The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. Proverbs 18:21
Up to this point, the information I have shared during my sermons has been relatively heavy, so I’d like to start this sermon off by telling you a little joke. A man buys a pet parrot and brings him home. But the parrot starts insulting him and gets nasty and fowl (pun intended), so the man picks up the parrot and tosses him into the freezer to teach him a lesson. He hears the bird squawking for a few moments, but all of a sudden, the parrot is quiet. The man quickly opens the freezer door, and the parrot walks out. As the bird looks up at him, it says, “I apologize for offending you, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness.” The man says, “Well, thank you. I forgive you.” The parrot then says, “If you don’t mind my asking, what did the chicken do?”
Admit it. Some part of you feels like the parrot deserved this little time out for the insults and the nasty comments he was giving his new owner. As funny as this sounds, outside of the parrot’s perspective, it’s no surprise many people might side with the man for not putting up with the bird. I’m reading a book by Ben Howe called The Immoral Majority, where he discusses why we feel justified when someone gets their just desserts, even if those just desserts are not even close to justice. People don’t look at the rather inhumane treatment of a parrot by throwing him in the freezer, in so much as they look at the fact that the bird comes out extremely polite after learning a lesson. After all, the man is the owner and is responsible for the bird’s care, and the bird isn’t showing its gratitude for that care when it insults him. What I find interesting is that in general, the population around us is typically OK with some folks standing up for themselves when someone speaks nastily to them. But they don’t defend those who can’t or won’t defend themselves. In the same vein, do we always protect our selves from others who can be abusive, especially those with power? Maybe the bosses that can belittle us, or the person we work with that tends to abuse their authority. More importantly, even than all this, do we defend ourselves from our own words?
Notice I said, “defend ourselves” from the words of others and ourselves. Not discuss, or debate, but defend. Discuss, and debate denotes the potential for civil discourse. Defending means something far more significant is at stake. The proverb here speaks of life and death. While it may seem overly dramatic at first, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, knockdown, drag-out donnybrook of a fight here. I’ll give you a personal example. I don’t always speak kindly to myself when I should. It’s been a struggle for me to do that for decades, and it’s been an even more difficult struggle to admit to that struggle. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but there are days when it is a slugfest to believe that I can sharpen a pencil without mucking up the whole process.
Don't Bury Your Treasure
Good old Bill Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The first person I think God wants to free us from is ourselves, and this quote is why. When we speak poorly of ourselves, whether to another person or in our internal monologue, we are demeaning what God wants us to be, and we are burying our good as part of the deal. Forgiveness and grace for ourselves are so challenging to come by. For some reason, God gave us memory and then didn’t impart His all-powerful gift of being able to choose to forget things at will. Going hand in hand with this gift is the fact we don’t always speak well of ourselves or own the power we have from the Lord. I spoke of false humility last week, and it’s a dangerous lie we tell ourselves. Many people are quick to own their faults, but then take it to an unhealthy degree, and that pushes them precariously out of balance. They say things that become increasingly more cruel about themselves, and then repeat them with increasing regularity.
Those words become so ingrained that we don’t realize we’re saying them even when we’re sitting smack-dab in the middle of the rut that inner monologue has clawed out in our soul.
In the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on this passage, it makes a point that it is not only about the type of language coming from the tongue and the need to control and curate it, but also the amount of it that comes out. We speak death to ourselves and others, and sometimes speak a lot of it, regardless of the truth.
In Proverbs 10, we read, “Lying lips conceal hatred, and whoever utters slander is a fool.” This proverb includes slander and lies against oneself and who God created you to be. The hatred concealed in this isn’t ours either, although we parrot it like it is. This activity is a ploy of the enemy to make you feel less than worthy, it is a lie, and we must eliminate it at all costs. But it’s a sticky lie, and shaking it off our hand into the trash can isn’t always easy.
A lie repeated so often it becomes a norm can be very difficult to overcome, even if overcoming it means we can be truly free. The freedom found in intentionally rewriting our monologue is about creating a rewarding new norm. When you look at the word “fruit” here, it’s more than just fruit. It means first fruits, a reward, and curiously enough it also means “bough,” like the main branch coming off a tree that supports other smaller braches. Its central relationship is its connection with the trunk. Our primary connection is as branches shooting off from the true vine.
The bough is a conduit from the trunk feeding sustenance to the branches in just the same way that the connection the Holy Spirit provides us to Jesus supplies us with the reward of life.
It’s also interesting that word used for spirit means breath, and when we speak, the words carried on our breath can bring us and others life.
Without that life connection, we die. Dead, disconnected vessels can’t act on the plans God has for them or share with the other they support. The words we speak can destroy ourselves, our hopes, and any hopes others might have had through us in this process by their content and the frequency.
A Life Instruction Manual
As we take a closer look at this text, this proverb sits inside a whole laundry list of good advice about what to say, when to say it and why. The general idea behind this is because the tongue often wags the dog more than the tail does. The book of Proverbs is about wisdom, and it’s broken out against the somewhat cynical viewpoint of Ecclesiastes. What you say, the power you have, and life and death are common threads through both of them, though. When they speak of power, it’s an either-or premise. Good or bad, healing or killing, moving forward or backward. Mobility and choice are the points of this word here, and it coincides with the concept of life and death.
In Hebrew, life is the same word as stomach and that makes sense when you think about it. If you’re hungry, you feel like you’re going to starve to death, but when you’re full, you feel relaxed, kind of euphoric, and regenerative. When our words are killing us, we feel miserable, and this often manifests itself as an empty feeling in the pit of our stomach. Inversely, when our hearts are full because our words are speaking life into us, we’re so full of love we feel like bursting, just like after Thanksgiving dinner.
Your choice to speak life to yourself allows you to eat the rewarding “first fruits.” That’s easier said than done for some of us, though.
