A Restless Evil, Full of Deadly Poison

The Bible has much to say about the power of words.

Psalm 52:1-5

Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?
The steadfast love of God endures all the day.
Your tongue plots destruction,
like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit.

You love evil more than good,
and lying more than speaking what is right. Selah
You love all words that devour,
O deceitful tongue.

But God will break you down forever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah

Proverbs 18:21

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Think about this. The Bible tells us that death and life are in our speech. The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. That’s serious business. Words are powerful. We often don’t recognize this; to us they are merely tools for communication, but the Bible backs this up. Words can be deadly.

The Power of Language

Usually we think of words in terms of their denotation, what they mean, but we all know that communication is more complex than this. Words are frequently a means of exerting power or making something happen. The danger of words is in the power they can exert over us without us even recognizing it.

Imagine you got an email from a friend you’d lost touch with, and she wrote something like, “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from you. I’m really missing your voice!” That’s sweet, right?

Sure, but the same words coming from your mother may not have the same force. A passive-aggressive mother could write those words, but the intention would not be to communicate something to the reader, the main intention would be to induce guilt and compel the reader to call her.

Of course, guilt-trip-inducing relatives are not the only ones to use language to get results. This is a necessary function of language. We seek to persuade, to get someone to do something, to change a mind, or provoke a reaction. But the power of language is not meant to be separated from communication.

The Purpose of Language

Words are intended to connect us to others, which is why disingenuous or harmful speech is so wicked. If we employ words primarily to gain power over others, to exploit them or harm them, we are perverting it from its true purpose. This is evil.

Speech is a gift from God. Christians have long recognized that the power of speech is one of the distinctions which stems from the image of God in man. Christ himself is the Word of the Father, God’s true and faithful communicative act. God has given us also a written word in which he truly communicates himself. If we exploit words for our own benefit instead of using them to communicate, we are not imitating our Father.

Or rather, those who exploit language for the sake of power are imitators of their father, the Devil. Satan’s first appearance in Scripture is as a twister of language. He uses words not to communicate truth, but to seek his own ends. Using language for destructive power is evil. It is satanic. If you ever find yourself dealing with someone who uses words to control their situation and to control other people, be on your guard.

I realize this is strong language, but I think it’s legitimate. The tongue has the power of life and death; it’s a deadly poison. Think about that.

Responding to the Abuse of Language

Not every passive-aggressive manipulator is of the Devil, thank God, but we should take this stuff seriously. If you know someone whose words are always instruments of power, I think that should change the way you deal with them. If their every communication is an attempt at control, then stop thinking in terms of true or false. They don’t think that way.

Manipulators are great at changing their minds. They say one thing one day and another thing the next, and they may never acknowledge the contradiction. That doesn’t mean that nothing they say is ever true, but truth is not what is important to them. Results are. They say what they have to say to get their victims to respond how they need to.

When a manipulator speaks, words cease to be a means of connecting with another human, made in the image of God. Words become tools, weapons. This is contrary to how most people use words. When someone communicates with us, we take their words at face value. If someone speaks or writes to us, we respond by trying to understand what they mean. If they have a record of untrustworthiness, we may try to seek to determine whether what they are saying is true or false, but we’re still thinking in terms of communication. Most of the time this serves us well.

Sometimes this doesn’t work. When words are weapons, you can’t stay and listen. You’ll be crushed. You’ll be destroyed. You’ll be poisoned.

There’s a lot more to be said here. How do you recognize these dangerous situations? Under what circumstances does this stuff usual happen? What specific consequences are likely to occur? But here’s the short answer:

When you find yourself in a world where words are power just run. Run fast in the other direction. And plug your ears and yell, “LA LA LA LA!” while you run, if you find that helps.

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One comment on “A Restless Evil, Full of Deadly Poison

  1. Douglas Roorda says:

    This is challenging. We tend to think of what the Bible says about the tongue in terms of either falsehoods or malediction – lying or cursing. I think you’ve pointed out something we’ve missed. Much like the Third Word is often seen to be about not “swearing” though it’s really more about not making the name/reputation of the Lord to be empty.

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