“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
We all speak in the tongues of men, and some may imagine that they speak in the tongues of angels, exhibiting great pride in their gift of eloquence or powers of persuasion. The power of these gifts must never be underestimated for history has shown that weak or stupid arguments, when presented by someone with great charisma or eloquence can triumph, at least briefly, over a cast iron case or what we consider to be enduring values. Take Hitler, for example. The power of articulation, the ability to find loopholes in laws, to conceal, selectively display or twist true facts, has made lawyers richer than scientists and inventors. Nimbleness of the tongue, therefore, has a higher value in many worldly settings than great intelligence. In God’s kingdom, however, the eloquence of love surpasses the loftiness of speech.
Some of the most influential men in the Bible – and therefore in history – lacked this much coveted skill. Consider Moses with his halting speech and stuttering tongue or Paul who boasted to the Corinthians that he presented the truth to them not with natural eloquence but with the power of the Spirit – “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God… My message and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power…” (1 Corinthians 2:4-6 BSB). So the lack of communication skills is not a barrier for anyone intent on serving God.
Now, a noisy gong or a bell has its purpose; they were designed to make a sufficiently loud noise at the right time, and a noiseless gong is quite useless. The sounding of a church bell heralds the start of the service and the school bell reminds pupils of a new lesson about to begin or the end of a day. Yet, a ceaselessly ringing bell can be quite irritating. Speech is an important part of our Christian witness, and we are taught about the need for grace and wisdom as well as proper restraint in our language. A rash or uncontrolled tongue indicates lack of maturity in a Christian. Indeed, St James goes so far as to say that “If anyone does not stumble in – is never at fault in – what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2). So, we should all strive to steward our speech wisely in our service for God’s kingdom.
What God intensely desires for His people is for us to reflect His love to one another. For the day will come when human tongues are, in a sense, stilled, but love will endure. In heaven, cleverness or excellence in speech will have little value, and our tongues will no longer be employed to deceive or to control our neighbours or to convince judges or to conceal the true intentions of our heart. The light of heaven will expose all motives, and few explanations or arguments will then be necessary. In eternity, our tongues will be used mainly to praise God, and love one another. On that day, those who walked in love on earth will be greatly rewarded.
In practical terms, this means that Christians ought to learn to speak the language of love now. We must eliminate from our repertoire, words that are negative, unkind, harsh, critical, scornful or sarcastic. It might, on occasion, be loving to point out a wrong, but this must be done in a spirit of love and gentleness. The key is to consciously practise using our tongues as instruments of love, and this, of course, is a work of time. Indeed, all Christian virtues need cultivation – effort, tears and patience. We may fail many, many times, but let us not grow discouraged or weary. So many times we may have used our tongues unwisely or without love; yet if we humble ourselves before God and others, we receive forgiveness and the grace to continue.
The prophet Isaiah was given a special ministry of encouragement. Where other prophets were commanded to pronounce judgment on Judah and Israel, Isaiah was sent with God’s healing balm. In order to quip him to be an effectively minister of God’s comfort to His people, God dealt with Isaiah’s speech and his hearing. He was first made aware of his past failure in the use of his tongue. This revelation filled him with a sense of profound horror, and then as the angel ministered healing, a new urgency to be sent with the message of God’s peace. ‘“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:5-8 NIV).’
Then, the Lord ‘awakened’ Isaiah’s ears to hear exactly what God would have him say – “The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed” (Isaiah 50:4 NIV). Although he was sent to a people who were resistant to the things of God, he was commanded to speak words of hope and encouragement. “Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed… (Isaiah 40:1-2 NASB). These words have brought hope to generations of believers in their darkest hours.
So the power of words prompted by love and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit is tremendous. As we practise yielding our tongues to the control of the Holy Spirit, as Moses and Paul learnt to do, we will discover the truth of these words –“Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Proverbs 25:11 NASB) and “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15 ESV). As we depend on Christ to help us use our lips as instruments of love and grace to build others up, and draw them closer to God, we ourselves will be continually refreshed by the dew of heaven (Proverbs 11:25).
Father, take our lips, and make them an instrument of Your love. Fill us with Your wisdom. In Jesus’ name.