The Words of Our Heart
How many of our regrets are the words that slipped from our mouths: mounting anger that ruptured into a torrent of destructive ugliness, icy sarcasm that cut deeply into raw and unappreciated sensitivities, relentless criticizing that crushed the other until the tears flowed? Only afterward did we truly appreciate the injury and pain of our own doing. And looking back, we cringe as we hear the echo of our voice saying what should not have been said; or more accurately, what should not have been thought.
There is an intimate path between our words and our heart. Christ said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Our speech simply puts on display what is produced in the heart—whether good or evil (Luke 6:45). If others want to know the state of our hearts, then they only need to listen to us talk. We are telling them. In fact, we are telling them more than we probably mean to be telling them. Our anxiety, hatred, fear, pride, selfishness, hypocrisy, lust, and deceitfulness are not born in our mouths; they are conceived in our hearts. Our words simply give these sins a public hearing—shaping them with meaning and energizing them with tone. If our hearts are coddling worldliness and immorality, or are obsessed with fear and insecurity, or are overflowing with arrogance or selfishness, it will come out in our speech. You really can tell someone’s religion by their speech (James 1:26). Words reflect the state of our heart; and our heart—more than anything else—reflects the state of our walk with God.
The Heart of Our Words
Our Lord’s teaching about the connection between our words and our heart helps us appreciate that to progress in verbal holiness we must first appreciate this fact: a lack of self-control with our words reflects a lack of self-control in our hearts.
In Scripture, self-control is actually a two-sided affair. Although we often use the words self-control and self-discipline interchangeably, the Bible distinguishes them. Self-control refers to restraint, what we purposely censor or subdue. Self-discipline refers to what we direct, what we intentionally compose and declare. In self-control we hold back and in self-discipline we choose our course. For example, Proverbs praises the wise man who verbally distinguishes himself from the fool. The wise man is marked by self-control: “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11). He is also marked by self-discipline: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18). The righteous person is known by what he says and what he does not say, by the absence of inappropriate words and the timeliness of appropriate ones, by the rare appearance of angry and sarcastic speech, and the frequency of words that bring peace and healing.
What an advantage to understand then that self-control and self-discipline are fundamentally issues of the heart. Now we know where to get to work. If we want speech that is seasoned with the salt of grace, then we need to make use of the classic Christian disciplines of grace that shape our hearts. The word of God, prayer, and the sacraments are the means of grace that God uses to nurture holy hearts that bring forth words that will please our God, encourage fellow Christians, and illumine the path of life for unbelieving friends. Wise words will flow from hearts that are rooted in God’s wisdom. Self-control will flourish as we pray in the Spirit because God has given to us a spirit of self-control (2 Tim. 1:7). Baptism will remind us that we are cleansed by Christ’s blood and must speak as those who are made pure. Through the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us with God’s grace so that we might endure—not just in deed or in word, but in our heart.
Perhaps now we appreciate the psalmist’s plea, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (Ps. 19:14).