Curse Jars, Soap Bars, and the Futility of Perfecting the Tongue
I hope you’re enjoying this rainy day. My prayer for you this week has been that God would “satisfy you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5).
It’s a strange thing to remember, but I recall the scenario like it was yesterday. I was sitting in the back of my seventh-grade class at Clara Weisenborn Junior High in Dayton, Ohio, when, from the front row, a fellow student, Adam, interrupted the teacher for a poorly timed and decidedly unfunny one-liner. The response of the class was total silence. Not even a nervous giggle. To his credit, Adam was undeterred. He thought that perhaps the class hadn’t really heard his joke, so he tried a second time, even louder. Again, crickets. Confused by the lack of response, Adam leaned forward in his seat, backside entirely off the chair, and uttered his joke again, with even greater confidence, only this time both the teacher and the students turned to him with daggers in their eyes, as if to say, “Enough!”
After about a three second delay, taking advantage of the tension in the room, I whispered loudly and sarcastically to Adam, “Say it again.” The class erupted with the sort of snot-bubbled screeches that junior high kids produce when trying to bridle belly laughs.
That was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me. I spent the next two years of my life trying to duplicate my comedic success, blurting out rejoinders, comments, and ill-advised jokes to little avail. My poor teachers didn’t know what to do. They got a hold of my mom, and said, “We just love John; he’s a great student, but he will not stop talking at inappropriate times. He cannot control his tongue.”
Well, that was thirty-three years ago, and I would like to tell you that once I made it through junior high, I never made another poorly-timed comment; I’d love to tell you that since then I’ve never spoken out of turn, made a sarcastic remark, or hurt someone with my words, but unfortunately, mastering the tongue is not a battle that any earth-bound person ever totally wins. The consequences get larger, and the words we use may change, but the struggles remain. To be sure, if we open our mouths, we will sin.
The Scriptures have much to say about the control of the tongue, or the pervasive lack thereof. The book of Proverbs warns us that “when words are many, sin is not absent” (Proverbs 10:19). When Isaiah meets the Lord in his temple, the prophet summarizes his sinfulness this way: “Woe is me! … I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). When the Apostle Paul presents that powerful and poetic indictment of all human sin and rebellion against God in Romans 3, he says this: “None is righteous, no, not one … they use their tongues to deceive. … Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
When the biblical writers want to make a case for the complete brokenness of humanity, they start with an area of sin that no one has conquered: the use of our tongues.
So what do we do with this area of weakness? Well, certainly, there are some practical efforts that we can (and should) employ, for example:
:: Pause before speaking, and evaluate the intent of your words before you say them.
:: Establish a pattern of complimenting other people.
:: Endeavor to “put off” those words that cut, tear down, or destroy.
:: Resolve to say only things that build up other people, and show grace to them.
:: If you tend to use profane language, ask someone else to hold you accountable when you sin.
These are helpful and God-honoring practices that we should commit to. However, the first and quintessential step in taming the tongue is recognizing our complete inability to do so in our own strength.
This inability is meant to drive us to Jesus, who controlled his tongue in every way and in every circumstance in our place. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
A friend of mine says that pulpit malpractice is preaching the imperatives without reminding your audience of their inability and need for Christ’s obedience on their behalf. Yeah, but you say, “Won’t preaching our inability discourage people from even trying to obey?” The answer is: yes … it will discourage them from trying in their own strength.
New Testament scholar, Daniel Doriani, says: “The tongue daily demonstrates both our sinfulness and our inability to reform ourselves.”
Curse jars and soap bars may occasionally deter one from uttering a mean-spirited or profane comment, and if you feel like they’re of help to you, by all means, use them. But true progress is rooted in increased brokenness, greater self-suspicion, a deeper dependence on God’s grace, and the recognition of who we are in Christ.
Christ has made us new. The Holy Spirit now resides within us. God loves you (even when you curse). And the more that we completely depend on the power of God through prayer, and recognize God’s steadfast love for us, the more we’ll actually experience growth. Growth in humility. Growth in patience. Growth in love for others. And growth in holiness, even in the way we use our tongues.