French President Nicolas Sarkozy was all over the news yesterday, and for reasons I suspect he would have preferred to avoid. At the G20 Summit last week President Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a liar in a conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. What Sarkozy and Obama did not know was that the conversation was being overheard by several journalists in another room. Sarkozy and Obama were already wearing their microphones and a few journalists had already put on the headphones of their translating device–even though they had been told to wait until the news conference started to do so.
This is certainly not the first time something like this has happened. During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, George W. Bush identified a reporter from the New York Times and in no uncertain terms told Dick Cheney what he thought of the man. This exchange was picked up by the open mic on the stage.
What these instances bring to my mind, though, is the need to guard our tongues. Presidents and other world leaders are in positions where their comments can have very real and potentially very serious consequences around the world. I am not in a position to impact international diplomacy with a carelessly expressed opinion, but that does not mean that my words are any less powerful or that I need to be any less careful. The book of James makes it unmistakably clear that the tongue is in an incredibly potent force. Like a spark igniting a forest fire or a rudder steering a ship, the tongue is small in size but almost unequaled in power and influence.
In looking at the situation with President Sarkozy it is tempting to sit back and think, “How stupid! You’re wearing a microphone, about to go into a news conference. Wouldn’t you be a little more careful in choosing your words?” I have to resist that temptation, though, because I am well aware that I, too, make foolish word choices at times. I suspect that Mr. Sarkozy was expressing an opinion he genuinely holds, and was expecting it to be a private exchange between himself and Mr. Obama. But should that matter? When I am having a confidential discussion with someone I feel I can trust, should I feel free to say things I would not be willing to say elsewhere? Should I say things I would be ashamed or embarrassed to have announced to the world or broadcast on the Internet?
Several years ago, I heard a fantastic illustration about words from my friend and former pastor, Dr. Joey Anthony. He was talking about words, and how careful we need to be with how we use them. He asked a volunteer to empty a tube of toothpaste onto a paper plate. After the individual had squeezed out all he could, Joey said, “Now, put it back in the tube.” Of course the individual looked at the toothpaste, looked at him, and then said, “I can’t.” I suppose it would be possible with lots of time and effort to get some of the toothpaste back in, but the point was well made: once our words leave out mouths, we cannot “put them back in.” We can never get them back. We may try to explain them away, apologize for them, even retract them, but we can never really get them back. Every word we utter is like the bullet of a gun; once we pull the trigger, it’s too late.
One of the greatest lies ever perpetrated on mankind is the old children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” On the contrary, the damage inflicted by sticks and stones will heal with time and proper care. And while the damage done by words can heal, it may never completely go away. I suspect you, like I, can remember some specific words someone said to you at some point in your past that hurt you. You may have “gotten over it,” and you may have forgiven the individual who uttered the words, but the pain that you experienced is likely easy to recall when prompted.
In his book Controlling the Tongue, R.T. Kendall says that the scariest verse in the Bible in his opinion is Matthew 12:36, which reads, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” That is a sobering thought, isn’t it? We are each equipped with a tongue, a powerful tool that we can use to build others up, or tear others down. We can encourage others, or discourage them. We can point others to Christ, or drive them away. With such a potent tool at our disposal, I’d like to suggest that we exercise much discernment in choosing our words. Maybe we should think about it this way…what if everything we said was picked up by an open mic?