The Self-Selected Bridle

I’d be willing to bet that we have all been party to conversations where we wish we could hit the “Rewind” button and handle them differently. Discussions that went on far too long, that steadily escalated to the use of hurtful words and may have even included shouting, name-calling and/or accusatory, profanity-laced, God-dishonoring statements. While most of us – myself included – would much prefer to dwell on those arguments that began as a result of someone else’s sin or stupidity, it’s probably safe to say that we ourselves have said many, many things that we regret.

When we Christians find ourselves engaged in “challenging” conversations, we ought always to take James’ advice for taming our tongues (James 3:1-12), but as we all know, we far too often find ourselves gratifying the desires of the flesh rather than walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16). With regard to the ways in which we use our tongue, our speech can so quickly be corrupted into self-gratification by inflaming the stubborn desire to demonstrate that we are “right,” to punish with our words the one who has hurt us, or to prove that we are the “lone voice of reason” left standing in the room. All of these desires – and many more – goad us to keep the fires of hell stoked in the way we use our tongues.

For my money, the single-best exposition I have ever heard of James 3 came from Sinclair Ferguson at the 2008 Desiring God National Conference. His sermon, “The Tongue, the Bridle and the Blessing: An Exposition of James 3:1-12” has proved deeply influential in my own life. It was not long after hearing him deliver this sermon that I adopted two cardinal rules that guide my behavior:

  1. Never type when you are angry.
  2. Carry a poker chip at all times.

The first rule perhaps need less explanation than the second.

Modern technology has turned a wide array of instruments – computers, cell phones and so forth – into “de facto tongues” in our lives. Back in the old days, one might write out a hate-filled letter and have some time to think about it as he or she walked down to the corner mailbox to send the message on its merry way. Or, even if the letter might actually be mailed, the next day might bring a clarifying sense of sobriety, and one might possibly convince their friend to burn the letter upon receiving it, unread.

Today, of course, that potentially-sanctifying walk to the mailbox has been completely eliminated. Technology has given us the ability to communicate our sinful thoughts and profanities to one another at dizzying speeds. We have been empowered to spew forth garbage into other people’s lives whenever and wherever it suits us, with little time for reflection or regret prior to hitting “Send”. All that to say that I am increasingly convinced that James 3 applies equally to the “Send” button as it does to the human tongue. Both must be bridled.

One way to “self-bridle” that I have found useful is to hold off on responding to difficult e-mails until the negative emotions provoked have subsided. After some time has passed and I can approach my computer with less irritation, I take my best shot at communicating, but without entering an address up top. (Leaving the address line blank prevents accidentally hitting the “Send” button!) Often, I will allow another trusted – and perhaps less emotional – Christian to read what I have written – with full editorial rights – before I send the message on to its intended recipient. Another effective way to rein in the E-Mail Demon is to BCC an accountability partner on whatever finally gets sent, and allow that person to critique your “best shot at faithfulness.”

You get the idea. If you are angry, walk away from your keyboard or put away your cell phone. Make an appointment to “settle your scores” 48 hours from now. Allow time and the wisdom of God and other faithful believers to temper your responses. For me, personally, I find that if I am tempted to type out a profanity, this is the surest-possible sign that my heart has already gone south for the time being and I need to walk away.

“Walking away” brings me to the subject of the otherwise-harmless poker chip. While the first suggestion works for all kinds of difficult conversations in all kinds of relationships, this next one has been primarily used to protect my relationship with my wife.

I am ashamed to say that even after my conversion to Christianity, my mouth was the primary source of my sinful behavior. Jesus flat-out tells us that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) and this truth, spoken by Truth Himself, has been the focus for many of my most painful realizations about the condition of my heart. Suffice to say that there have been many times when a conversation was begun under the most ordinary and non-threatening of circumstances, only to escalate to full-blown sin, folly and rebellion. Born out of the sure knowledge that there are things that cannot be “unsaid” once they have been unleashed, hurtful words that find their target and stay lodged in the soul of another for the rest of their days, I have found the simple use of a poker chip helpful in bridling the tongue and in safeguarding my marriage from unnecessary pain.

Obviously, the use of the poker chip has to be agreed upon in advance, and both spouses need to honor it as a way to preserve the relationship.

In a nutshell, using a poker chip to end a conversation is the exact opposite of storming out of the house righteously angry, driving across the lawn and leaving emotional scars on one’s spouse and (God help us all!) our own children. In fact, the poker chip doesn’t end a conversation forever when it’s not going well; it merely inserts a much-needed respite. What else does setting down a chip and walking away calmly signal? Here’s what setting down a chip means for me:

  1. I love you and am wholly committed to you, and I am coming back just as soon as my head clears.
  2. I am very angry right now and not in full control of my tongue.
  3. I don’t want to say hurtful things that you will remember 10, 20 or 30 years from now, even after we have forgiven each other.
  4. Rather than a punitive action, I am demonstrating love toward you in the only way I can right now, by “cutting off my tongue” for the time being.
  5. I am not going to “act out” in any way while I am away from you. No booze, no flirting with others, nothing at all like that. I just need space for a bit.

That’s a lot of weight for a single poker chip to carry, but again, these guidelines had to be worked out in advance, while calmer heads prevailed and during conversations that were designed to strengthen the relationship by “self-bridling.”

Something to be noticed is that laying down the poker chip requires sufficient humility to admit (even when angry) that you are not in possession of your faculties, your heart and mind are not working as they should, and you need to humble yourself enough to “tap out” before the real relational fireworks burn your house down around you.

If you have time, please give Sinclair Ferguson a listen on this subject. The important thing is not to go out and acquire a poker chip, the key idea here is to find ways to “self-bridle” your tongue, your cell phone, your computer and anything else that you use to communicate with your spouse and other loved ones, friends, enemies or anyone else.

Over the years working in divorce ministry, I firmly believe much easily-avoided damage has been done by the hateful lashings of the tongues of spouses against one another – damage that, once inflicted, cannot be undone absent the work of the Holy Spirit. A consistent failure to self-bridle is followed, I’ve found, by others “applying a bridle of their own.” If we are unwilling to beat down our pride such that we will shut up for a bit, others will do it for us, most often by first closing their hearts to us.

James 3:1-12 (ESV)
Taming the Tongue
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.  

“Morning Needs”
Taken from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions 

O God, the Author of all good,
I come to thee for the grace another day
   will require for its duties and events.
I step out into a wicked world,
I carry about with me an evil heart,
I know that without thee I can do nothing,
   that everything with which I shall be concerned,
   however harmless in itself,
   may prove an occasion of sin or folly,
   unless I am kept by thy power.
Hold thou me up and I shall be safe.
Preserve my understanding from subtlety of error,
   my affections from love of idols,
   my character from stain of vice,
   my profession from every form of evil.
May I engage in nothing in which I cannot
   implore thy blessing,
   and in which I cannot invite thy inspection.
Prosper me in all lawful undertakings,
   or prepare me for disappointments;
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with food convenient for me,
   lest I be full and deny thee
   and say, Who is the Lord?
   or be poor, and steal, and take thy name in vain.
May every creature be made good to me
   by prayer and thy will;
Teach me how to use the world, and not abuse it,
   to improve my talents,
   to redeem my time,
   to walk in wisdom toward those without,
   and in kindness to those within,
   to do good to all men,
   and especially to my fellow Christians.
And to thee be the glory.

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