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Our words can often carry much power and weight and, once spoken, cannot be un-said

When I was in my late 20s, before I realized that I simply couldn't afford it, I loved to play golf. I always enjoyed being out on the course, the fresh air and non-aerobic exercise, the time and conversation spent with friends.

As kind of a duffer, one of the privileges that I always reserved for myself on the golf course was the "mulligan."

The mulligan is used in informal games of golf when the score doesn't really matter and everyone is playing for fun. Each round, players are allowed one of these "do-overs." I often took two or three. In those common instances when I botched the first shot off the tee or sliced the ball into a water hazard, I would simply tee up with a second ball and start over. The bad shot would go unnoticed and forgotten, failing to make its way onto the score sheet, and normal play would resume like nothing had happened. That's the beauty of the mulligan — it leaves no trace that something bad ever happened.

Unfortunately, life doesn't always play out like things do on the golf course. Most of us can think of times when we wish we could have a do-over: A career mulligan. A bad decision mulligan. A marriage mulligan. A money mulligan.

But some of our greatest and most common mulligan dreams are centered around our words — these powerful, audible, airborne realities that fill the space between individuals, entering ear and mind and heart. Words can so easily be hurtful and callous; venomous and destructive; thoughtless and angry. They have no return address: They're easy to speak, impossible to retract.

Like traumatic experiences cannot be un-lived or shocking sights cannot be un-seen, so words once spoken cannot be un-said. They carry too much power, too much weight. 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 (see, for example, Proverbs 10:19, 13:3, 17:27-28, 18:21, 21:23, etc.), warning us to carefully guard what comes out of our mouths. 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" (Matthew 15:11), "for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34).

How to speak 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" (James 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.

Praise: In order for our words to bring life, they must first be aligned with reality. The greatest task for which human words can be employed is the heart-felt 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. A piece of every day should be devoted to using our God-created tongues to sing and speak words of adoration and worship to God.

Gratitude: The Apostle Paul exhorted his readers to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Words of thanks are an important kind of 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.

Prayer: Like praise and thanksgiving — two forms of prayer — prayer as a whole 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 speech-life with God should always guide, direct, and shape our speech-life with others. As we think about how to speak to others in God-honoring ways, a good starting place is to speak about the other person to God, allowing God to speak to us about them. In essence, we are praying for others, but we are also allowing God to shape our conversational and relational life with others. As you do so, you may be surprised at how your thoughts, moods, and conversations become shaped by your prayers.

Confession: 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 serve to help us find where we really are in the world. They are, in a way, 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.

Encouragement: Who doesn't like to be encouraged? This generous use of speech is an act of grace that freely bestows affirmation, solace, peace, comfort, thanksgiving, praise, and appreciation to others. As a medicinal and healing outpouring of speech it costs very little, yet breathes an immense amount of life into weary and beaten down souls.

Conclusion

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" (Matthew 12:36-37).

We don't get any do-overs or take-backs with our speech, although we do have access to forgiveness and grace when we mis-speak. 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.

Mike Phay is the lead pastor at First Baptist Church. He can be reached at 541-447-7717.

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