The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day comes from James. He is writing to those who already believe in Jesus Christ. He assumes they already have a firm grasp of this faith. Whether or not that in fact is the case, James apparently sees no need to develop doctrine, to refute false teaching, or to correct wrong beliefs. He focuses instead on action. To sum up the message of James in one sentence: What we believe should be seen in our actions. We turn to James less to learn about Christian doctrine, that is, what Christians ought to believe, than to learn about Christian action, that is, how Christians ought to live.
Christians do not live life in isolation; they live life in community. But we know how hard it is to live together. There are difficult people in our community, people who trigger us. Often we find it challenging to be around them. Sometimes we cannot even stand to be around them. The reasons for our aversion are varied. But probably a primary one is that they have hurt us. Usually, that does not mean they have physically assaulted us, although acts of physical violence are not unknown in the church, regrettably enough. Usually, it means they have hurt us by what they have said about us or to us. Words can cut us deeply. They can leave lasting scars. What people have said about us or to us can even set the course of our lives on a downward trajectory.
Take Alex, for example. The prevailing message he heard growing up was, “Alex, you can’t do anything right.” But was that really true about him? Even if he was inept, clumsy, and prone to making mistakes, was it really true that he couldn’t do anything right? Not at all. Obviously it was an exaggeration. No doubt said in anger or frustration, these words adversely affected the boy and they stayed with him. Today he carries a distorted self-image with him wherever he goes. He is a thirty-two year old man who sees himself as a failure. He hides his real self from others. For that reason, others perceive him to be socially awkward, even anti-social, and therefore do not prefer to be around him. Alex has few friends, and spends most of his time alone.
Unkind words directed at us can lead us to develop negative core beliefs about our worth and result in shame. Maybe some of us can identify with Alex. We have internalized the repeated criticisms of our parents, our elders or our teachers, and it has taken years for us to work through the negative feelings.
But kind words can lead to the very opposite. What people say to us can also set the course of our lives on an upward trajectory. Consider Theresa, whose perception of herself is very different from that of Alex. She grew up in a home where she was cherished and nurtured by loving, Christian parents. For every one time they scolded her, they praised her three times. She learned from an early age that she was one of God’s dearly loved creations. As a result, she entered into adulthood confident of her worth to God and to others. She meets new people easily, and God has used her to be a positive influence to many in her circle of friends and acquaintances, which is, understandably, growing wider and wider.
Maybe some of us can identify with Theresa. How many of us still remember a compliment made by an elementary school teacher even though it was made many decades ago?
We thus can see that our words have enormous power. Indeed, according to Proverbs, the power of life and death reside in the tongue. This truth is certainly displayed in the lives of Alex and Teresa.
James is steeped in the wisdom literature of the Bible, especially Proverbs. That helps explain why he dedicates several verses to the topic of the tongue, which is a frequent theme in Proverbs. He uses vivid images from scenes familiar to the people of his day to bring home to us the potential of the tongue—its potential either to bless or to harm, either to build up or to tear down.
The first set of images is positive. The tongue indeed is small, just as the bit in the mouth of a horse, or the rudder in the stern of a ship. But think how much a few well-chosen words can accomplish! Or think about the disasters that only a few carefully chosen words can avert!
Take Abigail, for example. She is a character that we meet in the pages of the Bible. Abigail is described there as a woman of good understanding. Her husband, Nabal, however, was rude, impolite, and foolish. Now David and his men protected Nabal’s shepherds and expected a favor in return. Nabal is rich and so it would have been no problem for him to help David. But instead of showing generosity to David, he insulted him. Outraged, David gathered a force of 400 men and was planning to attack Nabal and his household. But Abigail intervened. She sent a generous gift to David and his men and then came to plead for the life of her husband. Her speech is wise and rhetorically persuasive, moving David to reconsider the harm he was about to bring against Nabal.
The tongue indeed is a small part of the body, but in this instance it had the power to turn away an army of 400 men, changing the situation from one of impending disaster to one of peace, sparing David from having needless blood on his hands.
