Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips.
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth.
This verse has been one of my most constant and continuous ‘breath prayers’ for over a decade now. A ‘breath prayer’ is a little one sentence prayer that is packed full of meaning. It’s the kind of prayer that can happen anywhere, at any time of day, and in any given moment!
“Set a guard O Lord, over my mouth!” - Sometimes it’s just a thought that I pray silently, and internally. Sometimes I pray it outloud, and SOMETIMES I’ll repeat that prayer over and over again! Because the truth is: if it has gotten to the point where I’m praying “SET A GUARD, O LORD, OVER MY MOUTH…”
It means ‘I’m about to say something, LORD… That You and I both know is not holy! I’m on the edge, Jesus! Guard my mouth!! Watch my lips! Hold my tongue and hold me back!
Set a guard, O Lord… over my mouth!
You see, I am painfully aware that I have a mouth problem… I actually have both a mouth AND a face problem. Some of you know what I’m talking about. That face problem might just be worse than my mouth problem!! If I am having a conversation, or if I’m in a meeting - and somebody says something that seems even the slightest bit off or ridiculous to me - my face is going to tell you exactly what I’m thinking, before my words ever reach my lips. And I usually don’t even know I’m doing it until it’s too late. Until some brave soul in the room tells me that I need to fix my face! My husband says that my face is a teleprompter - and he can read everything I’m thinking… just by the look on my face!
Praying “Set a guard over my mouth” is one thing - but fix my face, Jesus…!
I need to add that breath prayer to the rotation. Fix my face, O Lord! Amen.
How many of you know that 80-90 percent of all communication is non-verbal.
Tone of voice!
Facial expressions! - I’m in trouble. Fix my face, O Lord! Fix it, Jesus.
I pray Psalm 141 in preparation for any conversation that I know is going to be a challenging one - a crucial conversation - one where opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong.
Sometimes I have the luxury of knowing ahead of time that this interaction is going to require some intentionality, skill, and restraint. And I pray in preparation for that conversation - to lay the groundwork and ready my heart. But sometimes, a conversation turns crucial, suddenly and without warning! That’s where this breath prayer can really come in clutch -
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips.
In other words:
• I’m in it now, Jesus!!! Be my protection - guard my heart and mind, and BE MY FILTER!!!
• Help me to BE MINDFUL of my words! Help me carefully filter what I say through Your love, and Your grace. Give me Your words.
• Give me Your patience, give me Your wisdom, and give me Your love.
• Guard my mouth. I can’t do this without You.
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth!”
I pray it all the time… Because Jesus told us in Matthew 12:36 that we will have to give an account on judgment day for every idle word we speak!
That’s a scary thought, the idea of being held accountable for EVERY IDLE WORD we’ve ever spoken?!
The Greek word that gives us the word ‘idle’ is ARGOS (ARE -GAHS) - It means careless, thoughtless, or even injurious or harmful. Damaging words.
Now, I’ve spoken PLENTY of careless and thoughtless words over my lifetime. In fact, my daughter keeps a written record - of only the best of the best - ridiculous things I have ever said. She actually has a folder designated for each member of our family - like a permanent record of sorts - where she writes down whatever we’ve said that she has found particularly entertaining.
I asked her to share that folder with me last week. Do you know what she said? She said she’d share it with me but I’d have to wait because “it was going to take a really long time… because I have so many quotes…”
Quotes like -
“I wonder what the difference is, between wine and a pickle…” - Maron Gaffron
I have no idea what prompted that question, but clearly I was lost in thought, and she found that memorable. I told you, she only records the best of the best silly things I’ve said. Things like:
“I don’t want a lamp to scream at me when I walk into my office!” - Maron Gaffron
Now, I DO know what prompted that statement. And frankly, I stand by it - I DON’T want any lamp to scream at me when I walk into my office.
Here’s one of my personal favorites:
'NO ECOSYSTEM TALK AT THE CHRISTMAS TABLE!’ - _____?______
That one wasn’t me… I told you - she has a file for each of us!
