I love to play golf. More than the game itself, I enjoy being out on the course, the fresh air, the exercise, and the conversation with friends. As kind of a duffer, one of the privileges I often enjoy on the course is the “mulligan,” a “do-over” used in informal games of golf when the score doesn’t matter and everyone is playing for fun. Each player is allowed one mulligan per round. I often take two or three.
In those common instances when I botch the first shot off the tee or slice the ball into a water hazard, I simply tee up the second ball and start over. The bad shot goes unnoticed and forgotten, failing to make its way onto the score sheet, and normal play resumes. The beauty of the mulligan is that it leaves no trace that something bad ever happened.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always play out like a round of golf. Most of us can think of times when we wish we had a do-over: a career mulligan; a marriage mulligan; a money mulligan. Sometimes these are simple regrets—“I wish I had stuck with piano lessons.” Others are more serious—“I wish I had gone to college,” or “I wish I’d been nicer to my parents.” A few are life-altering—“I wish I hadn’t rushed into marriage,” or “I wish I had called a cab instead of trying to drive.”
But some of our greatest and most common mulligan-dreams are centered around our words, which seem to escape from our mouths before they can be caught. These naked words are powerful realities, affecting far more than just our ears, even shaping our and minds and hearts. Hurtful and callous remarks, venomous and destructive critique, thoughtless and angry comments. Words like these have no return address.
The tongue can speak either life or death, and through it, we bring either healing or destruction into the world. The scriptures are serious about the power of our words, warning us to carefully and vigorously guard what comes out of our mouths (see Prov. 10:19, 13:3, 17:27-28, 18:21, 21:23, to name a few). Our use of words could well be the most crucial issue for our discipleship, and the most poignant indicator of our spiritual state. As Jesus said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11), “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).
PRACTICE SPEAKING LIFE
In golf, the best way to avoid the mulligan is through practice. The same is true with our mouths: we must intentionally practice not only being “slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19) but also speaking life-giving words. And there are certain types of speech that, when frequently practiced, naturally train both our mouths and our hearts to produce life instead of death. Here are five ways to speak life instead of death.
In order for words to bring life, they must be aligned with reality. Charles Wesley, the famous 18th-century hymn writer, bemoaned his limited physical capacity for praise: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!” For the believer enamored with Jesus, a solitary tongue just isn’t enough. Even a thousand is too few to render God his due.
The greatest task for which human words can be employed is the heartfelt rendering of affectionate praise to God. Praise is not simply truth-speaking; it’s the passionate expression of a heart fully taken by its subject. Words of praise give life by shaping our hearts, minds, and mouths with truth of the highest order. We should devote time every day to using our God-created tongues to sing and speak words of adoration and worship to the Author of our salvation.
Paul commanded his readers to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). Words of thanks are an important part of life-giving speech and can be directed to both God and others. Gratitude trains us to see that life itself is a gift, and for this reason, we are all recipients of constant grace.
Practice saying out loud those things you’re grateful for. Tell God you’re thankful for his Son who endured the cross on your behalf. Tell a friend how grateful you are for what God is showing you in this season of life. Giving thanks in all circumstances starts with giving thanks in one circumstance—and you can start today.
Like praise and thanksgiving—two forms of prayer—prayer gains its beauty, character, and dignity from the One to whom it is addressed. As conversation with God, prayer begins with an open ear and is, by nature, responsive. Theologian Eugene Peterson calls prayer “answering speech,” noting that God always gets the first word—through his Word—making prayer a verbal response to divine initiative.
Our prayer life—our speech-life with God—should guide, direct, and shape our speech-life with others. As we think about how to speak to others in God-honoring, Spirit-directed ways, a good starting place is to speak about the other person to God and allow God to speak to us about them. In essence, we are praying for others, but we are also enabling our prayer life to shape our conversational and relational life with others. As you do so, you may be surprised by how much prayer shapes your thoughts, moods, and conversations.
Confession is truth-telling. It is, like scientifically precise language, meant to be an accurate description of the world (in this case, your own soul) as it really is—or at least as you experience it to be. Words of confession help us find where we really are in the world. Confessions are compass-like words that recalibrate our souls to the reality of our own brokenness and the astonishing grace of the gospel.
We are afforded no mulligans in our speech. Instead, we are given the much better gift of confession and the forgiveness that accompanies it. Go to the Father and confess the sins of your mouth, and taste the forgiveness that’s sweeter than any do-over.
Who doesn’t like to be encouraged? Encouragement is a generous use of speech that freely bestows affirmation, solace, peace, comfort, thanksgiving, praise, and appreciation to others. It costs very little, yet breathes an immense amount of life into the weary and beaten down souls around us.
Encourage someone today—a neighbor, a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger, an enemy. Use your words to speak peace into their life. Make it your goal for everyone you talk with to leave feeling better than when they came to you.
Jesus was clear that our words matter. “I tell you,” he said, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).
We don’t get any do-overs with our speech, but we do have access to forgiveness and grace when we misspeak. Perhaps more than anything, we have the ability to counteract thoughtless, careless, violent, and destructive speech with words that build up, care for, love, and give life.
Let’s be people whose words are a wellspring of life in a world filled with words that too often produce death.
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 20 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.