The example of Abigail shows us that watching our tongue is not only about keeping our mouth shut when we feel like saying something we shouldn’t. It’s also about saying something we may be afraid to say but know we need to say it. That is not always so easy to do. Abigail is a woman from a time and place where women had less power than they do today. David is a man, a warrior and commander of an army, and therefore a potentially dangerous man. Think about how intimidating it must have been for her to speak to him! But sometimes we have to use carefully considered words to speak the truth to another person, even when it is uncomfortable or even intimidating for us.
James shift images, telling us that the tongue is like a small spark that can set an entire forest ablaze. The image brings to mind how slander and gossip spreads. This past week I read about a professor at a university. One of his former students decided to initiate Title IX investigations against him. Title IX is a part of federal law designed to protect “people from discrimination based on sex in education programs.” The student brought a number of baseless accusations against the professor. Later, in the course of the investigation, the professor learned that the Title IX committee members asked several of his students if they knew anything about him beating his wife and children. This accusation turned into a rumor that spread like wildfire.
After a long and excruciating process, the committee concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict the professor of any violation of the Title IX statute, and exonerated him. But there was no apology for the false accusations, no attempt on the part of the university to clear the name of the professor. The damage done proved to be irreversible. His situation at the university deteriorated, and eventually he had to submit his letter of resignation.
We know how common this is in our world today, even in our congregations. We probably all know at least one person who was the victim of vicious gossip and suffered loss of reputation and relationships as a result. Maybe we ourselves have borne the brunt of rumors or misrepresentations that hurt us. And just as likely we know what it is like to see the painful effects of the unkind words we have directed at another.
In this connection, one commentator on this verse tells a story in which a jealous person slandered a fellow member of his congregation. He spread dirt on his hapless victim to at least 2o other members of the church. In turn, these 20 people, now filled with self-righteous indignation and judgment, passed this slander around to the remaining members of the church. Eventually, this poor man could not show his face at the door of the church anymore. But some felt bad for him; they felt that he was treated unfairly, and took his side. They turned against the members of the congregation involved in the ruin of this man. Soon the church was destroyed. And all this was started by just one person with an evil tongue.
James is sensitive to all this, even to the point of distress. Indeed, almost all the images that James evokes in this lesson reflect this distress. He despairs that we can ever control the tongue. Even if people have succeeded in taming wild animals, a feat that impressed people in James’ day, they still have not succeeded in keeping a bridle on their tongues.
This is even more the case today. Since James’ time, our knowledge of the forces of nature has increased exponentially, and we have been able to bring these forces under our control and direct them towards good ends, improved living conditions. But not so the tongue. Today we are surrounded by hate-filled speech in our divided world. We prove James point here. This is one force that evidently eludes our control.
That which is outside our control is unpredictable by definition. James invites us to consider a phenomenon. The tongue is capable of blessing our Lord and Father, on the one hand, and cursing men and women, who have been made in the likeness of God, on the other. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. How can these two contradictory things come from the same source?” “Can a fig tree bring forth olives or a grapevine figs?”
James is telling us that the fruit we produce with our words reveals our hearts. It recalls for us a saying of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel. “Out of the overflow of the heart,” said Jesus, “the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
Jesus’ words point towards the remedy. Our hearts have to change. In our gospel lesson, Jesus invites us to leave our old lives behind, and take up our cross and follow him. In this process, we undergo change. The Christian life involves dying to the old self, which has been crucified with Christ, and living in the power of the new self, bestowed on us in virtue of the resurrection of Christ. We die to what we once were, so that we may become what God intends us to be in Christ.
Let us then listen to James this morning and remind ourselves of the power that our words have. The words we speak have the power to make or break our relationships. We can introduce divisiveness and sow discord into our communities by the words we use. Or we can strengthen the bonds of solidarity in them by our words. We can spoil a pleasant conversation by one ill-considered word. Or we can turn one that is quickly going south in a constructive direction by a carefully chosen word.
Let us then ask ourselves: Are we building up or breaking down people by the words we say? Do our words foster a spirit of love and godliness, or a spirit of strife and mistrust? Do they promote good and respectful and affectionate relationships, or unhealthy and disrespectful and toxic ones? We have to be careful how we use our words. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up others according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” as we read in Ephesians 4:29.
In a world that is fragmented by divisions and hate-filled speech, let us as the church be different. Let us show the world that there is a real alternative—community united by truthful and grace-filled speech. Amen.