(This blog is taken from Lesson 9 in Happy School Advanced.)

Sometimes a specific sentence in the Bible will have a profound effect on me. One such Scripture is, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21) I mean, death and life. What’s more important than death and life? 

See if you can hear death in the following sentences: “You’re never going to amount to much.” “Oh, that isn’t going to work out well.” “You’ve never tried that. And you don’t have a very good track record.” “You are a disappointment.” “I don’t think you’re built for that, are you?” “I doubt it because I haven’t seen you be successful in that area before.” “You know, you’re not really very smart (pretty, likable, etc.).”

Now see if you can hear life in these sentences: “You are so good at that and I really respect it.” “You have what it takes.” “No one gets everything right on the first try. So try again. I believe you can do it.” “You are so good at X. An example of that is…” “I enjoy your company so much. You are really a delightful person.” “You’ll figure it out. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders.”

Think of your relationships like a garden and your words as the different elements affecting the garden. Negative, critical words are like predators, bugs, drought, lack of nutrients, and lack of sunlight. But positive words, such as praise, appreciation, affection, etc. are like water, sunlight, fertilizer, and good soil. Words matter.

What I want to remind you is that people are going to disappoint you. That’s not a maybe, it’s a given and a certainty. We’re all porcupines and we prick each other. 

I think of Sarai in the Old Testament when her husband, Abram, said to lie and say that she was his sister to protect himself. Never mind that she was taken into the Pharoah’s court as a wife and had to perform wife-ly activities with him! What a disappointment Abram was. If there is one thing we expect from our husbands, it’s to be protected. 

This is so loud because Abram became Abraham, the Father of the Jews. This was not some nobody. If the Bible tells us anything in the stories of the Old Testament, it tells us that humans are fallen and have huge weakness sets. Other people are going to majorly disappoint us!

The reason I’m going on so much about other people disappointing you is because that is when you are likely to utter words of death, not when people are bringing you flowers. Therefore, head’s up! Warning! See the blinking red lights when you’re disappointed with someone. Then choose to use self-control in your speech. It’s a whole lot easier to not say mean things than to recover from an outburst.

My husband and I were talking this morning on our early morning walk about a place to take the entire family for vacation. A couple of years ago we rented a house in Fort Lauderdale and I thought maybe we could rent it again.

Immediately he said, “No, I don’t want to deal with that leasing agent again.” I then remembered what a snarly woman she was and agreed with him. People do business with people they like. People hang out with people they like. And nobody likes people who speak negative words.

One time in a sermon, a preacher said to not be a know-it-all. He said to not give your opinion as if it is the absolutely, positively, only possible solution (even if it is). People don’t like it. This is true with your children, your spouse, and everyone. Thinking that you’re always right is using your tongue for death.         

I remember a girl who was in my sorority years ago. She was a volunteer type, a real whippersnapper, and could get one million things done. She told me one day, “No one likes me.” She didn’t ask me why, but I could’ve told her: It’s because you think your opinion is the only one. She used the power of her tongue as death, and didn’t even know it. 

Jordan Peterson is an author and influencer who was big on the scene about a year ago. He talked about a dimension of human personality called agreeableness. People are naturally a certain degree of agreeableness, but they can improve. You can learn to be agreeable by watching your words, not talking too much, not being critical, bossy, cynical, or argumentative. You can learn to encourage, uplift, be friendly, and be optimistic with others. 

Recently a young girl told me about a time she was out shopping with her mother and the mother was rude to the store clerk. After they left the store, the girl was embarrassed and said, “Mom, it would be nice if you had been friendlier to the store clerk.” The girl’s mother harshly defended herself, “Why should I work hard at being nice to her? It’s her job to wait on us.” That is the mindset of a person who is using her tongue for death.

A few years ago, we were at dinner with a couple and they started an argument in the restaurant. It was so heated that the people nearby must’ve thought the wife just found out the husband had a girlfriend. But wait until you hear the subject of the argument. It was over the fastest route to get to the restaurant! In a very angry voice, the wife said, “You’re just wrong and I’m sick of you always thinking you’re right. You’re not right; I am.” Whew. There was some underlying toxicity in that relationship. “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Proverbs 20:3).

In contrast, a friend of mine told me that her elderly mother still calls her, “My angel.” The older mother still constantly points out how smart, pretty, helpful, and wise the daughter is. “My mother is my best cheerleader,” my friend said. 

Do you hear it? It’s screaming loud. Death and life are in the power of the tongue! Be very careful with yours. If you’ve used your tongue harshly—even if it was years ago—seek forgiveness.

I love a famous scene in the 1961 play, Raisin in the Sun. The adult son had failed, and his sister was criticizing him. The mother said to the sister, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

Those words of that mother are the words of life, loving others when they are at their lowest. If someone you love is having a hard time, then it’s an opportunity for you to be encouraging, hopeful, helpful, and prayerful. People remember who was there for them when they were at their lowest. When people fail, that’s when they need compassion and kindness the most.

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). 

Death and life. Death and life. Be very careful with your words.