You are familiar no doubt with the old adage “a slip of the tongue.” That’s when something comes out of your mouth you wish hadn’t. Once aired, you instantly regret it. You say to yourself, “Did I really just say that?” You want very badly to take the words back, but you can’t – it’s too late. You try to repair things by explaining that you didn’t quite mean what you just said; it was a mistake – a slip of the tongue.
It would be nice if we could just leave it at that. Just apologize and move on. But Jesus stops us in our tracks. Listen to his words from Luke chapter 6:
“A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” (Luke 6:43–46)
Jesus uses a metaphor that we are all familiar with: a tree. There is a direct connection between the roots of a tree and the fruit it produces. The same is true with our words. Our words are the fruit of the root issues found in our hearts.
Jesus offers us some profound wisdom here: word problems are always related to heart problems. Our words are shaped and controlled by the thoughts and motives of our heart. It is very tempting isn’t it, to blame others – “he makes me so angry” or to blame the circumstances God has placed you in – “with this job how can I be content?” Jesus says our words come from the overflow of our heart. The people and the situations around us do not make us say what we say; they only provide an occasion for our hearts to reveal their true nature.
Now let me press this one step further. Take a look now at what James has to say with regard to the problems we have with conflict:
“What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.” (James 4:1–3)
Why do we fight and quarrel James asks? That is a very good question. Is it because we have never learned the skills necessary for conflict resolution? Not according to James. James says it all has to do with the desires of our hearts.
You see there is a war going on within your heart and my heart. It’s a war of conflicting desires battling for control. James is saying that when a certain set of desires battles for “turf” in your heart, it will affect the way you deal with people around you. What controls your heart controls your words.
This is how it works: I’m sitting at work and I look at the weather app on my phone and see it is settled weather all through to the weekend. I think to myself, ‘That’s perfect weather for fishing! I’ll call a few mates and we’ll head out for some snapper.’ The rest of the day I’m dreaming of sitting on a boat on nice flat water hauling in one after another.
At the same time, my wife is sitting at work thinking about remodelling the guest room. Family is coming to stay the weekend after and she remembers that I promised that I would help with the paining. She says to herself, ‘Here’s a great opportunity – I’ll get hubby to help on Saturday.’
So I drive home from work with visions of blue water and the taste of fresh fish in my mouth – I’m about to break this wonderful news to my wife and there she is standing there holding a four litre paint tin and a roller. My heart, which moments before was beating with excitement instantly stops. She says to me with a big smile, “Guess what we’re doing this weekend?”
Now at this point I am undergoing a test. There is a war going on in my heart – a conflict of desires, fighting for control. I have been dreaming about Saturday’s outing all week and now that dream is about to be crushed. What am I going to do?
I say to her, “Guess what you’re doing tomorrow? I’m going fishing.”
Fishing!” she answers, “You can go fishing anytime. We’ve got family turning up next weekend. You know how important this is to me. Besides – you promised!”
It is at this very juncture that the word of words starts taking place:
“You always do this to me”
“Find things for me to do when I want to enjoy myself”
“I’m not finding things for you to do – this is something that has to be done”
“You using that tone on me again” (which is entirely irrelevant at this point)
“That bossy-wife tone”
“You know what? I think you better go for a walk. I don’t like talking to you when you’re like this”
“Now you’re making it out like it’s MY problem”
Do you see what’s happening there? Do you see this has nothing to do with a problem with communication skills? It’s a problem of conflicting desires. The desires in themselves were not wrong. The desire to go fishing is not a bad desire. The problem was that desire took control of my heart – control that should be given to God. The desire became a craving, the craving caused the conflict.
When desires become demands God no longer has control of our heart. Something else has. Scripture calls that something an idol. My idol was fishing (or mountain biking or hunting or reading and relaxing.) That idol got crushed. The heart retaliated. And what was the fruit? Angry words. Unwholesome talk. Harsh tones.
The mouth speaks what the heart is full of, Jesus said. It’s the case in every area of speech: Gossip and slander – that’s a heart problem, a problem of hidden hatred for someone. You despise them, that’s why you speak negatively about them. Complaining – that’s a heart problem. It’s a lack of submission to God. There is something God is doing you don’t like, so you grumble in your heart about it. Lying and covering up the truth – that’s a heart problem. It’s problem with pride and wanting to look good in the eyes of others.
So what’s the solution to all this? We have out-of-control tongues and idolatrous hearts and internal desires that are constantly waging war. The problem is too big. It’s beyond us.
Yes, it is beyond us – but not beyond God. God has already given us a solution: a changed heart. The answer lies not in cleaning up our speech. That’s just like pinning plastic fruit to a sick tree. You’re trying to change the behaviour without addressing the idols that drive the behaviour.
James gives us the answer in chapter 4 verse 7: submit to God. Change you see begins at the heart level. We must renounce the idols in our heart that taken the place of God and turn our hearts back to him. Then our words will reflect a heart that is ruled by Him. Submit to God. Give him first place – the place he deserves. Hand everything over to him – all your concerns and desires and wants. Let him deal with those things as he pleases.
The Bible tells us if we are ever going to see lasting change in the way we talk, we must start from within. If we want good fruit, we need to deal with the fruit. The “root” in this case is the heart, which John Calvin called, “the idol factory.” Every problem with have with our speech – arguing and quarrelling, complaining and murmuring, lying and deceiving, boasting and bragging is a problem with the heart.
One last word: God never reveals hidden things to discourage us. On the contrary, this is how he demonstrates his love to us. God does not want us to live with hearts that are enslaved. He wants to free us. So he exposes not only the fruit (sinful talk) but also the root (idolatrous hearts). When you sense deep conviction by the Spirit of God that is a sign that God is at work in you for your good.
So don’t be discouraged. Your Redeemer has come. Jesus has died and rose again. Sin has been atoned for. He serves now as your Great High Priest, interceding for you daily. His Spirit is at work deep within in you to transform and renew into the person he wants you to be. Don’t resist his good work. Give Him free reign. Let your prayer be that of David in Psalm 19:14,
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”
“A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit… A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:43–45). Ouch. What we glibly pass-off as a slip of the tongue was an intention of the heart. What was in our minds went public. Our sin has just been exposed and we are ashamed.
What’s the cure? It’s not a reformed tongue. This is something speech therapy won’t fix! The answer is a renewed heart; which praise God is possible because of Jesus. Jesus, by his death and resurrection overcame the power of sin and offers to cleanse and renew our hearts so that what slips off the tongue brings healing rather than hurt and life rather than death. So next time the tongue slips, remember these words of Jesus and the remedy he offers. Deal with the root and you’ll start seeing the desired fruit.