James warns the church, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (James 3:6).
We read a similar warning in Isaiah: “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity” (Isaiah 58:9). The Hebrew meaning of vanity here signifies rudeness, irreverence, disrespect.
Isaiah is making an astounding statement. The very reason we pray, fast and study God’s Word is to be heard in heaven. But the Lord attaches a big “if” to this. He declares, “If you want Me to hear you on high, then you must look at your issues of the heart. Yes, I will hear you—if you quit pointing a finger at others, if you stop speaking about them disrespectfully.”
It’s a great sin in God’s eyes for us to speak in ways that tarnish someone else’s reputation. As we read in Proverbs, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold” (Proverbs 22:1). A good reputation is a treasure that is carefully built up over time. Yet I can quickly destroy anyone’s treasure with a single defaming word from my mouth.
Now, we wouldn’t dare rob somebody of his gold watch or bank account. Yet God states clearly that slandering someone’s name is robbery of the worst kind. And we can do it in the subtlest of ways: by pointing an accusing finger, questioning one’s character, passing on tidbits of gossip. Indeed, three of the most damning words we can speak are, “Have you heard?” The mere suggestion of the question robs a person of something valuable. And it defiles our own mouth.