The Words Test: Do They Bring Life or Death?

Have you ever been around someone with poisonous speech? You know, the ones who always have something critical to say or someone to make a snide remark about? I leave them and have to shake off the bitterness and anger.


Have you ever been around someone with life-giving speech? Their words speak life and peace. They find ways to encourage and comfort or to spread laughter and joy. I leave them with my heart buoyed up and my spirit refreshed. I smile when I remember their company. 

We all know the power of words. It’s not something I need to convince you of.

I am always struck by the high standard the Bible holds us to with our words. Perhaps being a “words person” makes me more attuned to these statements. I think so often of the power of words—both the kind that reverberate from my vocal chords to someone else’s ear drum and the kind that are put in the black and white permanence of a book (or in this case computer screen). So often, though perhaps not often enough, I reevaluate and reflect on what sort of spirit my words embody, what sort of fruit they bear. 

The stakes are raised, when I read passages such as Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, 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.” (v. 34-37)

Whew. It kind of makes you want to super glue your lips together, right?

Our words put on display the color and attitude of our hearts. They are our available means of self-disclosure, taking what’s hidden and making it accessible to others. When our hearts are transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our words should make this internal, invisible transformation seen, evident, manifest. Out of the overflow of our hearts, touched and shaped by the Gospel, our mouths speak. 

Paul tells us what this should look like:

“Let no corrupting [rotten] talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29)

I’ve heard this verse most often applied to profanity, but I think it’s extraordinarily clear the application is much, much broader and more inclusive than that. It includes gossip, inappropriate or harsh criticism, complaining, untrue words, sarcasm that uses humor to make a socially-acceptable personal jab, words said in impatience, and the list goes on…

We’re all guilty of this. We can all think of occasions when our words have been rotten and rotting all in their path. We might not have to think much beyond the last couple of days to find an example. James says the tongue is one of the hardest things in the world to tame. Oh how right he is. 

We need the Gospel to sink ever-deeper into our hearts, that message of God’s unearned, unmerited favor extended to us in Christ when we were unworthy and unable to help ourselves. The more the Gospel shapes our thinking, the more we can respond with grace and love to others…even in our speech.

We need the inner power of the Holy Spirit to respond in obedience, but He has already given us what we need to respond in godliness (see 1 Peter 1:3), we simply need to step into His power. It’s like the power that is already available to us in the wires running through our homes—we need to respond in faith that there’s enough and flip on the light switch. It’s His power, but we need to act in faith and obedience.

With this in mind, I would like to share some simple tests to filter our speech:

Does this speech build up or tear down?
Is this speech appropriate for/in the situation?
Does this speech offer unearned, unmerited favor (grace)?

Does this speech reflect the fruit of the Spirit? Does it reflect love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?

Or my personal go-to: “Do these words bring life? Or do they bring death?”

With our families, our co-workers, our friends, our spouses and children, with ourselves, may we speak life, my friends.