“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:5-6, NRSV)
Our third wonder is the human tongue or speech. It is not necessarily wonderful in a happy way; but it is amazing that such a small thing can create such a big mess, amazing in a “shock and awe” sort of way.
James describes the nature and effects of the tongue in James 3:1-12. The speech that concerns James includes: lies (from false teaching to self-justification to lies told out of fear), slander (speaking harmful words about someone or lying about someone), foolish talking that degrades the dignity of humans or the majesty of God, and unedifying speech that tears others down rather than building them up. Here, in my own words, are some of James’ insights about the tongue/speech:
1) the tongue is hard to control, and anyone who is able to make no mistakes in speaking, is able to control one’s whole life, like a bridle with a horse;
2) it is poison, sometimes;
3) the tongue is contradictory – we can bless the Lord (all bright and pious in a worship service), and then curse humans who are made in the likeness/image of God.
This wonder, like the last one, also had the Bible Study Dog’s vote. Jack has been known to steal items like paper towels, toilet paper, exercise bands, my reading glasses and plastic bottles and distribute them across our front lawn. If one catches Jack in the act, his slinking away can be seen as awareness of his misdeed. However, when he hangs his head down, lets his eyes go into soft focus and attempts to appear sweet and pleasing when one speaks to him much later about his misdeeds, I take Jack Lewis to be responding only to the brute sound of my voice. The BSD is hurt in a way. I have found that even a tone can sometimes wound just because it comes after many other words that devalue. Sometimes Jack and I sit together and hang our heads down and wonder about the power of words. Truly, the saying, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is often false, and almost always cold comfort. Of course I don’t want to give myself permission to indulge in hyper-sensitivity or self-centeredness (See my post, “Thick Skin But Tender Hearts”).
Words can also be life-giving. We can encourage and build one another up. We live on every word from Jesus the Word of God (See my post, “Lack Of Knowledge Is a Compassion Issue”).
At my last church, when I preached or taught on the issue of speech inappropriate to who we are as Jesus’ apprentices, I always received supportive comments. I think that was because so many people in our society feel damaged by others’ speech, but also because some people know their own struggle to control their tongues, and see the damage that has resulted in their relationships. For over a year, I printed this verse in every worship bulletin: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29, NRSV) Someone asked me when I was going to take the verse out of the bulletin. I replied, “When we are obeying it.”
Someone has suggested using the acronym, T.H.I.N.K. to help us avoid gossip:
No teaching about our speech should be expected to be life-affirming apart from our being an apprentice (disciple) of Jesus, being filled up with the Holy Spirit, living in unity with our sisters and brothers in Christ and growing into all the realities of citizenship in God’s Kingdom.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…” (James 1:19, NRSV)
This post was powered by the albums, “Vice Verses (Deluxe Version)” (2011) and “Fading West” (2014), both by Switchfoot.