"....... for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" Psalm 103:14

Learning to hold my tongue


When my husband was younger - early university years - he made a radical decision that changed his life. He decided to shut his mouth. He even wrote himself a note and taped it to the back of his door - Shut Your Mouth!! - so that every time he went out he was reminded. To zip it before he said something that was best left unsaid. Words that might carelessly wound, even when that was not the intention.

He made this decision after an encounter - a robust discussion - with a fellow student, during which he realised that his self-righteous words had wounded. Not his intention at all, but that was the outcome nevertheless. And his discomfort and grief at this realisation - that his carelessly spoken words could hurt - was the impetus for his decision to shut his mouth.

I wish I'd learned that lesson much earlier in my life and made the same decision, because my mouth has the potential to get me into trouble almost every day!

I'm a blurter
In our marriage relationship, even when I start out with the best of intentions, with no desire to wound, sometimes I just blurt out what's on my mind, because I'm frustrated or irritated or tired. It's such an ingrained habit just to open my mouth and say whatever is on the tip of my tongue. When this happens, and the poorly-considered words are out, I watch my husband's face and the progression of thoughts that flit across his eyes. And I know he's making a decision, not only to hold his own tongue but also to give me the benefit of the doubt about my careless one. He tells me that he is for me, and he loves me. He moves towards me. He extends grace. His kind response is always the perfect answer to my irritation or frustration or whatever it is that motivates me to unwisely open my mouth at that moment.

Silent wounding stalemate
My first marriage was quite different. A similar interaction where I allowed thoughtless words to escape would trigger a major offence leading to a silent stalemate that could go on for days, until I couldn't bear it anymore. The anguish in my heart would overwhelm me until I'd eventually prod with an olive branch. I don't miss those days.

In an unexpected interaction earlier on the day he left, my ex-husband had shocked me by saying that one of the things I needed to do was just "shut the f#@* up". It was uncharacteristically harsh, and was the only sign that day of the devastating decision he was about to make. And in the midst of the incredible and life-changing tornado that was, only hours later, suddenly swirling around me, it hinted that much deeper things had been going on for him. At the time they were gut-wrenching words to hear (even if they may have held some truth) - unkind, cruel, unnecessary, designed to wound - and for a long time I couldn't let it go. I know now that it was also a function of his own unshared pain at the time, and I've forgiven him (and myself) for the wounds inflicted in both directions over the years.

A big bag of shooshes
I know I talk too much sometimes, and when my boys were teenagers I undoubtedly asked too many questions. They would give me the usual rolled eyes accompanied by "Oh Muuuummmm..........." and I would hold up hands in defeat and zip my lips, as hard as it was. I know I'm not the only mum to struggle with that one. The sweet husband of a friend of mine had a way of lovingly dealing with the situation whenever she became too questioning with their teenagers. Finger raised to his lips, he would smile and say "Honey, a big bag of shooshes for you." When it needs to be said, it can be said gently and kindly.

Moving to conscious incompetence
I think (hope) that the way my husband carefully weighs his words is rubbing off on me. I've moved from unconscious incompetence (a kind of "blissful ignorance") to conscious incompetence ("oh darn, there I go again"), but I am living proof that old habits do die hard - in fact they have a way of hanging on for dear life. It's a painfully slow process for me, this learning to hold my tongue. And frustratingly I do still find that all it takes is one unguarded moment to derail my best intentions and a growing history of self-control. But now, instead of standing on my indignation and perceived "rightness", I am much more likely instantly to regret opening my mouth and to move much more quickly towards repentance. And that's progress!

The tongue is a fire
Once spoken, unwise words just can't ever be taken back. Not really (although we try). Once they're out there, in all their ugliness, it's really too late. And then we're back-pedalling, scrambling to undo what's been done. I recognise my tongue for the fire that it can be. Thoughtless words, like little arrows, expressed in one fleeting frustrating moment, just because I think I'm in the right.

These days, as I continue to move towards conscious competence - where I will be able consistently to stop myself before I open my mouth - and hopefully one day to unconscious competence where my husband resides much of the time, I am also developing wisdom. While I recognise that I may circle around (somewhat frustratingly) in conscious incompetence for a while yet, stumbling again and again, I'm definitely learning to reign in my tongue and pour some retardant on that wretched flame before it hurts someone I love. Rather than allow myself to indulge in speaking my mind instantly as I would have once done, just because I could, I try now to take a deep breath, to be quiet, to think it through, to ask "Do I really need to say this?" or "How could I say this more kindly?"

The image of my words scorching the hearts of those I love is a powerful word picture for me, and keeps me cautious and aware most of the time, and seeking grace and forgiveness for the rest.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21)

10 comments

  1. When our daughter was little she had what we called "stream of consciousness" where everything in her head then flowed out of her mouth. We used to tell her that she could think things without having to say them. A good reminder for all of us I think :)

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    1. That must have been a source of great entertainment for you all, little ones can be so funny. I love talking and often have a lot to say, but definitely need to continue improving on this one when irritation, annoyance or tiredness are the dominating influences!! I'm a work in progress, let's just say. Thanks for your comment xx

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  2. It can be hard to hold your tongue- it takes a lot of practice.

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    1. Tell me about it! It's something I continue to pray about and work towards!!

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  3. I am trying to learn to talk less and listen more. I have a habit of giving advice and most times I think people don't want advice. They just want someone to hear them, to really listen. I still talk too much sometimes, especially when I am nervous, but I understand that it is a process. It is nice to find a new writer through Pitstop.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Michele. I've become much more circumspect about giving advice these days, you're so right that people really do want to be heard. I think I'm a pretty good listener most of the time, but opening my mouth to speak my annoyance is probably one of my less endearing traits shall we say!!

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  4. Proverbs 18:21 was my first thought when I started reading this. I also have issues with my tongue and though I work on keeping it still sometimes I speak out of turn.

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    1. Great minds think alike Victoria! There are so many wise words about taming the tongue in the Bible - James 1:19 and that very convicting passage in James 3 for starters - I know I would do better if I remembered them much sooner!! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  5. Wise words, Sue. I like to have a view on everything. My husband says the wisdom is in knowing when or when not to express it. I am sure your post will help a lot of people so we will feature it on the next Blogger's Pit Stop.
    Kathleen
    Blogger's Pit Stop

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    1. Thanks Kathleen, I feel honoured!
      I think your husband is correct, and that's something I'm still learning. I definitely hope I'm getting better at stopping myself before I open my mouth.
      Thanks for reading xx

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