This is a difficult passage for a preacher. James warns that leaders are judged more harshly in their teachings and will make many mistakes. So, in lieu of a sermon, maybe we should just hold fifteen minutes of silent prayer…..except I have a lot to say!
If you can’t say anything nice……..Don’t say anything at all. (Riiiight…)
We’ve all grown up hearing this imperative for civility. It’s a wise one. James could have been penned it himself. So many of you live graciously by this directive. When I’m my best self, I try to.
When I heard that James 3—on the dangers of the tongue—fell on my week to preach, I knew it was God’s divine’s sense of humor.
We extroverts, I humbly submit, are at an unquestionable disadvantage when it comes to bridling the tongue. We are wired to say what we’re thinking—unfortunately, too often without thinking. (Unlike introverts, we extroverts willingly reveal what we don’t know.)
Columnist Connie Schultz said, “I am reminded of the long ago advice of my dear friend, Stanley Adelstein, . . . years before I became a columnist. “Connie,” he said, gently, “I wonder if you might not benefit from counting to ten occasionally before saying what’s on your mind.”
I feel her pain.
Writer Anne Lamott says that she uses the acronym W.A.I.T. to curb her tongue. Wait…as in “Why Am I Talking?”
A wise woman I know said that she tries to ask herself three questions before she speaks:
• Does this need to be said?
• Does this need to be said NOW?
• Does this need to be said BY ME?
Of course, she is a Quaker. Quakers love silence. Quakers practice it. They call it “expectant waiting.”
Taming the tongue.
Stopping short of saying what we want to say might be the most difficult spiritual discipline. If one can figure out how to do that, one can master the Christian life. In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul wrote (and it’s absolutely apropos), I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
In other words, I speak when I know I should be quiet!
The tongue, though small, has power over of us. James includes the longest passage in the Bible about the role of speech in the life of a Christian. We all stumble in many ways, says James; only the person who has “tamed the tongue” can claim Christian maturity.
Humanity has tamed the world of nature, James observes, “but no one can tame the tongue.”
James utilizes three metaphors for the tongue:
• a bit that controls a horse
• a rudder that steers an enormous ship and
• a raging forest fire incinerating everything that it touches.
The tongue corrupts both the subject and object of speech. What we say to one another, James writes, can be “full of deadly poison.” And in saying it, we poison ourselves.
Each of us has been on the receiving end of hurtful words – from a loved one, a teacher, or a friend – that were seared into our minds. Hurtful words that burrowed into our hearts.
How many of us have been the ones who spoke careless words out of anger, in an unguarded moment? We would do anything to take them back, to rewind the film and take out that scene.
Once when I was in an argument with my teenage son, it was escalating to the point of absurdity, but neither of us was backing down.
I prayed in my heart, “God, please help.”
And I kid you not. I heard a still small voice say, “Just shut up.” (I thought that was a little harsh.)
Words have a particular kind of power to kill. Destructive words harm the soul. Soul wounds do not heal as easily as flesh wounds. We might deceive ourselves into believing that our words don’t have the potential to injure, but they do.
We parents have to believe that no matter the age of our children, the power of our words make an impact on them like no one else’s. Our criticisms carry a bigger punch. Fortunately, so do our loving affirmations.
The power of hurtful words gets even more complicated in the dimension of social media. Behind a computer screen, we can easily speak our minds. We say more than we would if we were face to face. We push “Send” without regard for what the impact might be.
We know that cyber-bullying is having immensely devastating impacts on young people. Last May, a 15-year-old girl from Pickerington, Ohio, died by suicide after leaving behind a note revealing her perceived inability to go on after struggling with bullies and other challenges. Horribly, there were egregious comments posted following the news of her death.
More destruction has been done with our tongues than any fists or weapons. We have used name-calling to reduce humans to less than human. Consider how throughout history words have been used against women, people of color, Jews, Gay people and other non-normative populations to dehumanize them. When people are dehumanized long enough and told that they are less than perfect, they start to internalize those messages.
And what about political speech? It’s hard to imagine anything more lifeless or more corrosive to public life than the climate of political toxic talk.
Our words, James makes clear, can both heal and destroy.
Throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures we are exhorted to use words to bless others and not to curse. We can either choose life or choose death; we must choose our words carefully.
Isaiah 50:4 says “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”
And Psalm 34: 12 teaches, “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”
James in 3:9–10 says, “Cursing humans who are made in the Creator’s image is, by extension, cursing God.”
When we “trash-talk” others (even those we think deserve it!), God is offended.
The scary part about toxic speech is that it honestly reveals the character of our inner identity.
Jesus spoke very harsh words about this: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of the good stored up inside, and the evil one brings evil things out of the evil stored up inside.” (Mt 12:34–37).
Jesus said, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Mt 15:10).
So what are the spiritual antidotes to toxic talk?
Silence is a perfect antidote to the poison. Silence and stillness were essential practices of the early desert mothers and fathers. “It was said of (Abba Agathon) one desert father that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learned to keep silence.” (Agathon 15)
Maybe I should trade out the chocolate kisses on my desk for pebbles.
Silence can mean the absence of speech and the cessation of words, but it’s more than that, says the author John Chryssavgis, in the book In the Heart of the Desert. Silence “is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening.” Silence is a way of dying to self. In silence we die to the need to justify ourselves, to be heard, to be noticed, to lift ourselves up, or to condemn others.
Silence fosters deep listening.
Listening communicates love. Think about it: how do you feel loved? How do you feel when another person looks at you, and listens to you? Listening is an act of love.
One important marks of a “successful” relationship according to marriage researchers, Julie and John Gottman, is when partners physically turn toward each other instead of away. When your partner has something to share, turn, look her or him in the eyes, and listen.
Of course, that means putting down electronic devices. How hard that has become when nearly every one of us is looking down at our computers or phones! This is a spiritual discipline that a modern-day James would write about.
So maybe it’s not only the tongue. The power of speech is in our bodies too. The tongue obviously isn’t ultimately evil. The tongue, like a bit or a rudder, is also used to redirect a person or a community onto a new path, a healthier course. A healing word like a flame can create warmth, safety, and take the chill out of a relationship.
I’d be remiss not to add that keeping back words that need to be said can be just as damaging. Is there something you need to say but haven’t? Is there something you’ve held back? There are times we need to speak.
The right words—just a few simple words—can transform a relationship and give new life. Forgive me.
I love you.
Those are tiny words that can change everything!
James calls on us to examine ourselves closely – an examination focusing largely on the words that come out of our mouths – and determine who we truly are.
“O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing Our Great Creator’s Praise” wrote Charles Wesley, knowing that when our tongues are busy praising God, we’ll be too busy to curse our neighbors.
If we believe that we are all creatures made in the image of the Creator, as James says we are, our words and actions will reflect that kind of beloved community.
I pray and trust that the world looks at this church family and is able to say something nice like, “There’s a community that is a blessing to God and others—in thought, word and deed!”
Thanks be to God.