Why can’t we control our speech?

I wrote this post while on a transatlantic cruise heading to the Iberian Peninsula. It took seven days to cross the pond. I love the seven days at sea because they offer hours to read, think, write…and to observe people (2,100 passengers and 999 crew members).

One night after dinner, the entertainment staff led a group of about 30 passengers gathered in one of the lounges in a game they called “Yes and No.” The rules were straightforward: individuals could volunteer to have a conversation with a staff member in which the volunteer could not say the words “yes” or “no”; nor could the volunteer shake his head up or down (indicating “yes” or “no” non-verbally). Any communication of “yes” or “no” disqualifed the volunteer. If the conversation continued for three minutes the volunteer would win a prize.  

A typical conversation sounded like this:

Crew member: Hi, what’s your name?

Volunteer: Matthew 

Crew member: Where are you from Matthew?

Matthew: Chicago.

Crew member: Chicago; great city; were you born there?

Matthew: No 

end of game…

I watched 11 people try. They all failed.

Reflecting on the experience, I immediately thought of that bold statement made by the apostle James: “No man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). In the “Yes and No” game, the only restriction was to avoid saying two words—that was all—but no one could comply. 

A few hours after Mary and I observed the “Yes and No” game, I failed at a similar version of the game. Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” so the rule of that version of the game would be: see how long you can go without speaking an unwholesome word.

Mary and I had a tiff, during which I said some hurtful things…to the person I love the most. I was saddened by my words, I asked Mary’s forgiveness, and I vowed to do a better job filtering my speech.

Why is it so difficult to control our speech? My guess is, our speech is simply a verbalization of our thoughts and often we don’t filter our thoughts before they become sound waves. In James 1:19 we’re instructed to be “slow to speak,” but most of us are fast to speak. One way to slow down our speech is to simply understand that we need not say everything we think, so before we speak, we should take a millisecond to analyze what we’re about to say and when necessary, keep our mouth shut. In other words, before you turn your thoughts into words, run them through some filters:    

    • Are these words appropriate? 
    • Will they express grace and truth? 
    • Is this the right time and place to say these words? 
    • Will I regret saying these words? 
    • Are these words necessary? 
    • Will they be an improvement on silence?

It’s true—no man can tame the tongue—but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying. We’ll never gain total control but we can continually improve. 

[reminder]What are your thoughts about this essay?[/reminder]

10 Replies to “Why can’t we control our speech?”

  1. Good words Don. I recall in my early education that I had a teacher that would always say, “think before you speak”. My father would say, “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all”. Funny how these things come back to me while reading your blog. Keep up the good work.
    My best,

    1. Thanks, Mike. Those are two good phrases that have endured the years. I have such fond memories of our times together. Dallas Window and Glass, Park Central Baptist… Thanks for being my friend. Don

  2. Don, such a good message. While we can never recover what we have said, we can still seek God’s will and try one more time to be constructive rather than destructive in our speech.

    1. Walt, it’s so good to hear from you. It’s been years since we’ve connected. I like your concept of being constructive with our speech.

  3. I printed out the last paragraph and the list of bullet points to put on my desk for regular review. Maybe someday these action items will become habits.

  4. One of our directors has often challenged me by saying “Have you checked your facts?” Sometimes, when I am disturbed by a situation, how I feel escapes in words instead of explaining what has actually happened. Government messages usually mean, in the UK, that there will be a severe consequence if you don’t comply with some new rule so I just panic immediately and believe I must leap into action immediately. If only I could take a few more minutes to check the facts. Tomorrow I must apologise to a colleague for “blowing up” over the latest Government message.

    1. Hi Angela. I love that phrase…have you checked your facts. Facts are wonderful. You’ve got a lot going on in Britain these days; I can only imagine the political upheaval and the stress that causes. Take care, Don.

  5. Don – this was a great article for me to read today. I absolutely need to ask myself those questions before I speak. I need to allow silence and thought before I speak.

    Thank you. Perfect timing!?

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