Healthy Habits

Watch Your Mouth

“The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” – Proverbs 15:2 NIV by Major Rob Reardon

There was a time when I liberally employed sarcasm during everyday conversation. Whether meant to elicit an easy chuckle from bystanders or to curry favor from others on the periphery, a witty quip or a sharp cutdown came as naturally to me as breathing. Sarcasm may not seem nefarious to some, but it is a veiled way to cover true feelings that are often not best shared in prime time.

My sarcasm became a problem for me when the use of sarcasm became commonplace within our household—our (then) preteen sons became adept at their use of sarcasm. In fact, it was common for even close friends to engage in conversation with us littered with sarcastic comments … and worse. At one point, an older acquaintance pulled me aside and shared the hard facts that I had become a caustic person. That caused me to stop momentarily and think about my conversational habits a little more critically.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “caustic” as “capable of destroying or eating away by chemical action; corrosive; marked by incisive sarcasm.” Immediately, the definition from the dictionary looked eerily familiar.

In the third chapter of James, we read: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3:5-10 The Message).

As a believer and father, I had come to a crossroads. Was I going to continue using caustic sarcasm as my go-to form of conversation? Was I willing to be such a horrible example to my children of how a Christian man expresses himself? Things had to change.

Several examples in Proverbs show us a better way of communication: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly … The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:1-2, 4 NIV).

Fred Rogers was a prime example of gentleness. Mr. Rogers aimed to present an alternate reality in a noisy, chaotic world that exemplified gentleness and patience over loudness and chaos. In an article titled “Mr. Rogers’ Quiet Revolution,” author Jefferson Bethke writes, “Mister Rogers was a rebel and revolutionary because of how different he was on television. I remember watching him as a kid and gravitating toward his peace and calm and secure quietness …”  I’m sure many of us would like to be more like Mr. Rogers in our daily interactions.

It’s safe to say that much of society doesn’t value gentleness. Someone who is perceived to be gentle is often perceived to be weak. In our conversations, both in person and online, a gentle word is rarely heard, let alone acknowledged. The late-night talk shows thrive on sarcasm and outright ridicule. Entering another election cycle, we’re all too familiar with the tendency to attack and malign rather than lift up and encourage.

How might we, as Christ-followers, go against the grain in this regard? A good start, perhaps, would be for us to re-read the fifth chapter of Matthew and assess how we react to what Jesus is teaching. Jesus was counter-cultural, to be sure, and He espoused a posture of gentleness in the face of brazen aggression—from all sides, it seems. His disciples wanted a strong military leader to help overthrow the Roman government: the religious leaders tried to provoke Him to fight back against their baseless accusations of heresy, and the Roman government just wanted an excuse to get rid of Him.

But repeatedly, Jesus lived out the truths of the Proverbs quoted earlier and taught us how to live and speak with gentleness in the face of all types of aggression and chaos. As much as some might want to be like Mr. Rogers, I’d rather live my life like Christ, and isn’t that who Mr. Rogers was trying to emulate as well?

Practicing gentleness in our conversations will take some getting used to. People will wonder if they’re talking to the same person. In my experience, some may even go so far as to ask whether you’re feeling alright. Eventually, however, people will appreciate and even enjoy your company more. When I made a conscious effort to curb my sarcasm and replace that rhetoric with grace and a gentler tone, our family began having more fun together, and gatherings weren’t something to be dreaded. Dare I say that the same could also be possible in public settings? Wouldn’t we all enjoy conversations with others more if we seasoned our words with salt rather than pepper? After all, according to Jesus, we are the salt of the earth, so let’s talk like it.

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