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I like to play golf.

Golf isn’t super-exciting. In fact, it’s kinda boring.

But hitting a little ball hard with a club can be therapeutic. I’m a below average golfer. Golfers at a below average level use mulligans occasionally. If you’ve never played golf, you might be wondering, “what’s a mulligan?”

A mulligan is a do-over: You hit a bad shot, and with permission from your fellow golfers, they pretend that shot never happened. Then you hit another shot with no penalty.

Mulligans are a golf hacker’s good friend.

Do you ever wish you could use mulligans when it comes to words? That you could have a do-over? You know, when you’ve said something you regret . . . to a friend? A church member? Your spouse?

Unfortunately, when it comes to our words, there are no mulligans.

Words are more impactful than we imagine. What person alive today hasn’t felt the negative effect of undeserved, untrue, and un-thought-out words? Conversely, who hasn’t been helped by encouraging words coming from a friend at just the right time?

Words, once spoken, can never be retrieved. No mulligans. No do-overs. We can’t pretend they never were spoken.

The influence of our words is potent and long-lasting. They have the power to build up or tear down. To heal or wound. To encourage or discourage. James tells us in his epistle “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Strong thoughts—but unfortunately, true.

Words play a prominent role in relationships. How many marriages are wrecked by a steady stream of unkind, unfair, and un-called-for words? Apologies help, but they don’t reverse the effect of poorly chosen words.

Let’s face it: We all struggle occasionally with our words. We say things we shouldn’t say. We occasionally use a condescending tone. And if we don’t gain control over our tongue, our relationships almost always suffer.

So, what can we do about it?  Is it possible to get control over our tongue? To get better with words? To leverage their power in a positive way? To avoid hurting people, often those we love the most? Here are four secrets to getting control of our tongue. Things we can and should do before we open our mouths:

1. Pray

The Psalmist says: “Lord set a guard over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” And in another passage, he writes: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, oh Lord…” I’m thinking these words would be good to tell God every morning before we say a word to another human. I like this prayer as well: “God help me to speak when I’m supposed to and be quiet when I should be. Help me to be kind and gracious when I do speak.” Prayer is a powerful weapon that helps us rule our tongue. Here’s a second practical behavior:

2. Think

Before you speak, ask yourself: “Will these words I’m about to say build up or tear down? Heal or wound? Bring life or kill?”  Before speaking, zip it for 30 seconds . . . and think: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a minute and ask yourself, “If someone said this to me, how would I react?”

I’m not suggesting we never have an honest conversation with another person. Earlier this year I wrote a post on leadership and difficult people. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is speak the truth wrapped in love. My book Unshakable You addresses in detail how to have a difficult conversation with someone without destroying them. You can find it here.

That being said, careless words spoken in anger or frustration damage relationships—sometimes permanently. Again, not to be melodramatic, but careless words have ruined marriages, careers, ministries, and countless people’s lives. Here’s a third behavior that helps us in our struggle to control our tongue:

3. Feed

When it comes to our speech: garbage in . . . garbage out. What we feed on mentally or visually or audibly eventually finds its way out of our mouths. What we feed on lodges itself in our heart. And our heart is the fountain of our speech. If you’re struggling with words, try modifying what you’re feeding on. Deal with the mouth problem at the root level—your heart. I think the more time we spend hanging out with Jesus, the more of His words we feed on, and the more we allow Him to shape our inner man, the greater control we’ll gain over our tongue. Let me give you one more behavior that helps us tame our tongue:

4. Understand

Sometimes we try to use an apology as a crutch for our careless words. We think, “Oh they’ll forgive me; they always do.

Before we speak, it helps to understand that apologizing doesn’t undo the damage caused by words. It doesn’t reinstate trust. We can’t use an apology as way of pretending our hurtful words never happened. Jesus said: “Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of reckoning.” Yikes.

You may be asking yourself: “Why do all of these words about words matter? Why should we care about taming our tongue?” Because words are one of the most powerful forces for both good and evil in our world. God used words to create the universe. Words are the seeds that start relationships. Unfortunately, they also can be the poison that kills relationships.

Your words matter more than you know. If you’re a leader, they matter even more, because of the platform you’ve been entrusted with. Use words wisely, and good things usually follow. Use them poorly, and well . . . watch out.

When it comes to words. there are no mulligans.

I’m rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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