Have you ever had your mouth washed out with soap? It is an old-fashioned method that is meant to help a child refrain from using bad words. I can remember at least one time when this happened to me as a child. I don’t remember what I said, but my parents sure knew that I needed to purge my vocabulary of whatever it was. Unfortunately, their method did not cure me.
The other night, as I stood in the shower, I remembered something that I had said that offended a friend. This got me thinking about what the Bible has to say about how Christians should use their words.
The epistle of James makes a few interesting points on this topic. First, in James 3:2 we read, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature…” As much as I hate to admit it, I have not reached this level of maturity. James also says that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8b). I am guilty of spewing evil words that sink into people like poison and cause lasting discomfort.
In Proverbs we read, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (10:19). I often find myself in situations where I hear or see something wrong and feel the need to speak my mind. Occasionally, when I speak up it is very helpful. Often, though, in the heat of the moment my words do more harm than good. While I believe that it is important to interacting with others in an open and honest manner, I must remember that it can be better to soy nothing instead of sinfully speaking many words.
Additionally, while Believers are urged to speak the truth, Paul taught the Ephesians to temper their speech with love. Speaking the “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) helps build up the body of Christ, while speaking the truth without love often leads to misunderstanding and discouragement.
Since I was having these thoughts in the shower and felt convicted, I picked up my bar of soap and gave it a lick. I was hoping that some “self-discipline” would be the cure to my unruly tongue. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide much long-term benefit. (Honestly, it wasn’t as terrible as I expected, maybe the soap industry has flavor standards now.) It tasted just bad enough, though, and lingered long enough to help me realize a few things: I realized that sin is serious, that I am called to a high standard, and that God is the only one who can help me reliably control my tongue.
Sin has consequences. In this case, I momentarily tasted the bitterness of the soap on my tongue. This “consequence” likely paled in comparison to discomfort felt by the person I had offended earlier. If I allow my words to pour out, unchecked and unaccompanied by love, it will not surprise me if I reap worse consequences in the future- like the loss of friendship.
This experience also helped me realize that God’s standard is unreachable- but worth pursuing. James urges his readers toward maturity and completion. I should strive to use my words wisely and to “be quick to listen [and] slow to speak…” (James 1:19). This leads to the final lesson that God’s Holy Spirit, living in me, can help me control what I say.
When I understand that no amount of soap or willpower will cure my unruly tongue, I can begin to see that I need a source for wisdom and strength that is beyond myself. Since I have a relationship with Jesus Christ and he has filled me with His Spirit, I have access to the wisdom and power I need to remain in control of my lips. Now I need to rely upon him in demanding situations, rather than on myself.
Do you sometimes struggle with your words, too? Do you sense that the people around you are keeping a healthy distance from you to avoid the “poison” you spray around? Don’t turn to a bar of soap. Repent and turn to the Lord. He can (and will) help those who trust Him.
(This reflection was originally written in 2013 and updated in 2020.)