10 Ways Our Words Produce Life or Death

The tongue is said to be the strongest muscle in the human body, and surprisingly within this smallest of body parts is tremendous power. In fact, James says it is the hardest muscle to train and tame. No bit or rudder are capable of controlling it (James 3:3-6).

Yet, we are strongly admonished to be careful of every word we utter, for our words can have one of two effects on people: life or death, according to Proverbs 18:21. This verse is not to be interpreted as to mean literal life and death. Our words cannot raise someone back to life—only Jesus has that power. And while words can be weaponized, they cannot kill someone in the literal sense. Words can only incite action, which can either save a life or cause a death. Therefore, Proverbs 18:21 should be interpreted as metaphor.

Following are 10 ways our speech can do good or evil; can produce “life” or “death” to another.

Here are five ways our speech can do good and produce “life.”

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1. Through encouragement and comfort.

1. Through encouragement and comfort.

“But encourage one another daily.” (Hebrews 3:13a)

“Heaviness in the heart of man makes it stoop; but a good word makes it glad.” (Proverbs 12:25)

“…we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Life is hard. Pain and suffering are everywhere. People feel hopeless, useless, and unloved. They are weighed down with their sins and the burdens in their lives and this world. They need encouragement—which translates as “beside, near, with, alongside”—to give them strength and perseverance, hope and healing. This is why God tells His children to be encouragers, to point others to Him, their loving, comforting Father.

2. Through witnessing and testimonials.

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15)

While our lives are a witness to the dying world, faith comes through hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 10:17), which means we need to share our testimonies and the message of the Gospel aloud. And while our words cannot convert someone, they help to direct a lost soul to the One who offers hope, spiritual healing, and salvation. Don’t ever underestimate your words when witnessing!

3. Through prayer.

Epaphras is held up in the Book of Colossians as a prayer warrior. “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12, emphasis mine). From his example, we, too, can go to battle for another with the righteous weapon of prayer. Our prayers can bring comfort and strength, reconciliation with God, and spiritual healing to those who are weak.

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4. Through peace and reconciliation.

4. Through peace and reconciliation.

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

Kind words can bring peace and reconciliation to a tense situation (Proverbs 16:24). They could just be the balm that heals festering wounds. Furthermore, our asking for forgiveness when we’ve wronged someone also fosters reconciliation. 

5. Through rebukes and warnings.

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:5-6).

“He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue.” (Proverbs 28:23)

“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

How many times did God issue warnings to the Israelites, warnings that were meant to turn them from their sinful ways back to Him? Back to life? Too many to count. Warnings and rebukes, though harsh to hear, are beneficial and necessary at times. If heeded, they can spare us untold heartache and harm, even death. Warning and rebuking are really done out of love, with love, for another believer, and out of a desire to see them walk rightly before God and enjoy His blessings.

Here are five ways our speech can do evil and produce “death.”

1. Through unwholesome words.

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification (encouragement), according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Unwholesome in the original Greek (sapros from sepo) translates, “to cause to decay, to putrefy, to rot away, be corrupted, offensive, injurious.” Interestingly, sapros in secular writings was used to describe spoiled fish or rotting grapes.

Paul defines what words are unwholesome and unhealthy in Ephesians (4:31; 5:4, 6): bitterness, rage, anger, outcry, slander, every form of malice, obscenity, foolish talk, crude joking, empty words. In short, words that are not edifying and will cause emotional harm to another person.

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2. Through quarreling.

2. Through quarreling.

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling" (Proverbs 20:3).  

Quarrels, or arguments, are oftentimes started because of misunderstandings or disagreements (whether over opinions, politics, religion, etc.). Quarrels have been known to start wars, end marriages, disinherit children, get one fired from their job. Words can and have provoked and incited actions that may later be regretted. This proves that we should be extra cautious about what we say, when we say it, and how we say it. Therefore, when trying to explain something (like a situation) or yourself (as in a defense), in order to prevent a situation from escalating into an argument, practice the Three Ts: 

Timing: Whenever someone disagrees with or misunderstands you, that very moment may not be the most opportune time to talk or defend yourself. Take time away from each other to cool down, then come together later to discuss the matter in a calm manner.