The point is I say ridiculous things all the time… And my girl remembers them. My words have had an impact on her - in one way or another - for better or often for worse.
And if she remembers my silly, thoughtless words - how much more does she remember my cutting, hurtful, careless words?! I shudder to think about the lasting impact that my idle words have had on the ones I love.
Harvard Professor and Linguist Dwight Bolinger said:
“‘Language is like a loaded gun… it can be fired intentionally, but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally.” - Dwight Bolinger
I shudder to think about the lasting impact that my careless, hurtful, and foolish words may have had on anyone! Even on accident! Intentionally or unintentionally.
Our words have a powerful impact on the world around us.
With our words we can impart life, or we can spread death.
Proverbs tells us that
Death and life are in the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21
And that is why we’re calling this series “SPEAK LIFE!”
Death AND LIFE, are in the power of the tongue. And we have a high calling - a responsibility - to spread life and abundance to the world around us. To bring God’s kingdom to bear on this Earth! To bless and not curse! To speak LIFE!
So turn with me in your Bibles to the book of James - chapter 3, that’s page 1020 if you're looking it up in the house Bible.
And as is our tradition around here while ya’ll are flipping through the pages, or pulling up the Grace Church app to follow along there, this is my time to personally welcome each of you! Welcome to those of you who are joining us online, and welcome to all of you who are here in person today. This morning we’re talking about good old fashioned dialogue. Something that has sort of become a dying art form in our digital age.
All month long we’re exploring both the book of James and the book of Proverbs to help us find wisdom on how to use our words skillfully as we navigate crucial conversations and spread life to the world around us.
But before we go any further, let me take this time to pray for us!
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” - Ambrose Bierce
This is the quote at the beginning of chapter 4 of the book ‘Crucial Conversations - Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.’ As Amy mentioned last week, we’re hosting a book club this month. I think we sold out at the cafe last week, but you can still pick up the book on Amazon for about $12. And at the end of the month on August 30th, at 7:00 we’ll be hosting a book discussion in the cafe. And I can’t wait to hear what you think of this book! I thought it was super helpful. It gives practical step by step advice on how to successfully navigate tense or difficult conversations.
You can see I’ve got my copy all marked up, I think I devoured it in 2 days. I really liked it!
Because as I was reading, I kept having these little epiphanies - moments where I realized why certain crucial conversations that I have been part of have ended really well.
I had one recently that lasted a few hours, but ended in hugs and tears and mutual respect! The book shed light on what it was that I did in that particular meeting that helped us both achieve a peaceful and desirable outcome. As I’m reading the book, suddenly I’m understanding - ‘Oh! That’s what I was doing in that conversation a few weeks ago! That's made a big difference and it’s probably why the meeting ended as well as it did!”
On the other hand, the book also helped me realize where I’ve gone wrong in conversations that have ended disastrously! I could see myself in some of the scenarios the book describes - “Yep. That’s exactly how it went down! I lost my composure and spoke out of unbridled emotion and it was all downhill from there…”
Unbridled emotion. An unbridled tongue. Isn’t that just like what we read last week in the beginning of James chapter 3 when James was comparing the tongue - a small thing with great power, to a rudder on a ship or a bit in a horse’s bridle.
I kept having these moments where I would read something in this book that harkened back to an ancient Biblical truth, and suddenly I was going back and forth between our book club book and the Bible!
I love it when Biblical truth shows up in secular literature! This isn’t a book about religion - it primarily deals with business communications - and yet - I found that there was so much crossover between what I was reading in here, and what I see laid out for us in the scriptures!
I’ll give you an example - the book describes something called ‘the fool’s choice’ - that’s when we think we have to choose between telling the truth - telling it like it is - and preserving a relationship. We think we have 2 choices - confront our friend with hard truth and forfeit the friendship - or ignore the problem altogether for the sake of maintaining that relationship - we don’t want to lose a friend. The book suggests that this is a false trade off - and that skilled communicators know that telling the truth and preserving a relationship is not an either or decision … it's both AND.
