The Words You Wish You Hadn’t Said

. . . humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls (James 1:21 NLT).

Most mornings I’m the lone coffee drinker in my house.

That’s not always the case. From time to time we’ll have an overnight guest, or maybe the kids will be home (it still seems odd to me that my children drink coffee), or maybe we’re hosting a dinner gathering where coffee goes well with dessert. But usually that pot of hot life-giving brew is all mine.

That means that I’m often the only one paying attention to whether we actually have coffee in the house. Few disappointments annoy me more than waking up to discover that there’s no coffee. I have no one to blame but myself. I probably saw it coming for days. The previous morning exhausted what little supply was left, and I knew it was time to get more coffee – but the day got busy and, well, you know the story.

Perhaps the only thing more disappointing than having no coffee is having plenty of coffee, a perfectly functioning coffee-maker, an abundance of water – but no filter. You can’t make coffee without a filter. Try it, and you’re likely to get a bitter mess.

Filters matter. They matter for good coffee, in your air-conditioning unit, and under the hood of your car.

And we also need a filter in our mind that can sift through what we speak with our mouth.

Words from a Good Heart

It might be a stretch, but maybe the filtering process is what’s happening when James counsels us to be ‘quick to listen.’ We’ve already considered the ‘slow to speak’ part. Concurrent with that is our eagerness to pay attention to others and what they’re trying to say to us. We listen to assess and evaluate, to learn and understand. To listen is to make space within ourselves for the words of someone else before speaking our own.

Perhaps that space, that listening moment, is a filter. It allows us to speak what is good and helpful rather than what is bitter. I think we’d all agree that just like good coffee, our words need to be filtered.

But here’s where we need to pause. Here’s a place for us to be careful.

If we leave the matter here – reading James 1:19-20 and coming to a hard stop at that point – we might walk away thinking that what God wants from us is a good filter for our words. God desires that we be quick to listen and slow to speak, considering and carefully considering what we say so that the words we speak are good and pleasant and edifying to any who hear us.

Of course, God is honored by good and edifying words. But God wants more than that. God wants good words that flow from a good heart.

Soap Is a Waste of Time

Generations ago it wasn’t unheard of that a child might be disciplined in the area of words and speaking by ‘washing the mouth out with soap.’ I’m not exactly sure how that was done, and I can say with gratitude that my parents never chose to discipline me in that way, even when my words probably deserved it.

Washing out the mouth with soap might have made a lasting impression on the child. For a time, it might have effectively made a difference in the way the child spoke and the words the child used. Beyond that, such a disciplinary practice was a waste of time.

Here’s why: a bar of soap won’t come close to cleaning the heart – and that’s truly where all our speaking originates.

Quite a few years before James wrote his letter, Jesus stated the matter in a simple and direct statement. ‘Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6:45). Jesus helped his listeners understand this statement by using the image of a fruit tree. You know the tree by the fruit it bears, and the branches of a good tree will be heavy with good fruit.

I’m no farmer. I have no experience gardening. But even I can make sense of what Jesus is saying. Fruit is simply the outer visible evidence of the essence of the tree. Similarly, our words are fruit and they reveal what’s inside of us.

This takes us back to James. James doesn’t tell us to be careful with our words as if we can do this by trying hard or just keeping our mouth shut. James goes to the heart of the Christian good news. God’s word is what saves us. God’s word gets planted in our heart, and we speak differently because God’s word changes us from the inside out.

The Word that Saves You

Here’s the gospel, the good news for all of us today.

You are not saved by the words you speak. You are not made right with God by exercising diligent watch over your outbursts and your choice of words, the things you say about others and to others.

You are saved by the word spoken to you. You are saved by God’s word, planted in your heart and bringing forth life giving fruit. We don’t manage this or manipulate it and make it happen – but we can prepare the soil. We do that every time we open God’s written word and humbly invite God to speak to us.

So roll up your sleeves and do the work. Open your Bible. Ask God to help you hear whatever he wants to say to you. God is always speaking, and his word is the word that saves us.


Our prayer today, O God, is simple. Speak your saving word to us. Plant that word deep in our heart that it might produce good fruit. And let that fruit be seen by all to whom we speak today, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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