Tact: Whatever words pop into your mind in the heat of an argument are not usually the best ones to speak. Refrain from speaking until you have thought through the most tactful, adequate way of saying what you need to say.

Tone: As the saying goes, “Tone is everything.” Refrain from lashing out in anger. Pause until you know you can speak in a calm, controlled, and gracious tone (Proverbs 15:1).

3. Through gossip and slander.

“A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Proverbs 16:28)

A gossiper (“whisperer”) is someone who takes something they’ve been told in confidence and reveals it to others, sometimes with malicious intent. A gossiper tends to be an insecure person who exalts in belittling, shaming, and tearing down another person in order to make themselves appear or feel better. 

However, words dropped in the wrong ears can have the power to destroy someone’s reputation and good name. Gossip also incites suspicion and can aid in the spread of rumors that can divide a church, end a marriage or friendship, or ruin a family. Scripture is clear: steer clear of a gossip (Proverbs 20:19).

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4. Through lies and deceit.

4. Through lies and deceit.

“A lying tongue hates those it crushes” (Proverbs 26:28).

“A deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).

Lies and deceit (the keeping of secrets) are born out of a sense of self-preservation and selfishness. When lies and deceit prevail in any relationship—particularly marriages, as in infidelity—trust is eroded. Lies and deceit often cause irrevocable damage and ruination. Oftentimes, but not always, it is difficult to repair a relationship that’s been damaged by these twin sins.

“A lying tongue,” in fact, is a most egregious sin in God’s economy, as He lists it as one of the seven “deadly/abominable sins” in Proverbs 6:16-17. The reason is that lying springs from a heart of hatred, which, God says, is akin to murder (1 John 3:15, 4:20). Furthermore, since God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), lying is particularly grievous to Him. And lying is closely aligned with Satan, God’s enemy and the “father of lies” (John 8:44).

5. Through blasphemy.

Blasphemy is the show of disrespect for God, Jesus, and particularly, according to Matthew 12:31-32, the Holy Spirit, which will not be tolerated. In fact, it is the unforgivable sin

Why is this so only against the Holy Spirit? It must be understood in context. Jesus had just healed a demon-possessed man, yet the Pharisees accused Him of healing through Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Matthew 12:24), not through the power of the Holy Spirit. This was most egregious; to accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed rather than Spirit-filled.

Moreover, it is the Spirit who awakens a dead sinner’s soul to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who then sanctifies sinners to become holy, pure, and righteous. To repeatedly and defiantly reject the Holy Spirit and His work on our behalf is unforgivable and damning. Take heed!

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Sweet speech begins with the mind and heart.

Sweet speech begins with the mind and heart.

Whatever “fruit” our heart holds will be revealed in our speech. A heart filled with bitter, angry “fruit” will produce spiteful, hateful words. A critical heart will produce complaints. A self-righteous heart will produce judgment. Contrarily, a compassionate, loving heart will produce gracious, kind, and wise words.

How, then, can one make sure the “fruit” of their heart is good, nourishing, and life-giving? 

  1. By surrendering to the Holy Spirit and allowing Him to sanctify your heart by excising any sinful, damaging attitudes, which result in sinful, damaging words.
  2. By feasting on and memorizing God’s Word so that over time your thinking will be transformed and thus your words will reflect God’s heart toward others and thus please Him.
  3. By praying for self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23), with regard to your speech and asking for the help of the Holy Spirit.
  4. By putting off the rotten, old self, with its propensity to curse and speak ill of others, and putting on the cleansed, new self, with its propensity to speak sweet words that edify and build up.

Conclusion

Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

“Every utterance that escapes our lips mat­ters, which means you’ve never spoken a neutral word in your life,” writes Paul David Tripp in his book, The Power of Words and the Wonder of God. “Our words are moving either in a direction of life or death.” 

Words have the power to affect people, for good or for bad. So, choose yours wisely.

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