“Skilled communicators resist the false tradeoff and look for ways to do both. They look for ways to be both 100% honest, AND 100% respectful at the same time.” - Crucial Conversations pg 31
100% honest and 100% respectful…
100% honest - that’s speaking the truth.
100% respectful - that’s speaking the truth in love!
Ephesians 4:15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.
Skilled communicators look for ways to be 100% honest AND 100% respectful at the same time. Skilled communicators - like followers of Christ - will aim to speak the truth in love.
James was a skilled communicator. He spoke the truth in love, even when that truth was a firm “PUNCH IN THE GUT” kind of truth.
James issues some hard truths in his letter - but he does so with love always at the forefront. Love for God and Love for God’s people is central to his message. He didn’t write this letter to tear people down, he wrote it with a desire to see God’s people live in such a way that would spread life to each other and the unbelieving world around them. His desire was to see God’s people live with integrity - that they would live like Jesus lived - full of wisdom, humility, and mercy.
So let's keep that in mind as we read together, James chapter 3 starting with verse 8:
8…No one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. 9 Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God.
10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! 11 Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? 12 Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. James 3:7-12
What James is talking about here, is duplicity - or what most of us would call “being 2 faced.”
: contradictory doubleness of thought, speech, or action
Duplicity is behaving in a way that is inconsistent: one minute you’re one way, the next minute you’re the opposite. One minute you’re singing praises to God but the next minute, you're trashing your co-worker, or your neighbor, or tearing down your family member.
He’s saying being 2 faced - being duplicitous isn’t right! That’s not how we should be. We should be consistently spreading life - like a fresh spring of water. We can’t be killing people with our words one moment and then acting all holy with our blessings the next.
A life giving spring of fresh water doesn’t intermittently turn into undrinkable salt water all on its own. And fig trees don’t produce figs one minute, and olives the next. They are what they are, through and through. They are constant and consistently LIFE GIVING!
And that’s exactly the point James is making - this is how we should Be! Not just some of the time, but all of the time - this is how we should exist - with integrity and consistency as a natural part of who we are. We shouldn’t be blessing someone one minute, and cursing someone the next! We should live with integrity.
10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!
It isn’t right.
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.
Now, I want to show you a picture of what this looks like in my mind, and in order to do that I’m going to invite my friends Scott and Lisa Santee to join me. Would you welcome them..
Scott & Lisa are 2 of our missionaries. They’ve attended Grace for over 20 years and they both serve on the Leadership Team of a ministry called Filter of Hope. They help give clean water and the hope of Jesus to families that are thirsty for both.
Scott & Lisa each lead trips to Cuba throughout the year. In fact they just got back from a trip not that long ago. So I’m going to let them tell you more about what it is that they do, and hopefully this living picture will help bring this all together for us.
So, take it away Scott and Lisa!
Would you thank them with me…
Our words have a powerful impact on the world around us.
With our words we can impart life, or we can spread death.
James writes in verse 13:
13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.
17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18 And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.
What can transform a tongue full of deadly poison into a spring of freshwater that gives life to others? What can take us from being jealous individuals, full of selfish ambition to peace loving, merciful, gentle, life giving followers of Christ???
You know - I’m glad Scott and Lisa didn’t just throw some random dirt in that water. I think manure was the appropriate choice.
Ephesians 4:29 says
Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. Ephesians 4:29
That word foul is the Greek word sapros - it means ROTTEN! OR PUTRID! Just like that water! True followers of Jesus are not to allow foul and abusive - putrid and rotten words to bubble up from their hearts and pour out of their mouths! True followers of Jesus are called to be good and helpful, and encouraging - in EVERYTHING WE SAY !
I know that’s a tall order. Believe me. And it’s intimidating - just as intimidating as Jesus saying that we will give an account on judgment day for every careless word we’ve spoken, If I’m supposed to let EVERY WORD I SAY be good and helpful and encouraging….. Lord, do I need help!!!
Because I told you…I have a mouth problem. Which at its core is really more of a heart problem, right? Jesus said that our words flow out from what is in our hearts.
