Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits (Prov 18:21).

Let no corrupting 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).

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov 12:18).

When I was in seminary, I often hated to talk with my fellow students. So frequently we’d be sitting together, and someone would mention something about which they disagreed with someone who wasn’t there. And then this vicious cycle would start, where everyone took turns tearing the absent person’s viewpoint to shreds, finding no merit in anything about that person’s view.

I hated it. I hated even being around it. I hated hearing such tremendous negativity. Even if I disagreed with the person’s viewpoint as well, that was no cause to sit there and destroy everything about them.

A friend of mine, Rev. Dan Morrison, with whom I went to seminary, experienced a similar thing when he went on to his doctoral studies. The students in his classes would often share the first drafts of their papers with each other, and so many of the students would have nothing positive to say about them, but would simply tear the whole thing apart. One even said that Dan simply couldn’t write.

I’ve helped Dan work on his papers, too. I can personally attest that Dan is a great writer.

One time, Dan asked this person, after he had finished ripping his paper to shreds, what good he saw in the paper. The man’s response was, “If you fixed your margins here…”

He had nothing good to say. He just added another criticism. And it’s a first draft; who cares about margins? Those are fixed last, once you have everything else in place.

This article, like many other recent ones, comes out of a talk I had with a mentor of mine, Randy Walls. I was relating to him why I so often hated talking with my fellow students, and that set us off on this discussion.

The big thing Randy observed was this: education is great, but it is also a double-edged sword.

When you become educated in a subject, you learn how to think critically about it. You learn to criticize things, to refine thoughts and ideas.

But criticism without creativity is merely destructive.

If you do not move on from the criticism and start to build it up, all you end up with is nothing other than negativity.

This is something I’ve battled with a lot in my life. I grew up very critical and very blunt. The Lord has worked long to teach me to be creative and encouraging as well.

And this is a vital skill of any leader. You must learn to be critical and encouraging. You must learn to refine your ideas and help people refine theirs, and you must learn to do it in a way that does not crush them or discourage them, but rather builds them up and brings life to them.

Because criticism alone is death. To use the imagery Jesus used, those who speak only criticism and do not also build people up are whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, which makes sense: if they speak such criticism to you, they probably speak it constantly to themselves as well in a spirit of relentless perfectionism. But though they look good on the outside, they are only full of corruption.

I’ll use another image from the Bible: If you do not speak life into people, your throat is an open grave. The venom of vipers is under your lips.

As Jesus said, you speak from the overflow of your heart. Does your heart overflow with life? Or does it overflow with death?

Take the model of Jesus. Jesus did not hesitate to rebuke and correct. But his are the words of life. Jesus was both critical and encouraging.

So first examine your heart. Do you struggle with encouragement? Ask around, particularly those people who you know will tell you the truth. Do they think that speaking life to people is something you need to grow in? Is that something you need to focus on now?

Some of you know it without needing to ask. I knew it. It was obvious. I just didn’t know what to do about it.

So second, identify where this is coming from. As Dan observed, you don’t need to make yourself stand higher by cutting everyone else down. Do you feel that need? Is it ambition that drives you to tear down others? Or is it simply a learned behavior? For me, it was simply how I grew up. I knew nothing else. It was my normal.

Once you identify the problem, give it to God. Say, “God, my heart is not right here. I give this to you! Give me a pure heart, a heart overflowing with life! Let your life flow out of my heart and into other people’s lives. Teach me to speak life to people and not death. Speak with me as I speak!”

And as you continually give this to God, you also continually speak with God as you speak. Pay attention to what you say. Be deliberate. What can you say to speak life into the people you are talking to? What does God want you to say to them?

Negativity is a learned behavior. Which means it can be unlearned. I’ve come a long way. I still have a long way to go.

But it is so worth it. So speak life!


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