September 17, 2012

Prepare or Perish: Help in Taming the Tongue (a little)

by Clint Archer
Houdini Showing How To Escape HandcuffsThe famous escape artist, Harry Houdini was a master showman who started his dazzling career as really little more than a glorified locksmith. The art he perfected was staging circumstances with lethal consequences, from which he would then escape with death-defying dexterity. The more inescapable the incarceration seemed, and the more perilous the consequence, the more satisfyingly miraculous the escape would appear.

Throughout his illustrious career, his stunts became increasingly impressive. One act began as an escape from a giant milk can, and evolved into one of his more spectacular demonstrations: the cuffed and shackled Houdini was stuffed inside the man-sized milk can, which was then enclosed in a nailed and chained wooden crate, and dramatically dropped into a river with 2,000 pounds of lead attached to it. In less than a minute the nonplussed artist would emerge unshackled from the water, while the box would be hoisted by a crane and found to be unbroken, still locked shut, with the leg-irons left inside.

Houdini was not, however, invincible.


One of his claims was that he could endure any blow to the stomach, no matter how hard. He regularly challenged professional boxers to punch him in the gut, as he stoically and unflinchingly absorbed the blow. But on October 31, 1926, after a tiring show, Houdini was reclining in his dressing room when a university student asked him if it was true he could withstand any blow. He casually affirmed the claim and the young man suddenly hit the unsuspecting Houdini in the stomach several times at full force. Without the chance to prepare for the impact, the great Houdini was rendered as vulnerable as a turtle on its back. The trauma burst his appendix and died.

There are many activities we engage in so frequently that we neglect to do the necessary preparation to capitalize on the experience. One of those is the innocent pleasure of social chit-chat.

Idle conversation is an activity that is so much part of the warp and woof of our lives that we seldom realize how much of it has the potential to do good or harm.

Matt 12:36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.

James 5:5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!

As a pastor, I am used to utilizing a short pause for collecting my thoughts and darting up a brief prayer before a counseling appointment or making a phonecall, but it is the casual, incidental encounters throughout the day that lay traps for ungodly speech.

chatterboxPhone calls sporadically interrupt your thoughts all day long like a long line of tempters, unplanned encounters at the grocery store jump at you like a ninja, and then there are the countless drive-by verbal exchanges you have with your spouse and the hit-and-run instructions you bark at employees.

The path to taming the tongue to simply do a rolling stop before accelerating into chit-chat of any kind, and consider what the most appropriate words would be.


I know it doesn’t sound practical. If you had a moment of meditation to engage your spiritual core muscles before every utterance that emanated from your mouth, you would spend a lot of your week in halting pauses, like that kid Fred Savage played in The Wonder Years who was always standing there speechless while his future self narrated his thoughts. People might think you were slow. But it is a command in Scripture, it can be obeyed with an infusion of God’s grace.

Col 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. 

Just picture how intentional your conversations would be if you had the undervalued superpower of being able to simply think before you speak. And think of how many insensitive remarks, off-color innuendos, and blatant half-truths you could avoid with a little mental bracing.

It helps to have an AA sponsor of sorts, or accountability partner, in Christianese. My wife graciously fulls this role for me (with enthusiasm). She periodically reminds me to prepare for conversation before we go out to dinner with friends, have people over for a Bible study, or whenever we know I’ll be tempted to dominate conversation, or draw attention to myself, or otherwise abuse my tongue. This exercise usually jogs my memory ask questions of others, listen courteously, and reply with encouraging words or a biblical perspective on the discussion, instead of my own (oft-unsolicited) opinions.

Those of you who know me well might find it hard to believe that I take time to think before I speak. My feeble reply is, “Can you imagine how bad it would be if I didn’t?!”


Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jordan

    This is really great biblical advice, thank you. In many a casual conversation I have been the victim of inappropriate comments and blasphemy. The reason? My casually careless speech. I wasn’t inappropriate but I led the other person to believe that I was just like them. I have been called cool, funny and nice. Sounds good but a man-centered conversation is not glorifying to Christ and leads to unprofitable talk and ultimately self-pride. We should be different. Even casual conversations should reflect this.

    • pastorarcher

      Exactly. Thanks for that.

  • Annemarie Williams

    Very thankful for this post! My careless words and fiery tongue have been much on my mind this week. I was reading Lawson’s book on Edward’s and was struck by this resolution which Edward’s made: “Resolved, never to speak anything that is ridiculous, or a matter of laughter on the Lord’s day.” On the surface, it seems legalistic, but upon further reflection, I realized how much I would enjoy a the clearer conscience that such a resolution would bring in my life.


    • pastorarcher

      I’m not against laughter, even on the Lord’s day, but I wholeheartedly agree that we should be in charge of our tongue (on every day) and not vice versa!

  • Annemarie Williams

    The quote from James (above) is found in chapter 3.

  • Larry

    @Clint. I’m not tracking, altogether, with you. Are you saying all conversation (generally) should bring 2 or more Christians to some type of discussion about the Word? Or is at problematic if my buddies “grill” me about how they beat the “pants off me” when we played ping-pong? or vice-versa? (Would saying, “Clint I beat you like you like you stole something” possibly be problematic and best left unsaid THAT way?)

    • pastorarcher

      I’m just saying that when you talk to someone, cultivate the awareness of if what you are saying is helpful, edifying, pure, or coarse, gossipy, or discouraging. And then adjust accordingly. A lot fo what we say is neutral, but much of what we say is so far below the standard of Scripture that neutral would be a good goal.

  • brad

    In my community we have been wrestling through this issue. We have actually come to a little bit of a different conclusion. We have decided that our community should be a place where we wrestle with deep heart issues. So for us, this means that we are willing and patient and graceful with each other as we share what is going on in our hearts. Sometimes this means just starting to talk, even if our words are ill-formed or half-formed. We have noticed that as the mouth begins to speak we can see the real heart issues and we can rebuke and encourage one another. Overall, we have realized how freeing this is. To see men confess and repent of sin at the heart-level is very powerful!

    However, I think this only works in a gospel-shaped, life-on-life community. In other words, it is probably wise to not be this authentic if you are in a community that doesn’t value grace or doesn’t really live life together.

    • pastorarcher

      It certainly becomes easier when the whole community you are in is working on the same thing. Thanks.

  • dawna

    I think I have had to learn this over and over. Sometimes I feel trapped by a gossip conversation and have to somehow re-direct it to (salt it) back to how God is working in all our lives and aren’t we glad he hasn’t given up improving us yet, followed with something positive about the person or situation or even directing the person to pray for the person they are speaking of…
    Again sometimes it is just careless jest that once out of my mouth, sounded way worse than I thought! Accountability both to God and to others helps. Must remember to be salt and light!

    • pastorarcher

      Thanks for sharing. You are not alone.

  • Larry

    Overall, if you are walking in love, and I dont mean a half cocked, drummed up, “I love the brethren” but you genuinely have concern, respect and a heart of humility and self sacrifice in your attitude and actions and are at a modicum of peace with self and environment, you wont get caught up in mindless, unedifying chit-chat. Small minds spend time discussing people. (gossiping)

    • pastorarcher

      Spot on. The preparation you really need is to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.

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