As a very broken young man growing up, I was regularly taught to speak poorly of myself. Speaking well of myself was a foreign concept. If something happened in my life that I was excited about, I shared it as children often do. I was an honors student, and I sought approval from friends and family through achievement. Others instructed me that sharing one’s success was bragging. I was told not to brag because people didn’t like bragging even though I wasn’t bragging, I was seeking approval and affirmation. It got to the point that whenever I achieved something in an attempt to gain acceptance, I felt ashamed of the achievement because of how others might take it. That shaming brought me to a significant issue with receiving any manner of praise, and I still deal with this. It was difficult for me to fully own that God loves me not because He has to, but because He wants to with every single fiber of his infinitely innumerable being. If I, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, can feel like that, then how does the average person who doesn’t know Jesus feel?
Here’s the secret. Understanding that we sometimes face this ourselves is the key to evangelism.
Why Are You Hitting Yourself?
When I was a kid, one of my older brother’s favorite games was to take my arm and punch me with it while asking, “Why are you punching yourself?” Similarly, people are all too often parroting things others have loaded them down with that aren’t true. They end up beating themselves up, and in the case of Christians, severely limiting their ability to answer any call God places on them.
When this happens, they aren’t living in victory, they’re falling back into brokenness.
But as we understand how brokenness can lead people not to hear the word of God because “it was meant for someone way better than me,” we find a key to what Jesus came to do in releasing the captives. We’ve identified their captivity. I’ll go back to that in a moment.
We are commanded to speak well of ourselves for a reason. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” The transgression here means revolution. When we speak words of death, we are revolting against God’s truth when the truth is what sets captives like us free. That’s the bread about which we beggars are supposed to be telling other beggars.
Giving ourselves the grace God gave us is essential because it allows constructive joy in our lives instead of destructive self-criticism. In a society where that kind of self-bashing is the norm, loving yourself as someone created by God, and unfathomably valuable to Him is the kind of revolution for which we should be aiming.
We can give live grace in front of others and show them how they can have it as well. We can lead a revolution that shows people just how deeply God cares and loves them, how he’s set us free from words of death, and how he can do that for them as well. Evangelism isn’t telling someone who doesn’t know God and couldn’t care less about Him, that God loves them. It’s telling someone who really doesn’t know themselves and really doesn’t love themselves that God can show them how to love themselves the way He loves them. That’s freedom.
Galatians 5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. That yoke of slavery comes through words of death. So speak life.
2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us precisely how this happens. “and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The obedience Christ wants for those thoughts is to speak the truth of the Father’s love. And that truth sets us free as Jesus’ disciples, just like it says in John 8:32. Once we’re free, we’re open to set other captives free.
The Choice We Face
In the movie, The Matrix, the character Morpheus offers the main character Neo a red pill and a blue pill and tells him he has to choose. One pill leads back into the Matrix, a place where life can be good or bad, lived as he always knew it. For people in the real world, that means that uncomfortable wet blanket of life, no abundance that was promised by Jesus, no higher purpose for which to strive. On the other hand, there was a pill that leads to the truth. The truth is sometimes tough to swallow, but ultimately in the movie, it leads Neo to stop living his life in a false reality where he is, in fact, powerless and to become the powerful being he was destined to be. When we get there, we can bring others out of captivity along with us.
We will be more effective in witnessing to people and will show them to the freedom they need because at the center of our hearts, we are free. Think of it like this. When you’re on a flight, and flight attendant is giving the emergency instructions, they always say to put your oxygen mask on before assisting others with theirs. Right now, we have a lot of people running around with no oxygen mask on frantically trying to put one on someone else by saying all the life-giving things to that person that they long to hear said to themselves.
So how do we learn to do all this for these people? Simple. We need to regularly open ourselves to God loving on us and speaking His words of life into us. Rejoice with Him fully when we do something we know that is within His will. Prayed today for someone in need? Rejoice! You did the Father’s will! Gave your whole tithe this week? Rejoice! You did as God told you to do. Took time to be with your children or grandchildren and show them the love of Christ? Rejoice! And rejoice by hearing God speak to your heart about His great love for you. We all need to personally experience a Matthew 3 moment, the one where God says He loves Jesus and is well pleased with him. God wants to give us that moment, so we must ask God to help us hear it. Open yourself to listen to the Holy Spirit tell you who you absolutely are to Him.
As kids, we learn by imitating our parents and our older siblings, remember? Ask God to tell you something surprising about you, and then spend the day or the week or the month, intentionally parroting it. This process isn’t about puffing up your ego, it’s about owning God’s purpose for you.
Whether He tells you through someone else, or you hear a thundering voice from nowhere, or He speaks to your heart as softly as a whisper, hold on to whatever He says.
In the book, Crash the Chatterbox, author and pastor Steven Furtick writes, “The more deeply we reinforce our identity in Christ, the more fortified we will be against the onslaught of opposing voices in our lives.” And those opposing voices can sometimes include our own.
If I had been speaking life over myself sooner, I would have gotten into a pulpit sooner. All along the way, there were opportunities for me to answer my calling. The problem was, I didn’t believe I was worthy of the help offered to me. I didn’t think I was worthy of the grace, and the most significant contributor to that disbelief was the continual recording of death that was playing in my mind and coming out of my mouth. Not that God can’t use me where I am; in fact, He’s using me and reclaiming what I went through in these very words. But I have to wonder how many lives could I have touched if I wouldn’t have talked myself out of God’s love for me all that time? How much freedom could I have spoken into my life? How many more captives could have been set free in the process. The point here is, there’s freedom in the words you speak, and it doesn’t entirely mean what it could mean until you pass that freedom to someone else. So free yourself, and then go, free everyone, you can find by speaking life over them.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.