My first doctor was a man of great personal warmth and reassuring presence. As a child, I thought of him with deepest admiration and affection.
However, there was one part of his examinations I always disliked—when he spoke the words “Stick out your tongue, and say ‘aah.’” Yet while always feeling terribly discomfited by this procedure, I was also always amazed that he could apparently tell so much about my health by this “tongue test”! He always did it, so it must have been important.
Well now, later in life, I have come to a much greater appreciation of how important the tongue test is–only now in the sphere of spiritual health. I see the results of the spiritual tongue test as an incredibly important measure of the condition of our lives.
There is no right living without a healthy tongue. Its significance is out of all proportion to its size. James saw that clearly when he wrote that the tongue resembles the rudder that steers the mighty ship through the seas (Jas. 3:4). Some other truths about the tongue:
1. Your tongue is evidence of the condition of your heart. The mouth speaks out of the fullness of the heart (Matt. 12:34). It is the heart’s exit door. From it emerge the breaking stories on what is taking place in the hidden recesses of the mind, will, and affections. Our words resemble so many media people rushing to file their reports. Unfortunately, often the reports seem to be contradictory: “With the tongue we praise Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness”(Jas.3:9). Our tongues can bring us into danger from the fire of hell, says Jesus: we call our brother a fool; we stab him verbally in the back and murder his reputation before men. Within the hour the same tongue is singing the praises of God with great satisfaction. What kind of heart expresses itself so inconsistently?
But the issue is more complex that just the words we use. Our heart “speaks” through our lip, even when the grammar we employ is at variance with what our heart really thinks. We cannot avoid giving ourselves away when we open our mouths. The discerning spirit, at least, will always “hear” what we really think.
Fortunately, that principle is two-edged. As someone wrote to a preacher after hearing one of his sermons: “It was not so much what you said as your manner of speaking that struck me.” And such was supremely true of our Lords Jesus Christ. People were struck by his “gracious words” (Lk. 4:22). They heard his heartbeat. The tongue is the index of the condition of the heart.
2. Your control over your tongue is evidence of spiritual maturity. “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Prov. 17:28). But the fool’s self-serving silence is not what Scripture refers to when it speaks about controlling or taming the tongue (Jas 3:7-8). It is one thing to cage the tiger, another to subdue and tame it, retraining it in a new obedience. The person who tames the tongue is a mature Christian, having gained mastery over self (Jas. 3:2).
Why is the ability to keep silent not the same as actually taming the tongue? Because suppression is not the same thing as transformation. A re-trained tongue (which is the fruit of a new and developed heart, cf. Ps 51:10-15) involves the ability to speak appropriately as well as to remain silent; to praise as well as to rebuke; to comfort as well as to challenge. True mastery of one’s tongue requires a mind that has been instructed by the Scripture, a heart that has been subdued by Scripture and a will that is devoted to Scripture. Then only will our speech express wise judgment rather than the personal prejudices and instincts of our own personalities, twisted as they are by sin.
3. Your tongue can be a vehicle of grace. “ The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life . . . Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning . . . The tongue of the righteous is choice silver . . . The lips of the righteous nourish many” (Prov. 10:11, 13, 20, 21). This is what Paul means when he speaks about our conversation being “always full of grace” and “seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Our speech can convey to others a taste and sense of Christ, so that the favor of his presence and grace is the chief impression or our presence. The tongue of a gracious heart will speak what is “fitting” (Prov. 10:32); it upbuilds others and is beneficial to them (Eph. 4:29).
Where, and how, can we learn this use of the tongue? Only from Jesus, whose speech was not cacophonous or quarrelsome (Matt. 12:19, cf. 2 Tim. 2:24). But, how do we learn from him? By doing what he did: becoming a good listener to the voice of the Father. That was what Isaiah saw as a hallmark of the coming Messiah:
The sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen as one being taught (Isa.50:4).
Right living involves right speaking. Right speaking begins with right listening—to God’s voice, to every word that comes out of his mouth (Matt. 4:4). That is the ultimate “tongue test.”
This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, September 1987.