Communication: Tame Your Tongue and Listen

James 3:6

As a young man, I always thought silence was the preferred pathway to the heart of God. The church I attended put a comment in the weekly bulletin that went something like this: “Please maintain an attitude of reverence as we prepare our hearts for worship.” And, indeed, there are deep roots in Christian tradition testifying to the spiritual value of silence. For instance, because it is a Trappist monk’s duty to maintain silence, members of this order often communicate with sign language. There are records of ancient monks who didn’t talk for three decades or more.

Just as the silence of the Trappist monks is a discipline designed to draw them into the realm of the holy, so the conversation of marriage can bend us toward God.

Earlier in this century, there developed in France the idea that talk should be seen as a spiritual exercise. Out of this arose le devoir de s’asseoir, which literally translated means, “the duty to sit down.”

In marriage, it is our duty to communicate. To be sure, every marriage needs times of silence and meditation. But in our relationship with our spouse, communication is a discipline of love. Our reaching out to each other mirrors God reaching out to us, and as He does so, His presence and character becomes better known to us. The fact that God uses dreams to communicate in the Old and New Testaments reveals that He is reaching out to us at all hours of the day and night.

God loves us with words, rather than physical arms with which to embrace us. We can love our spouses with those same words and grow more like Christ in the process.

[Dan] Allender and [Tremper] Longman observe that “we are called to cultivate Christ in our spouses by the power of the spoken word.” How can words do this? This way – at least in part: “Good speech quells chaos and produces joy and life; bad speech produces chaos and leads to despair and death.”

In this view, our tongue invites God’s presence or pushes Him away. Every word spoken to a family member is either an invitation to the experience of the holy or to the experience of chaos.

The letter of James views controlled speech as one of the fundamental Christian disciplines:

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. – James 3:2-6

In James’s view, our tongue serves as a spiritual thermometer inasmuch as its words register our spiritual temperature toward God.

The tongue can be cruel in two ways: by speaking evil, or by refraining from speaking good.

We need to recognize the offensiveness of pervasive silence within marriage. There comes a time when silence is healing, but there is also a malicious silence. You know your heart. You know whether you are being silent in order to promote healing or whether you are being self-centered, cowardly, or malicious. When I refuse to speak out of cowardice, selfishness, or weariness, I am taking a step back as a Christian.

God calls me to speak, but to speak carefully. I had to learn how to communicate with my wife, to find out why I sometimes exasperate her either by not speaking at all or by speaking in the wrong way. In other words, to be lovingly married, I had to learn how to better tame my tongue.

Communication forces us to enter into another’s world. To communicate with my wife, I have to get beyond my own frame of reference and understand how the same word can mean two different things to each of us. This is an ego-emptying exercise that harbors enormous spiritual benefit. Words spoken with malice can cut deeply. Words can destroy, pummel, and build walls. Dan Allender and Tremper Longman remind us of that truth and encourage us to choose our words carefully:

I am to sow words like seeds to bring a harvest of fruit that blesses God… We must choose our words as if we were choosing an instrument of life or death. If we know the power of words, then we will neither refuse to speak because of fear nor speak often and sow seeds of destruction. We are to speak words of encouragement to draw forth the heart of God in those we love; we are to speak words of rebuke to disrupt the natural bent of our hearts to pride and selfrighteousness.

The other side of communication is learning to listen, and it is this area where I often struggle mightily. I’m often lost in my own thoughts and consequently resent the fact that someone wants me to stop my thinking and share hers. But when I married Lisa, I committed to communicate with her.

My wife is an inveterate reader of Guideposts magazine. She loves the stories of tragedy and near tragedy and the often teardrop-producing effects of the regular column, “His Mysterious Ways.” As coincidence would have it – I’m not making this up! – just as I was typing these words, she asked me to take a break so she could read a Guideposts story to me.

Lisa knows this isn’t really the type of thing I would read on my own. I read about thirty to forty books a year and numerous magazines, but usually not the personal-experience type of literature. Even so, listening to these stories has become part of my commitment to enter into my wife’s world. Love is an intentional movement toward another.

How does listening invite God’s presence? A significant part of prayer involves listening to God.

[When women] love, they love quietly; they speak, as it were, in whispers, and we have to listen carefully, attentively, to hear their words of love and to know them. – Dr. John Barger

Isn’t God also this way?

Doesn’t He intervene in most of our lives in whispers, which we miss if we fail to recollect ourselves and pay careful attention – if we do not constantly strive to hear those whispers of divine love? The virtues necessary in truly loving a woman and having that love returned – the virtues of listening, patience, humility, service, and faithful love – are the very virtues necessary for us to love God and to feel His love returned.

Communication calls us out of ourselves. Learning how to do this is as much a prerequisite for building a meaningful prayer life as it is for building a meaningful marriage. The act of communication invites God’s presence into our daily existence.

The truth of the matter is this: By our words, we either draw forth God’s presence or we push Him away.

Excerpted with permission from Sacred Marriage by Gary L. Thomas, copyright Zondervan, 2002.

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Your Turn

What kind of words are you speaking to your spouse? Life-giving or chaos-enducing? Communicating in love isn’t just something people need to learn in marriage. We can also love our children, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and friends with words and grow more like Christ in the process! How are you doing in the spiritual discipline of communication — speaking carefully and learning to listen? Join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you about loving others with our words! ~ Devotionals Daily

Gary L. Thomas

Gary Thomas is a writer in residence at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, and an adjunct faculty member teaching on spiritual formation at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Sacred Marriage, Sacred Pathways, Pure Pleasure, Sacred Parenting, and the Gold Medallion Award-winning Authentic Faith.

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