While standing in line to pay a bill, the clerk and a customer in front of me engaged in a friendly conversation. Soon the clerk launched into a story laced with profanity and sexual connotations that caused them to part laughing loudly.
When the tall customer stepped aside to go his way and I stepped up to the counter, the clerk was embarrassed, visibly shaken and highly apologetic. He felt terrible.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," he said. "If I had known you were here I wouldn't have told that story."
"Don't let that bother you," I replied. "God is listening all the time."
Then he felt worse.
Through the centuries, careless and cutting words have wounded hearers and brought regret to those who spoke them.
Churches have been divided, political careers ended, family ties broken and friendships torn asunder by unkind or unwise words. One of the most damaging cases of word wounding I have known involved a cruel comment by a bride to her new husband from which he never recovered.
The couple stayed together for more than 25 years but the husband named those bitter words as the underlying cause of their ultimate divorce.
The Bible compares an unruly tongue to a fire out of control (James 3:6), and in his book "The Tongue Angel or Demon?" George Sweeting warned: A fiery tongue is like a burning match in a gasoline tank. The tongue ignites a great fire.
A word of hate inflames opposition. A mocking word incites bitterness. An evil word may kindle a career of sin. A foul word heard on the streets, in the shop, in the school, may start fires burning within until nothing is left but ashes.
Contentious tongues have hindered the work of God a thousand times over. Critical tongues have broken the hearts and health of many pastors.
On the other hand, words have immense potential for good. A turning point in the life of John Bunyan, author of the classic, "Pilgrim's Progress," came when he heard a few women sitting outside one of their homes talking about how their lives had been changed by the power of God. Bunyan was a tinker, mending pots and pans in the neighborhood and he said as he went on his way the words of these women of faith went with him.
Bunyan later became such an effective minister of the gospel that he was jailed for his faith. He spent 12 years in the Bedford, England jail when he could have been released at any time by promising never to preach again.
Instead, this former tinker spent his time writing a book that has been called second only to the Bible in its effect on the world. Few know we have this great literary resource because a few women chose to talk about their faith instead of their frustrations; to major on grace rather than gossip; to spend their time talking about their Savior rather than some current scandal.
A pastor once came to me seeking counsel. His church was divided and he was under fire from different factions in the congregation. I advised him to follow a rule I had adopted early in my ministry: Never say anything negative about anyone in the church in the presence of any other member.
"It's too late," he replied. His careless conversations couldn't be recalled.
The Psalmist, aware that all his words were heard, offered a good prayer for us all: "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).
Roger Campbell is an author, radio broadcaster and newspaper columnist from Waterford, Mich. He has written more than 20 books and has had articles published in most major Christian magazines.
He was a pastor for 22 years and has been a guest speaker in Alaska churches from Anchorage to Homer.
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