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Say WHAT?!

When my shoe landed in the cat dish, my foot ended up in my mouth.

In a spirit of honesty, here's one of my sins of which I'm most ashamed: ##$!%@##*&!!

There, I've said it. The truth is, having spent the first twenty-seven years of my life away from God and immersed in the ways of the world, I developed a vocabulary some might call "colorful." When the Lord yanked me out of that pit fourteen years ago and placed me on the path of righteousness, one of the first obvious changes was my language. It happened almost instantly as Jesus promised, "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34b). Hooray! I thought. No more cussing.

Well … yes and no. No, I don't ever curse as a matter of course, nor do improper adjectives slip out as effortlessly as exhaling. When I have full command of my emotions, purity of speech isn't a problem at all.

But when the skies on my emotional horizon darken or stress rears its ugly head, my once-tame tongue leaps from her cage like a tiger unleashed. Before long, I'm on my knees begging forgiveness for my out-of-control vocabulary.

Because I care very much what others think of me and how I represent the Lord I love, I've managed to limit most of my verbal transgressions to those times when I'm alone. This isn't an improvement, however, and besides, " … you may be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23).

One afternoon, with less than an hour to make a flight to Atlanta, I dashed into the house through our kitchen and promptly caught the cat's milk dish with my toe, launching liquid all over my freshly-mopped floor. I now had warm milk soaking into my new leather shoes.

This wasn't the first time I'd spilled the cat dish, just the worst time. At the top of my lungs (after all, it was the middle of the day and no one was home), I shouted, "That ?@##$%%! will have to go somewhere else!"

At that precise moment, the door to our downstairs bathroom opened and the face of our house painter appeared, his eyes wide with shock.

I was more than a little wide-eyed myself. "Oh! No, no, not you! You're welcome to go … anywhere you like." Sheepishly, I waved in the direction of the milk puddle. "I was talking to the cat dish."

"Uh … sure, ma'am," he said, sliding past me as he hurried for the back door and certain safety.

Oh dear.

I fell into a chair, deeply ashamed at my lack of control. What a wretched woman! I prayed for forgiveness, then sought out our house painter and begged his pardon as well. Not only was it the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do: He's a member of our church.

A word of wisdom from Proverbs came to mind: "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity" (Prov. 21:23). I should have meditated on that verse before the cat dish disaster. Even with my heartfelt apology, I couldn't undo the damage I'd done to my friendship with the house painter. My sinful outburst could cause him to stumble, or even cast the shadow of doubt on my commitment to Christ. "Calamity"--and then some!

For years, I thought I was the only Christian woman who ever struggled with keeping her speech pure. Then I casually mentioned my challenge to a trustworthy friend and was surprised when she blushed and stammered, "Me, too!" When I shared my story with a whole audience filled with Christian women and saw hundreds of nodding heads, I was both relieved (I'm not alone!) and disheartened. Why do so many of us fight a language battle?

It's easy to blame the media and movies. No doubt about it, the language we hear coming from Hollywood is anything but edifying. Add to that the rough language heard in every public place. It's clear we're surrounded by words society accepts, however begrudgingly. But when #$%&!@##! comes out of my mouth, it's not society's fault, it's mine.

The solution also rests at my doorstep, and the strength to avoid cursing comes from the Lord as I vow to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). Here are five methods I'm using to restrain my wayward tongue:

I pray before I speak. I'm continually asking the Lord to help me be strong in this regard, as I pray with the psalmist, "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Ps. 19:14).

The Lord's already filled my heart with his love and grace. Now it's up to me to not let the sins of my flesh get in the way of the desire of my heart, which is to glorify him.

If I slip up, I pray after I speak. When I fail, I immediately ask the Lord's forgiveness. Not an "oops" kind of prayer, but one of genuine repentance. Since I'm truly ashamed, this isn't difficult. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Whew … I needed that!

But I must also ask the forgiveness of anyone else within earshot. That's difficult—especially if it's a stranger in an elevator or a cab driver. Actually, it's tough if it's your husband, too. Gratefully, I married a man who remembers well his own struggles.

My Bill and his college roommates kept each other on the straight and narrow of pure speech by using a "cuss box." Small slips cost a dime, major mess-ups cost fifty cents, but more than three words in a blast cost a full dollar. For a frugal college student, it made more sense to keep it clean than keep feeding quarters into a box. A bad financial crunch (and some accountability) produced a spiritually good habit.

I plan ahead to avoid calamity. Since high-stress situations seem to provide a breeding ground for verbal sins, I'll do whatever I can to avoid that environment. Allowing more time to run errands helps. So is finding healthier ways to release frustration, like a quick walk up and down the steps. I've even done jumping jacks in hotel rooms!

Several deep breaths calm me down before I get into trouble. I have a sign in my office that simply says: Stop—Breathe—Relax. As the psalmist put it, "I have resolved that my mouth will not sin" (Ps. 17:3).

I choose the words that fill my mind. One way to control what comes out of your mouth is to restrict what goes into your mind. That means I'm turning off any television shows that feed my mind with off-color language. We've brought home PG-rated videos that looked promising only to find the lead characters (usually kids) spouting four-letter words in the first five minutes. Back to the store they go, pronto. We not only want to protect our children's ears, we need to guard our own: If it's not okay for them, it's not okay for us either.

I choose the words that come from my mouth. I've saved my most effective method of taming the tongue for last. One day several years ago, I made a list of all the words and phrases that plagued me most (and discovered they looked even worse on paper!). Then, in order to get started on cleaning up my tongue, I gave each one a number, one through ten. When the urge to say something less than honorable came over me, I let 'er rip: "Four!"

It worked like a charm. No one was offended—not my children, not anyone within earshot. When the stress really got to me, I'd string a few together and sound like a quarterback: "Two! Seven! Nnn-iiiii-nn-e!"

This technique gives a whole new meaning to the advice "When you're angry, count to ten." In fact, when I've used it, my anger usually dissolves into laughter, yet another stress-reliever. Today, I'm not even sure what number goes with what word anymore—another encouraging sign I'm on the right track with my own "clean air act"!

Now as my speech is becoming more pure, I can concentrate on getting my heart pure as well so that even shouting "Eight! Eight!" will no longer be a temptation.

What I'm really counting now is my blessings. I'm so glad that when I confess my transgressions, God forgives them, even one as foolish, mean-spirited, and immature as my struggle with pure speech. How encouraging to remember that anyone "who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend" (Prov. 22:11).

Liz Curtis Higgs is the award-winning author of numerous books, including Here Burns My Candle (WaterBrook). A popular conference and retreat speaker, Liz lives with her husband in Kentucky.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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