Our Tongues (and Fingers) of Fire

What Words Reveal About Us

In one very tense discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus uttered some of the most important words ever spoken about the importance of the words we speak:

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:34–37)

What an unnerving thought. The words we speak (and type!), whether we think so or not, are reliable revealers of what our hearts truly value. And someday, when we stand before the “judgment seat of Christ, [to] receive what is due for what [we have] done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10), our own words — even careless ones — will be brought forth as witnesses.

What Words Reveal

When Jesus said we speak out of the “abundance” of our hearts (Matthew 12:34), what did he mean? The best way to answer this question is to look at the context.

Jesus had just delivered a man from demonic oppression. And the crowd who witnessed this wonder couldn’t help but ask if Jesus were the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David. The Pharisees, doing everything they could to stamp this idea out, had a ready answer: “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24).

Jesus responded with one of his most forceful rebukes, exposing the blatant hypocrisy in the Pharisees’ accusation, warning them of the terrible danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31–32). And then he made his point about what words reveal.

Jesus turned the Pharisees’ words back on them to expose the evil power that was fueling them — the evil in their own hearts. They had chosen their words carefully and deliberately to achieve a desired end: to sway public opinion against Jesus by sowing seeds of suspicion in people’s minds through this unsubstantiated accusation. In doing so, they intentionally called evil the “good fruit” Jesus was bearing by releasing a man from demonic oppression, while not recognizing the “bad fruit” they were bearing by using dishonest means to discredit Jesus (Matthew 12:33).

The Pharisees were so blinded by their own evil pursuits that they didn’t recognize the spiritual danger they were in; they didn’t discern the demonic influence moving them to call the Holy Spirit’s power demonic. They were speaking words out of the abundance of evil treasure in their hearts.

Even Careless Words

At this point, everyone listening might have felt like taking a few steps back from the Pharisees, just in case lightning struck. But then Jesus’s warning about words suddenly broadens out to include everyone:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36–37)

The Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus doesn’t seem to be an example of careless words; they crafted their accusation carefully. But Jesus wanted them — and us — to know the abundance of our hearts is revealed not only in our careful, deliberate words, but in our careless ones as well. This takes matters to a wholly different level.

“Careless” is a good translation of the Greek word argon. Careless words can be flippant, idle, off-the-cuff words. They can be words we spout off when we lose our patience or words we use to pontificate on matters we haven’t thought about much. They can be angry, crude, insulting words we say over issues we feel strongly about — whether publicly or privately. And, while far rarer for human beings, careless words can also be patient, kind, honoring, peaceable, and humble.

“All our words matter. All will be called to witness for or against us.”

Jesus’s point is that all our words matter. All will be called to witness for or against us. What we say is so connected to our hearts that even our careless words are telling. And what often makes careless words revealing is that we speak them when our guard is down.

Painful Parable

A parable of the revealing power of careless words recently played out in the popular media when Jon Gruden’s remarkable and lucrative career in the National Football League suddenly ran off the rails.

In October 2021, two high-profile newspapers published exposés regarding numerous emails Gruden wrote between 2010 and 2018, prior to his becoming head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. These were words he clearly (and mistakenly) assumed would remain private. As one news site summarized, the emails revealed a “pattern of homophobic, misogynistic and sexist insults, as well as pictures of topless Washington Football Team cheerleaders.”

October 11 in particular became a day of judgment for Gruden in the court of public opinion, when he was roundly condemned by his own, as one sportswriter put it, “stupid and careless” words. And as a result, he resigned as the Raiders head coach.

This gives us a little picture of what Jesus meant when he said,

Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12:3)

Anyone facing prosecution in the U.S. court system is warned, “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Jesus is warning us that everything we say can and will be used for or against us when we stand before his judgment seat.

Given all we’ve said in the dark and whispered in private rooms, all the stupid and careless words we’ve spoken that could be damning witnesses against us, the wisest step we can take is to “come to terms quickly with [our] accuser” before we reach the court (Matthew 5:25), and pray with the psalmist,

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
     O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
     that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3–4)

For our Judge is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

Bridle Your Tongue (and Fingers)

But part of repentance — in fact, evidence that repentance is real — is actively pursuing transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when it comes to all our words, and perhaps especially our careless ones, repentance looks like putting a bridle on our tongues, which obviously today includes our fingers and thumbs.

“Repentance looks like putting a bridle on our tongues, which obviously today includes our fingers.”

I’m drawing this metaphor from the apostle James who, in his strong warning about the tongue, uses three helpful analogies: (1) a horse’s bridle, (2) a ship’s rudder, and (3) a flame (James 3:1–6). Each of these, like the tongue and fingers, is a small object with great power. The first two illustrate controls that produce great good: a small bridle controls a powerful horse, and a small rudder steers a powerful ship. But the third illustrates how the lack of control — let’s call it carelessness — can wreak great destruction: a small flame sets a whole forest ablaze.

The point is clear: words under control can do great good. They can be for others “a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4) and “give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). But uncontrolled, foolish words can burn friendships, families, churches, and careers to the ground (James 3:9–10). The question is, What bridles are we putting on our words to control them for good?

24-Hour Rule

Let me share just one personal bridle I’ve been using: the 24-hour rule. Before responding to someone whose words stir up anger, frustration, or defensiveness in me, I wait at least a day. I’ve found most situations do not require an immediate response, even if someone wants one. And almost always, after 24 hours, the emotions most likely to ignite my heated reply have dissipated, and I’m able to respond with more measured, loving words. Not only that, I often see the person’s perspective more clearly than I initially did. This rule is very helpful for finger speech, but it works with tongues too. I know when I use this bridle as a husband and father, it invariably produces a more constructive result.

We each must find the bridles that most effectively work for us, and it’s crucial that we do. Those who are willing to do the hard work of bridling the wild horse of our words, for Jesus’s sake, demonstrate their love for him (John 14:15) and their desire to love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:39). For those who don’t bridle their tongues and fingers, their words can and will be used against them on the day of judgment.

Whether or not we take Jesus’s words about our words to heart says something very important about our hearts.