There are ways to speak where each subsequent word means less. And there are ways to speak where each subsequent word means more. Society is filled with the former. God would have his people filled with the latter. Which is to say that God would have his people filled with the word of Christ, and the Spirit of Christ.
Every time we open our mouths, or post on social media, or thumb out a text message, or speak into a controversy, we’re investing in the trustworthiness of our future words. We’re building, or we’re losing, verbal capital. This reality, of course, should not be the motivation for our speech. But it’s always the true and lasting effect.
When we speak with integrity, people trust us more the next time we speak. When we refuse to speculate, speaking only about what we know, we’re heard in the future as fact-speakers rather than guess-mongers. When we blend our justified passion with wise restraint, we’re more like fireplaces and less like wildfires. When we communicate with prophetic urgency chastened by personal humility, we earn the right to be heard the next time pressing issues hit the horizon.
Words beautifully spoken have weight. Words poetically written have weight. Rhetoric, oratory, and turns of phrase—these are all ways we amplify our words. But the most noble amplification we can give our words is when the multifaceted character of Christ stands behind them.
There’s a reason Paul told young Timothy to “set the believers an example” in five critical arenas of life, beginning with his “speech” (1 Timothy 4:12). When he speaks what’s right, and speaks rightly, even a young man can combat his listeners’ natural temptation to dismiss him for his youth.
Over time, wise listeners learn who truly knows what they’re talking about and who’s just blowing smoke. They recognize the exaggerated, self-written bio. They see through the bombast and the flowery rhetoric. They grow weary of hide-and-seek word games, argument-by-dump-truck, and subtle ad hominem’s.
God himself, though, is the wisest listener of all. He doesn’t just see through the things we say; he knows every thought and word well in advance. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4).
Knowing that God knows, and knowing that we’d all like our words to weigh more, how can we speak more wisely? Here are six brief ways.
1. Speak only what you know. “Ignorance is bold and knowledge reserved.” Over time, listeners learn who truly knows what they’re talking about and who’s just blowing smoke. Unfortunately, in our day, we’re capable of “knowing” a great many things in the most narrow way possible. We’ve scanned the headlines; we’ve read eight sentences into the article; we’ve glanced at the unsourced statistic; we’ve heard from one side of the argument. So, of course, now we “know,” and we can speak with prophetic certainty and righteous indignation. All jokes aside, the one who knows truly knows deeply, and the one who knows deeply is the one most worth hearing.
2. Ask the best questions. Better conversations come from better questions, and better conversations make our words weigh more. You know that person, whether close friend or loose acquaintance, whose conversations you always enjoy? You know that person who asks the question that needs to be asked, or asks in that caringly invasive way that’s neither awkward nor comfortable? The one who asks the best questions is using inquisitive words to serve others.
3. Meet the moment. The man whose words meet the moment will find his words weighing more. Many are those whose words are like verbal shrapnel, an explosion in search of a purpose. Many are those who back away with their words when they ought to be stepping forward. But better than both are those whose words match the moment. Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine. Other times, a concession is the fair and wise response. Still others, a pithy comeback is right and proper. Whether the moment calls for a question, a story, a proverb, a confession, or a quip—or the sacred act of silence—the one who meets the moment is the one from whom we’ll wish to hear again in the future.
4. Expect your words to last. In a world drowning in words, it’s easy to forget their staying power. The problem isn’t that all our words stick, because they don’t. The problem is that we don’t know which ones will. Better to speak them all as though any one of them could be carried to the grave. They say that “the way you speak to your child will become her inner voice.” Indeed, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Expect your words to last.
5. Let grace and truth be your editors. How do you decide what to say, how to say it, and when to say it—or when to say nothing at all? What set of principles forms your mental editorial team? Reason? Emotion? Experience? Gut instinct? Paul writes, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Earlier in the same letter, he urges us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Grace and truth—truth spoken in love and out of love—should be the double filter for all that we say.
6. Prepare for the final day. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). One of the best ways to purify each subsequent word you speak is to consider its end. Spend your life speaking the way you’ll wish you’d spoken, and each word you speak will end up being worth more.