Abraham Lincoln did not believe that any enemy from abroad could destroy America. He did, however, believe that America could be destroyed from within. He warned:
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reaches us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”
There is a parallel here with the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. It will not be annihilated from without, for Christ promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” However, many churches have been destroyed from within, often by those who believe they are working to protect what they are actually endangering. How is this happening? Probably the greatest force for destroying a church is a little member. This member is not a person who is quite young, nor one who is small in stature. The devastating little member is the tongue, which is “a world of iniquity.”
How in the world can the tongue destroy a church? It is usually by death from a thousand cuts. When the tongue is not controlled, hell’s flames are set loose to devastate the church, not from the outside, but from within. This is probably why the scripture admonishes that “all evil speaking” is to be put away from us (Eph. 4:31). John Wesley gave a noteworthy definition:
“What is evil speaking? It is not, as some suppose, the same with lying or slandering. All a man says may be as true as the Bible; and yet the saying of it is evil speaking. For evil speaking is neither more nor less than speaking evil of an absent person; relating something evil, which was really done or said by one that is not present when it is related.”
There are times when one must relate something evil that another has done. The issue is to whom are we to speak? First, we are to speak to the one at fault. “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (Matt. 18:15). Second, we are to take someone with us to help to bring an erring one back. “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matt. 18:16). The goal is to help the one who has done wrong. If we are truly spiritually concerned, our goal will be to reestablish them. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Only after these steps have been taken with a considerate spirit, should the matter be taken to the church. “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church” (Matt. 18:17).
How many times has a loose tongue ignored the Biblical pattern for dealing with faults and jumped right to telling the church? Gossip is a friendly pastime to the willing teller and the eager listener. But how many friendships have been ruined by the telling of a tale? The wise man said, “Be not a witness against thy neighbor without cause” (Pr. 24:28). The cause is to be restoration, but how many churches have divided because instead of trying to help someone, the tongues of the cliques have arrayed themselves against one who has done something they disapprove? And how many tales have been carried from church to church without one person going to the party who instead of censure needed someone to come along side and offer to restore?
Why am I saying what I am saying about another person? Is it to help that person? How does it help if the person is absent, yet I relate it to another who is not helping to restore the erring? Do I say what I say to make me feel better about myself? Do I speak down about another so that others will look up to me? All these are less than worthy of one who would have his speech “always with grace.” In fact, instead of ministering grace, such words are purveyors of death. Words cut, and fellowship among believers can easily die a death of a thousand cuts. And so people are hurt, the communion of the saints collapses, and the church dies.
How do we combat this very prevalent sin? The Bible gives us a one sentence answer: “Let your speech be alway with grace” (Col. 4:6a). This verse does not merely instruct the preacher who is to be preaching the gospel of grace (see Acts 20:24). It is for all who name the name of Christ. Whether I preach or am in a casual conversation, grace should instruct my tongue.
If I give a public message, do people leave having more hope? Do my hearers have a greater appreciation of the grace and power of God to deal with their struggles? Wesley had some pertinent instruction here on speaking according to the gospel of Christ:
“Avoid every thing in look, gesture, word, and tone of voice, that savours of pride or self sufficiency. Studiously avoid every thing magisterial or dogmatical, every thing that looks like arrogance or assuming. Beware of the most distant approach to disdain, overbearing, or contempt. With equal care avoid all appearance of anger; and though you use great plainness of speech yet let there be no reproach, no railing accusation, no token of any warmth, but that of love.”
Wesley’s words, though primarily meant for public speaking, also are good for all talk. If I speak to a neighbor in a private conversation, does that neighbor leave feeling more or less inclined toward the grace of our Lord? Or have I poisoned the heart by speaking evil and leaving grace fallen in the dust? Have my words blessed with grace, or with an evil report have I inflicted another cut? Regardless of the setting, letting our speech be always with grace is to be the guard on our words.
Here is a check on our communication: after I have spoken, do people leave feeling more or less inclined to grace? Did my words encourage people to faith or deflate them? Did I give as good a report as I could or have I engaged in demeaning someone’s character in the minds of my listeners?
When our Lord Jesus was on earth, He spoke in a way that made people notice. “And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (Lk. 4:22). Instead of adding to the death-dealing cuts of evil speaking, let us follow the lead of our Lord and carefully add the seasoning of grace to all of our conversations. It will bring life.
(The above quotes by John Wesley are from his sermon “The Cure of Evil Speaking” which is worth reading in its entirety.)