And if, as James said, the tongue is full of deadly poison - then folks, we all need a filter!
Turn with me, a few pages back, to Galatians 5 - page 974 in our house Bibles. This, I believe, is where we find the secret to approaching every crucial conversation we face! Galatians 5, starting at verse 16
Galatians 5:16 So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 17 The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires.
Jesus has given His Holy Spirit to each one of us. And the Spirit gives us good desires that help us filter out the bad stuff.
If our sinful heart is overflowing with deadly poison, then the desires the Spirit gives us, filters out that poison!
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!
Imagine if, the next time you find yourself faced with a crucial conversation, you were able to filter your words or your reactions through all those good things the Holy Spirit has been growing in you?
Starting with love. Can I approach a difficult interaction with love for the person on the other side? Even if that person is hard for me to love, can I see them as someone who is made in the image of God and can I love them the way Christ loves them? With my helper, the Holy Spirit, I can do that.
How would it impact the flow of the conversation, if you were to approach that conversation with Joy - filtered through Joy? Now, I really had to think long and hard about this one, because I don’t mean that we should be happy about facing tough conversations. Tense situations don’t make me happy - but I don’t need to dread them - if I’m intentionally tapping into what the Holy Spirit has been developing in me - and I’m filtering my words and my attitude through Joy!
James 1:2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.
3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.
5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.
I’ve got some troubles in my life - but I’m going to push them through the filter of joy. It’s time for some exercise - for a little endurance training! I’m not going to avoid hard conversations because they make me uncomfortable. I’m going to recognize them as a chance for me to grow! I want to be developed! So I’ll joyfully embrace crucial conversations as an opportunity for my endurance to grow. This is strength conditioning for my spirit. Count it all joy.
And what if we filtered everything we say through the virtues that the Holy Spirit has been painstakingly cultivating in each of us:
Through kindness and gentleness
“The wisdom from above is peace loving, gentle at all times…”
What kind of conversations would we have if we filtered our words through that kind of wisdom?
And if each of us was able to ‘start with our heart’ and attach the filter of patience, and peace?
Wouldn’t that change everything?
If we carried our faith with us, into the tough conversations we face. Attaching the filter of faith sounds like this:
God, I know that You are with me, and that you are working within me to give me the ability to do what pleases you. Your word promises in Philippians 2:13 that You are working in me, giving me the desire AND THE POWER to do what pleases you!”
On my own, I don’t have the power, but with YOU I know I can do all things! Even this! I have faith to know that You are with me - and You are empowering me right now to do what is right.
I’m going to let the Holy Spirit guide me right now - filter my thoughts, my attitude, my words, my approach, my reactions through Your Love, Your Joy Your Peace Your Patience Your Gentleness Your goodness, Your Kindness! Through Faith…
And self control. Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth and keep watch over the door of my lips.
It doesn’t matter if we’re the ones initiating the crucial conversation or if we’re the ones being confronted. The power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, as evidenced by the fruit He is producing in our lives - gives us the ability to take on any situation!
Empowered by the Spirit, we can step into any conversation with a quiet confidence that God is in control of our whole beings. Even and especially our tongues. We’ve got to keep that Holy Spirit filter attached at all times.
I’m going to close with a prayer, but I’m going to do it differently today. Because I confess that I have a mouth problem. Preparing this message has convicted my own heart in so many ways. I found myself apologizing to my family earlier this week. Because - when I’m outside of my comfort zone - when I’m not home - when I’m at work, or out in the community - I’m much more intentional about choosing my words carefully. But when I come home, sometimes that filter comes right off with my shoes. I get lazy with my words. And I can cause harm.
Over a decade ago, I wrote a melody to go with the first 3 verses of Psalm 141. Putting scripture to music helps me to memorize it - and not just as a piece of Bible trivia or head knowledge. Putting scripture to music helps me to burrow that truth deep into my heart, until it becomes a part of who I am. And today I want to close us in prayer by singing this scripture, this breath prayer over you.