I remember a man, he was a WW II veteran, who liked to say that free speech wasn’t free—it came at the cost of the lives of the people who fought to preserve it. It was a healthy reminder of the difference between an entitlement and a legacy. What we have in freedom of speech is not an entitlement that we are free to use and abuse in any way we so choose because we “have the right to.” Having the right to do something doesn’t make whatever you do right, as many seem to think in our culture. Freedom is rather a legacy, and we honor it by choosing our words carefully. If everyone would practice that, it would go a long way to elevate our speech—and our speech could use some elevating!
For the disciple of Christ, there should be another layer. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to give us right of free speech but so we would embrace the responsibility of freed speech—speech that has been freed from “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language” (Colossians 3:8). Speech that has been freed from lying (v. 9).
With the advent of the internet and later social media, speech and information have become viral. Isn’t it interesting and more than a bit revealing that we use a word associated with the spread of disease to now describe our out-of-control speech and communication? I think you could make a good case that this is exactly the right term when you consider that:
- Never before has so much been said about so little,
- Never before has so much been said so badly,
- Never before has so much been said without thinking.
All of this simply means is that as disciples of Jesus we need to do some serious thinking about our speech. But as always, we’re not alone—God is present in our lives through His Spirit and through His word. And through the word the Spirit gives us wonderful guidance in regard to our speech. You can find this guidance scattered throughout the biblical witness, but there is definitely a strong concentration of instruction to be found in the book of Proverbs.
A good place to begin is in 18:21 where the writer tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Framing it in such absolute terms gets our attention—but it’s more than that the writer is after. Words can bring death or life! Our confession of Jesus at baptism leads to life (Romans 10:9-10), while a denial of Him results in death. We can also think of juries and judges giving verdicts that result in life or death.
All of this might be what the writer has in view, but I tend to think he’s more after the idea of how a wise, loving use of words promotes life, while a destructive use of words can bring about death. We saw an extreme example of this a few years ago when a young woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her boyfriend. He had been contemplating suicide and she had urged him to do it—even to the point of telling him to get back in his truck when he had second thoughts about asphyxiating himself through the poisonous fumes that had built up inside. After her conviction, her layers argued the verdict was unjust because it violated her right to free speech!
Our speech is like a surgeon’s scalpel. When misused, it can mutilate, scar, mar, and even kill. When it is use as God intended, it brings healing and wholeness.
The tongue of the wise brings healing” (12:23).