Think before you speak

Have you ever said something you regretted saying as soon as the words left your mouth?

Of course. Haven’t we all?

For a guy who has taught communication skills to hundreds of people, I’ve said some pretty stupid things. Sometimes, I’m trying to be funny. I pounce on a straight line before it gets away, or turn what someone else says into an opportunity to showcase my wit; but what comes out is inappropriate or just plain odd. Sometimes, I’m trying to be smart, but show my ignorance instead.

And sometimes, I’m just mad. I want to get back at the other person. I know better, of course. I know how to be more patient or humble; I know how to listen. But in that moment, I don’t want to do any of that. What I really want is to hurt the other person as they have hurt me.

We would all do better if we learned to think before speaking. We can remember to ask ourselves, “What kind of a person do I want to be? How will that show in my words?” And as Christians, we might also remind ourselves of this: God knows every word we say before we even speak it.

. . .

As we’ve seen, there are some words in Psalm 139 that may sound rather inappropriate to us, especially if we’ve internalized the expectation that Christians are always supposed to be “nice.” It’s a bit jarring to hear the psalmist declare, “If only, God, you would kill the wicked! … Yes, I hate them — through and through!” (Ps 139:19a, 22a, CEB). But these words are spoken by a poet whose heart is laid completely open before God. Search my heart, the psalmist prays; if you find anything amiss, please lead me in the right path!

It’s one thing to express what we think is righteous indignation. But it’s another to bare our souls to God and ask for correction. Then again, the psalmist seems to say, you might as well. There isn’t anything God doesn’t already know about you anyway. Here’s how the poet says it to God:

LORD, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, LORD,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me — front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.
(Ps 139:1-6)

When the psalmist says “You know when I sit down and when I stand up,” it doesn’t mean, “You only know me at those times, but not when I’m walking or lying down.” The contrast is meant to convey a sense of totality, as if he were to say, “sitting down, standing up — whatever.” Traveling versus resting, front versus back: God’s knowledge of the poet is complete and comprehensive.

And part of that deep and intimate knowledge is that God knows everything the psalmist will say before the words are even spoken.

Is that an intimidating thought?

It can be, especially if we work hard to be nice on the outside while entertaining meanness and malice on the inside. We might fool others, but we can’t fool God. (In fact, let’s be honest here; we might not even fool others all that easily, if we were really paying attention. But as long as we all buy in to the niceness game, there are some inconsistencies we’ll choose to ignore.)

Note, however, that the psalmist’s attitude doesn’t seem to be one of cowering fear but awe. The tone is not, Uh oh, God’s going to get me! It’s, How can this be? How is it that God knows me so well? And if we bring the creation psalms into play (as well as the subsequent verses in this psalm), the attitude might be, Why does the God of the universe care so much about every detail of my life? That’s just too much to comprehend.

. . .

So, yes, we should think before we speak. The Bible teaches over and over that it is far too easy to sin with our words; we should consider carefully what words we will use.

But it’s not just a matter of thinking about words, but thinking about God. Could we imagine God’s presence the way the psalmist does? Could we, for example, imagine Jesus standing next to us as we speak?

I don’t mean that we should envision Jesus standing over us with a stick, ready to whack us when we step out of line. Rather, can we imagine standing in the company of one who knows everything there is to know about us, and still calls us “Friend”? One who died in love for every errant word, so that we could be empowered to speak the truth in love?

Maybe if we thought these things before we spoke, our words would be more healing and gracious.

It’s worth a shot.