Simplicity of Speech

By Ian Wooldridge
A gift that hopefully you’ve been able to receive during these times is the gift of simplicity. In other words, through all of the changes we’ve had to experience, hopefully you’ve been able to find areas in your life where you can simplify, and know more the benefits that come with the simple, spacious life. Check out the series that we just did here at OCC called “Breathing Room.” It’s filled with all kinds of direction that can help you with this.
We can apply the practice of simplicity to many things, but one of the biggest reminders that God is putting before me — by way of simplicity — is to consider the simplifying of my speech.
The Practice: Simplicity of Speech
Words are not bad. I once took a Linguistics class in college, and I’ll never forgot what one student’s answer was when our professor asked What is language for? His answer has always stuck with me:
We were given language to glorify God.
That’s pretty good, huh? And being at a public university made that answer even more shocking.
We use words all the time as we participate with God in His Kingdom. But, have you ever thought about the flip side of the effect that our speech can have when it’s not careful? Or maybe even why we speak the way we do? Or the motives behind what we say, or how we say it? This is where this practice can be very helpful.
Jan Johnson, in her book Abundant Simplicity (I can’t recommend this book enough), has an excellent chapter on the invitation to simplify your speech. It was her book in which I was first introduced to this idea, and this practice has probably been one of the biggest — if not the biggest — invitations into deeper life with God that He has brought into my journey so far.
As you can imagine, this isn’t an easy one. Until I first began this practice, I never honestly considered how or why I would use the words I used, or how wordy I really was. For the first time, I actually began to pay attention to the way I spoke; and my eyes were opened to just how unnecessary much of my speech was — not bad, just unnecessary. I came to learn that my speech revealed a lot about my heart and the insecurities that were left untouched there.
I found that I often would use my words to try to come across as smart,
or as more-caught-up and informed than I really am,
or more funny than I really am,
more clever,
more relevant and important,
or more fill-in-the-blank than I really am.
I found that I would often be wordy in an effort to manage perception and to appear a certain way: “impression management,” as Johnson calls it.1 Ultimately, I found that I used my words for control.
It seems to always come down to being a control issue, doesn’t it? And if control is at the root of our issues, that means trust issues aren’t far behind, either.
Instead of trusting God with my reputation and other people’s opinions of me — resting fully content in who He says I am and in His sufficiency in managing the events and outcomes of my life — I can be tempted to use my words for control and for “impression management,” with a preoccupation with how others may see and perceive me, and with how I want things to play out.
Johnson writes:
… this less-is-more approach [to speech] helped me see that I was using my words to convince colleagues to do what I wanted them to do and to impress friends with what I knew. I realized that my wordiness revealed a lack of trust that God would work without help from me. 2
This strikes a chord within me.
What may our wordiness reveal about us, deep down?
God may be calling us to give up the exhausting lifestyle of trying to do too much with our words, and instead to release any and all outcomes to Him — even our reputation and wants.
So, again, it’s a control and trust issue. But, ultimately, if it’s these things, then it’s really a heart issue.
In Matthew 12 and in Matthew 15, Jesus connects the mouth with the heart:
For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 3
But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart…4
Our words and word choices — not just what we say, but how we say it — reveals what’s going on deep down in the heart.
It’s quite insane just how much Scripture speaks of the invitation to tame the tongue. Just read the Proverbs — seemingly every chapter has something to say about the wisdom in giving thought to our speech.
Proverbs 15 points out that, “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil.” 5
We’ve all seen the difference — in other’s speech, or in our own (I know I’m guilty!) — between answers that are weighed then delivered with surgical precision, and words that just gush out.
An illuminating moment for me, regarding speech, comes from 1 Samuel 3, where it says, “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.” 6
What would it look like if none of our words fell to the ground — to not let one word go to waste?
Paul, in Ephesians 4, has a high call for us:
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 7
What would that look like?
What if our speech was only helpful,
was only edifying,
was only building up of others,
was only beneficial to all who may listen?
That’s life-giving speech.
This doesn’t imply passivity — it implies that even in the hard conversations, even when we need to call something or someone out, even when we have to embrace conflict of any kind, we can have these conversations in a way that builds others up, edifying them and spurring them on in their life with God. We can help them and love them in this way.
So, your challenge is to give thought to your words by asking a few questions:
What am I about to say?
How am I going to say it?
Ultimately, why am I saying this?
What’s the motive?
Do I even need to say this?
Then, on your own, maybe try out this prayer prompt that Johnson offers in her book:
Ask God to show you what you would be like in conversation if you felt secure and content with God’s own self as your treasure. 8
Remember, it’s ultimately a heart issue. If God is the sole treasure of our hearts, we will come to grow — over time — in not relying on our words to manage perception or for control. Instead, we can use them to glorify God and love others.
Here’s the thing, though: we will always be on the journey here, figuring this out, stumbling a lot. And that’s OK.
At the end of each day, I usually take some time to review my day with God. More times than not, He reveals to me where I’ve been excessive with my words, not giving thought to them, using them to manage perception or for control. I still have a ways to go here.
But, here’s the best part: because He loves me, and is a Father who cares deeply about the life of my heart, he reveals to me why I wasn’t stellar with my words; in His loving-kindness, He gently shows me when and where I spoke excessively, and what issue in my heart caused such to happen, or what impure motives there may have been.
Then — as He always does and wants to do with you — He invites me forward into deeper life.
Jesus, in Matthew 11, says, “… I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” 9
So, remember to be so so so gentle and grace-filled with yourself, here — Jesus is!
More than anything, let the challenge of simplifying your speech lead you deeper into God’s love for you, and deeper into trusting in His care for you and the events of your life.
As we close, Johnson writes of George Fox:
It was said of Quaker founder George Fox that “the fewness and fullness of his words have often struck even strangers with admiration.”… Not only did Fox speak little, but when he spoke, his carefully chosen words welled up from a single-focused heart, creating a clear and compelling effect. It was obvious to others that he treasured both God and them. 10
A few words that I want to be characteristic my speech.
What words do you want your speech to be characterized by?


  1. Jan Johnson Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace (InterVarsity Press, 2011).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Matthew 12:34b, NIV.
  4. Matthew 15:18, NIV.
  5. v28, NIV, emphasis mine.
  6. v19, NIV, emphasis mine.
  7. v29, NIV.
  8. Johnson, Abundant Simplicity.
  9. v29b, NIV.
  10. Johnson, Abundant Simplicity.

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