In 2016, one thing is certain: you will use words and how you use those words will affect every aspect of life and, more importantly, your standing with God. You’ll use words to commend, critique, comment, and clarify. You’ll use words when you pray and when you read Scripture and when you think.

Words are powerful little things. The way they are used sometimes determines whether you are “cool,” a “geek” or a “nerd” — or whatever the current favorite terms are that mean you are acceptable to people who like to label others.

It’s hard to stay up with current word usage. If you’re a seasoned citizen, you may never have heard words like “fleek” (“on fleek” refers to something that is “on point”) or “bae” (a person you adore) or that using the word “shade” is a sly way to put someone down. By the way, those are among the top 5 most overused words in 2015, so don’t start using them now — you won’t “slay” it with your “squad” (two other top five overused words); it’ll just make you sound pathetic.

As Christians, nothing will define you in 2016 more than your speech. People will draw conclusions about you. They will form — or perhaps change — an opinion about you, and your reputation will depend largely on what and how you speak. Non-verbal communication is important but overrated; it’s what you say that counts most.

In fact, what you say or write in 2016 will be pivotal in your relationship with God, as important as anything else you do. Listen to Jesus:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12:36-37

I’ve looked for some fancy contextual or grammatical argument that would soften this statement, but I’m afraid we have to take it at face value. Though Jesus made the statement while speaking to the Pharisees after they accused him of casting out demons by the head demon, Beelzebub, he doesn’t restrict this saying to them. He says, “people” (in the Greek, it’s the term used for “mankind”) will be judged; all people, not just these people he’s speaking to.

Why will we be judged by our words? Because our words come from a treasure chest — our mind (or the “heart,” which means the whole of man). Look at Jesus’ statement in context (Matthew 12:33-37):

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

James, the Lord’s brother does not ease up; among other things, he describes the tongue as “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). There is no doubt that Holy Spirit knows that we need to give attention to what we say and how we say it because the misuse of the tongue can “set on fire the entire course of life” and land us in hell (James 3:6).

What Can We Do?

It should be obvious that the most effective and lasting way to be certain your words come out right is to work on the source: your heart — your mind and your attitude. Before you make a statement, to anyone, in any setting, take a moment to ask yourself, “why am I saying this; what do I want to accomplish?” Then take another moment to ask, “how can I say this in a way that will build up, not tear down?”

This is biblical. Read these words from Paul in Ephesians 4:17-32:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Notice that Paul starts with the source, the heart; we are to move beyond the pagan walk of life characterized by a darkened heart, a futile mind and ignorance borne of a hardened heart. That is a life that is alien to the life of God. We are to put off that corrupt old self and put on the new person, in the likeness of God.

How do you know if you’ve done it? Look at what and how you talk and what you talk about.

How will your words come out if you’re arrogant, for example? We have a word for that: “condescending.” Condescending speech is speech that is laced with “I know more than you, so I’ll set you straight.” It’s annoying to others, but reveals a darkened heart in the one who speaks.

Sometimes people will graciously say, “I don’t think he knows how he sounds.” They are trying to give the person the benefit of the doubt, and in many cases, it’s undoubtedly true that he doesn’t know how he sounds. But Jesus says that what is coming out of the mouth proceeds from the heart; condescending words proceed from an arrogant heart. The only way to fix that problem is to go to the source and fix the heart — humble yourself before God and others.

You can multiply the specific examples and it always comes back to the same issue: our words are the products of what we plant and water in our hearts. This is especially true when we are reacting to some statement or action: what you say in that unguarded moment is the real you; stress reveals where your heart truly is.

An angry, bitter woman may be able to fool people for awhile; she is careful to speak words that do not reveal her true self in public. But those who know her best, including her family, know she is playing a game, hiding her true identity. And sometimes she deceives herself; she becomes “calloused” (Eph. 4:19) and fails to even recognize the true nature of her heart. Typically, these people, regardless of how hard they try, give themselves away eventually.

The heart of a person is exposed when they use God’s name in vain, even when spouting the socially acceptable “OMG” (although these days, people are not content with the acronym, they say the whole thing out loud). How I wish this statement would become “uncool” and land on the most overused words list. To toss God’s name out without thought is the definition of “using God’s name in vain,” isn’t it? To hear Christians say it is beyond disappointing.

Our words reveal the true person; they reveal the real heart and mind and attitude. Thursday, after a football bowl game, the victorious coach was being interviewed. He was asked how it feels to win when few people believed, at the beginning of the year, that their team would reach this pinnacle (they are undefeated thus far, with one game to go). The coach said, “I give all the glory to God, that’s all I can say.” The interviewer asked a couple of other questions and the coach, in his reply, used the word “d—n.” Then at the close of the interview, he repeated, “all I can say is that I give all the glory to God.”

Unfortunately, his words about giving glory to God were nullified by his use of the expletive. One can imagine that if he used that word on national TV, what kind of language does he use in the locker room? But more, it revealed a clouded heart. Yet some Christian somewhere will probably brag on how this coach, after this important game, “gave all the glory to God,” because some of us are so desperate for “Christian role models.”

But we need to take Jesus, James and Paul seriously. Nothing reveals the heart more than our words. We need to be discerning — not  “judgmental” (get the log out of your own eye) but realistic when we hear people speak.

Cursing, using God’s name carelessly, condescending speech and other “idle words”  — these tell us that we should take what this person says “with a grain of salt” because there’s something amiss in his heart.