“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part.”
This is the perceptive observation of Ivan, the silverback gorilla, from his restrictive domicile at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade in The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.
If we waste words, it’s no wonder, is it, that God stewards them well?
Essential Oil Words
God doesn’t discard his words to rot. He never accidentally drops them like cheerios in between the seats of the Sienna minivan. Instead, our reports are that “none of his words fall to the ground.” All his words work.
And God’s utterances, like all his questions in the Scriptures are never purely for his benefit. They are always for the advantage of the recipient. Even his most terrifying threats are meant to generate responsive, punishment-averting, turn-arounds!
Our words, too, we’re told, should be words of benefit. Concrete footer words that support the lives around us. Reliable steel beam words that folks can sturdily walk across. Essential oil words that hearers can inhale to heal their wounds and subdue their stress.
Don’t just “Speak your Mind”
At present though, the premium the Scriptures place on beneficial words has yielded to “authentic speech.” If a thought enters your mind, in order to be true to yourself, you’re obliged to blurt it...somewhere, somehow, and preferably quickly. It must be gotten out.
An ordinarily reluctant voter in Iowa some time back, re-engaged by the “straight-talk” of a bombastic candidate who led the polls there, was reported as saying, “I admire the way he speaks his mind.”
But mind-speaking is not necessarily an admirable goal, especially if our mind is vacant of wisdom, generosity, affection, understanding, warmth, or virtue. Plenty of us are petty, hateful, paranoid, stingy, suspicious, quick to take offense, and snarkily bitter. Speaking our minds when clogged with such self-regarding contaminants does nothing but pollute.
When our minds are chock-full of this poisonous self-regard, we’re best to smother our speech.
“Often,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, “we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.”
We imagine we will die of a word-pressure explosion if we don’t express the volatile, complex world within us. The Scriptures, however, contend that if you can somehow govern your speech, you’ll find your bodily behaviors governable as well.
But being led by our hearts, as we’re often un-thoughtfully advised to do, we and all our potential audiences are subjected to a scatter gun assault of ill-considered speech that makes us feel better, while those around us cringe.
CS Lewis wondered whether this might be due to an unwitting diabolical influence.
“To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography.”
Our cultural moment is plastered with the devilish pollen of incessant autobiographical “speaking of the mind.”
We shouldn’t say whatever occurs to us, though. Words aren’t meant to be disposable. And communication should rarely, if ever, serve merely as an act of self-expression. There is much about ourselves that doesn’t need to be expressed.
Lots of our tendencies need simply to be killed, then forgiven.
Verbal Vandalism at the Gym
Verbal-vomit is an act of vandalism to our children’s teachers, our spouses, or to our kids. Politicians and angry dads, talk-radio hosts and little-league moms are all champions of speaking their minds. But rarely does such speech do anything but corrode trust, create defensiveness, and cultivate alienation.
A three-time combat-veteran described his acute anxiety prior to refereeing high school basketball on a local sport-talk show.
The reason? Partisan fans emboldened “to speak their minds.” His apprehension, he intimated, surpassed what he’d previously endured in combat.
And this incredible statement was received as entirely plausible. No one suggested he was being hyperbolic. Because we’ve all been to athletic competitions.
And of course referees are only pretend people, so berating them doesn’t count. If they make a call which displeases us, they deserve a hand grenade of derisive comments.
“Who’s generally the harshest with you on the court?” the Press Row hosts inquired.
“By far the mothers! One night, leaving the parking lot, one mom let me have it such that I could only say, ‘Kudos to you ma’am. I have been in the military, and yet, have never heard anyone say anything quite like that before.’”
But she was just speaking her mind. Working out her intense, unexamined family patriotism on anyone who didn’t share her DNA.
“I just have to be honest...”
If we foolishly learn to regard “speaking our minds” without qualification or assume that, “I just have to be honest here...” means we have licensed ourselves to say whatever injurious things we wish, we will continue to be subject to the stench of rotten, wasted words, stacked like piles of rancid banana peels.
He who “speaks his mind” must first be sure his mind is neither full of himself nor of contempt. She who “speaks her mind” must determine whether her mind has help lodged in it, hope for others residing there, consolation to soothe or useful critique that aspires for improvement.
Knowing himself, as he evidently did, and realizing the disproportionate power of words to maim or to heal, Bonhoeffer implemented, in the seminary community he was leading the following instruction:
“...it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”
What if we all made that a decisive rule in our lives? Of course, inclined as we are to speak for our own relief and not for our neighbor’s benefit, we’ll need lots of help.
But we do have a Savior, who when he was condemned in place of we word-wasters, offered “not a word, not a word, not a word.” He never said a mumblin’ word.”
Perhaps we could entrust ourselves to Him for the capacity, the restraint, and the self-giving affection to become the kind of people who might eventually be able to speak our minds nourishingly. Then, instead of the suffocating odor of wasted banana peels, perhaps there’ll be instead, the fragrant aroma of “an instructed tongue that sustains the weary.”
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com