Playing Telephone: Lessons on Taming the Tongue

by Jennie Heideman 

Did you play the game “Telephone” as a child? If you didn’t, here is a quick summary.  

You line up with a least four of your friends. Then, the first person in the line thinks of a sentence. It can be silly or serious, but it needs to be one or two sentences. Then, the first person whispers the sentence into the ear of the person standing beside them. That person then whispers it into the ear of the person standing next to them, and so on and so forth until it gets to the end of the line. Once it gets to the end of the line, the person at the end says what they heard aloud. Children get a kick out of this game because it is almost guaranteed that the sentence has changed into some silly phrase by the time it reaches the end of the line.  

The purpose of this silly little game is to teach children the dangers of gossip (as stories often depart from the truth as we retell them) and the power of our words. I loved this game when I was younger but had long ago left it in the hideaway places of my childhood, along with my American Girl doll and broken crayons. That is until my children—as children are likely to do—recently reminded me of what I left behind.  

My children reminded me of it without their even knowing. I was in my bedroom working when I heard my children playing the game with their caretaker. At first, I didn’t know what they were playing. But their exuberance drew my attention, and I eavesdropped until I could make out the cause of their laughter. As I paused from my work, I reflected on this simple little game. I thought about the wisdom learned and how it was so beautiful to hear my children learning about the power of our words.  

The Bible also has a lot to say about the power of our words. Proverbs 15:4 says, “Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Proverbs 16:24 says, “Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” And Proverbs 18:4 says, “A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are refreshing as a bubbling brook.” Honestly, I could go on and on. But it is clear from the plethora of verses about words that God cares about the way we use our tongues. 

Some of these verses came to mind as I listened to my children play, and I was convicted as I reflected on them. Gossip is not really a struggle of mine. However, using unkind words is. I am known to let a curse word slip, become short with people when I am overwhelmed, or yell when my house is messy. Even in the moment, I often know that my words are not honoring God, but I continue in my diatribe anyhow.  

That said, since overhearing my children playing Telephone, I have been thinking a lot about how the way I sometimes use my words is in total contrast with the way Jesus uses His. From the gospels, we know that Jesus was gentle and kind with His words. Yes, He spoke truth, but He offered Himself as He pointed others in a better direction. As I reflected on this, I thought about how Jesus responded to the woman at the well in John 4:1-26.  

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, I will give you a brief synopsis. Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee when He made a stop in Samaria in the town of Sychar. He stopped there by a well, which happened to be the same well that use to belong to Jacob, as documented in the book of Genesis. 

As He rested, a woman came to draw water. This woman came alone, and at a time that would have been very hot. Scholars say that this showed that she most likely did not want to be around other women because it was uncommon to go to the well when it was hot. She was also a woman that was likely gossiped about as she had been with multiple men. When she arrived at the well, Jesus asked her for a drink of water. This was highly unusual for a couple of reasons. First, Jews generally didn’t associate with Samarians. Second, it would have been extremely rare for someone in Jesus’s position to associate with a woman with a storied past. But He didn’t avoid her. Nor did He gossip about her. Instead, Jesus moved toward her. He acknowledged her sin. Then, He offered her hope. And in it all, He was gentle in His speech. Jesus revealed to her that He was the Messiah, which is to say that He is the Savior of the world, the only one from whom we can have eternal life.  

As I reflected on the story of the Samaritan woman, I thought about how many people I know that I do not treat with kindness. I don’t necessarily gossip about them, but I certainly don’t go out of my way to be kind and extend grace the way Jesus did with the Samaritan woman.  

However, Jesus moves toward these people in love and truth. And, Jesus moves toward us too. We are all incredibly sinful, but Jesus offers us the same salvation that He does everyone else. Jesus offers us daily mercies, and His Word expresses His love for us over and over again.  

That is what He did for me the day my children were playing Telephone. I had been struggling with my tone when I spoke to my family. I was snapping at them and using harsh tones when I felt overwhelmed. Yet, He used child’s play to gently convict me about the way I was using my words. He beckoned me to return to His goodness. Truly, out of the mouths of babes, God reminded me that He calls us to something better.  

Since that day, I have focused specifically on taming my tongue. I have been meditating on Scripture about words, praying for God’s help, and asking my husband to hold me more accountable. It isn’t easy, and I am not perfect. But I feel God making me more like Him in the process. May my speech continue to grow sweeter until God chooses to take me home.  

Now, what about you? How has God been drawing you closer to Him? How have you felt His gentle mercy? Let us know in the comments below.  

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