they feel good about themselves and glad they are who they are. Then they can respond to us positively. The result will be that we keep the volley going, that we both learn to play the game better and find a great deal more happiness. That could change our whole outlook on life and keep the sweet water of pleasant words flowing from the fountain. Don’t you think it’s worth a try?