We are called today to consider how we speak to others. As James notes, “all of us make many mistakes,” and we’re all familiar with what we sometimes call a slip of the lip.
For the preacher, the advantage of these verses lies in their ability to make everyone squirm, for truth be told, controlling our words is far from simple. The disadvantage is the preacher has reason to squirm, too. The problem of unholy speech is universal.
Our tongues reveal much about where we are in our walk with Christ. Unless we have reached a state of true holiness, our words will reveal our flaws. And yet, James isn’t saying, “Oh, well, nobody’s perfect.” Instead, he’s making it clear we need to develop a Christian way of speaking to each other and to a hurting world.
A lot of what James says about speech is very practical. Earlier, in the first chapter of James, we are advised to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, “for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” In many ways, James is simply repeating advice that had been circulating for centuries and still is valid today.
When I worked for a corporation, I had a boss who taught me this principle in regard to e-mail. Thanks to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, and such, we can now quickly lash out at someone while typing, making our fingers as dangerous as our tongues.
A short-tempered project manager had used e-mail to attack me for something I had not done. I was furious, of course. My wise boss’s advice: Ignore it for 24 hours. “Write the response if you want,” he said, “but don’t hit ‘send’ until you’ve waited a day and considered it.”
I wrote it, and the next day I read my words again. In a calmer frame of mind, I actually deleted my response rather than hitting “send.” I suppose it was the Christian thing to do.
It also was a lot of fun because the project manager figured out on his own he had made a mistake, and for months I could see he was very nervous every time he was around me. I wondered what he was thinking: “Did Chuck get the e-mail? Does he know something I don’t? Is he friends with someone higher up the company ladder? WHAT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN TO ME?”
Okay, maybe I enjoyed that last part in ways that weren’t so Christian. But the calm approach was very practical, for angry words, whether they come from our tongue or our fingertips, can be a very dangerous thing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there’s not practical wisdom in the Bible.
A lot of this really is about self-control, isn’t it? Be the calm one. Be the one who speaks softly when others are angry. Control yourself, and you’ll control the situation. Bite your tongue. One mark of a Christian is a battle-scarred tongue, one that’s been bitten so often you can see the teeth marks.
There’s more to all of this, however, than just practical lessons. James raises the issue of how we speak, and other issues of behavior, so that we can look at ourselves critically and grow in our ability to love others as Christ loves us. Our tongue acts like a litmus strip, telling us if we’re out of balance with Christ.
Here’s a roundup of kinds of problem speech mentioned by James throughout his letter:
- Bad theology. In particular, in verse 1:13, he says you shouldn’t blame evils like temptation to sin on God. This ties to his admonition that one shouldn’t choose to teach unless he or she is clear about biblical truths.
- Making distinctions based on worldly criteria. Christ came for all, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have. This is in line with what we heard in last week’s text and sermon.
- Speaking empty words. James reminds us that it’s not enough to say kind words to people in need. Words of grace require acts of grace. Be careful what you promise!
- Speaking negatively of others, particularly brothers and sisters in the Christian community. (It’s hard, I know. We spend a lot of time with each other.) This should remind us of Jesus’s teachings in Matthew 18:15-17.
- Speaking of the future as if we’re in control. We don’t think about this one much, but it’s a powerful indicator of whether we’ve really turned our lives over to God.
If you’re feeling convicted about how you’ve used your tongue—I know I am—you may be asking that question the Jews asked after hearing Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: “What should we do?”
Biting your tongue does help, but it’s not a long-term solution. Remember, we cannot work our way into salvation. You could gnaw your tongue off trying to achieve holiness through your own strength. We begin with faith that Jesus saves us, and works proceed from there.
Do those things that grow your faith. Pray. Study your Bible. Be a true disciple of Christ, and not just someone who occasionally walks through the door on Sunday morning.
As we open ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit takes greater control of our lives. At some point, he finally gets hold of our tongues, and we then have taken great steps toward holiness. Over time, our words even can bring holiness to places where discouragement and despair once ruled.
Next week, we’ll be a bit mystical and talk about double-mindedness. I pray we will begin to see how holiness can work its way into the very core of our being.