Our scripture begins: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” James, the half-brother of Jesus, freely admits that no human save for Jesus is perfect. Or as my favorite children’s book says, “Everybody poops.” Of course, not everyone commits murder. Not everyone shoplifts. But still, each of us makes mistakes, treats others poorly, and does wrong from time to time. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But of all the ways we go astray, the most common perhaps… is in our speech. Or as James says, “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.” Words are dangerous because they are so small, easy and fast. While murder requires me to use arms, legs, and more… hurling insults requires only my tongue. While shoplifting requires speed and stealth… spreading gossip requires only a few words. While driving drunk requires multiple failures on my part… thoughtless words can wound another in a single slip-up. While pulling a muscle requires me to overstrain my body, with words I can overpromise and under-deliver at no cost to myself but great cost to others. Words are so hard to control because they require so little to act, because our tongues can move so much faster than the rest us. Or as James writes in today’s scripture, “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Our ability to speak is comparatively fast because words are so simple relative to actions. Yet because they are so fast, words escape our lips before our brain has a chance to realize their dangers. Of all the illnesses in the world, James suggests, the hardest to contain is foot-in-mouth disease. *wink*
Yet despite the small effort words require, the damage they can do is immense. James writes, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” With my fist, I can send one person to the hospital. But thoughtless speech by a soldier can betray the movements of entire armies and sentence thousands to die in ambush, all from a few careless words. With a kiss, I show my wife that I love her. But it was the words “I do,” that made her my bride. Christ’s first miracles—water into wine, feeding thousands, driving out demons—changed the lives of the few who experienced them firsthand. But the stories of those miracles and the wise lessons Christ taught, those words have changed over a billion.
Though words are easily spoken, are such small things… they have power far beyond their meager size. Think about it. My muscles can direct only my own body. If I wrestle someone, at best I can subject two bodies to my will: theirs and mine. But with words? In conversations, speeches and books, words can change the minds and of thousands. Words have a hidden power far beyond actions, because words are how we humans coordinate, how we work together. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Maybe. But words can sure rally a bunch of folks together to break my bones all the same. And so my words can do harm far beyond my own personal reach, because language is made for interacting with many people all at once. And beyond scale and size, words have a unique power in that they can change our very hearts. If I read the Bible daily, that’ll change my heart. Saying “I love you” reinforces that love. Spreading gossip about someone reinforces your hate. Words—small they may be—can transform our lives. And careless or cruel words, can do immense damage.
Please do not think that James or I am saying that talking is altogether bad. James isn’t suggesting you take a vow of silence because all words are always bad. No. Rather, James’ point is that language and speech have power. He compares the tongue to fire, and rightly so. If you control a fire, you can cook dinner, warm a house, power a steam engine. If you don’t look after a fire, it can burn your house down. Speech is a tool, just one that happens to reside within ourselves as opposed to a tool we can hold in our hands. And tools are not good or bad: they just are. If, how and when you use them, however… that is what determines good or bad. Splitting the atom can generate electricity for millions or annihilate cities in a radioactive blast. Nuclear power isn’t necessarily good or bad: what you do with that tool is. Speech is the same. Or as James writes, “With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
The challenge is that—unlike the rest of creation—we humans are uniquely fickle, prone to changing our minds, inconsistent. That’s why James continues that lament, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” His point is that, in nature, you don’t get springs of water that are both drinkable and undrinkable: either the water is fresh water you can drink or is brackish water that will only hurt you. In nature, a fig tree only produces figs: it will never give you olives or grapes. But a human being is not so predictable. With our speech we can sing hymns to the Lord. And with our speech we can gossip about fellow church-goers over coffee right after worship. With our words, parents and teachers show children how to live well. And with words, those same people can destroy a child’s sense of security in ways it will take years to undo. We humans—all of us—are unique in God’s creation for our ability to be double-minded, to act one way and then another, to resolve to do good yet still do evil anyways. Modern Americans like to pretend people are either all good or all bad: either someone is Hitler or Gandhi, the devil or a saint. But people, James reminds us, are a mixed bag: we all make mistakes but all yearn for heaven’s perfect. And so our tongues are fierce and wild, resisting our will and causing great harm… because we humans have such difficulty controlling ourselves. And it is especially difficult to control the tongue, so small and quick to speak… yet so devastating in its effect.
But praise be to God, the Apostle Paul gives us hope when he writes, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new… In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” It is human nature on this side of eternity to be fickle and inconsistent. It is normal for us all to make mistakes, as James writes, for our mouths to be vehicles both for blessing and cursing. This is the challenge facing us all. But the promise of Christianity is that Jesus took on our human form so that we could wear the righteousness of God. Christ became lowly so we could be lifted up. Jesus bore our sins so that we could bear his perfection. And so complete is this transformation through Christ that, as Paul does, you could say we are now a new creation, as if the Garden of Eden were starting over once more in our souls. The challenge… is that we live in an in-between time at present. The cross has guaranteed our being made new, has won for us eternity and perfect righteousness in the final count. But we aren’t quite there yet, still have some these days left on this imperfect world to live first. And so our calling as Christians is to embrace this new life in Christ here today as if we were already living in heaven. To speak to others in ways that reflect the righteousness of Christ. To live self-controlled and thoughtfully so that we speak only blessings to others, never slander or gossip or abuse. We are called to reflect the paradise that Christ has won for us already.
But how? Even if we know that, in the end, we are redeemed and made new, that our fickle and inconsistent hearts will find permanent righteousness through Christ… how do we try to live that way today? The tongue is still so hard to control, for it’s so easy to speak and so easy to do harm so fast. I think the practical advice… is simply to slow down, to intentionally pause and reflect, choosing your words with care. Because in slowing down, your mind has a chance to choose words that build others up rather than tear them down. In pausing before you speak, you become a better listener who focuses more on understanding others than on being understood yourself or winning the argument. Because in taking that moment of quiet, you give your heart time to hear the Holy Spirit’s prompting to say the unexpected but beneficial thing you didn’t know needed saying. If you read the gospels, Jesus Christ was a master of selecting his words with care. Any time he was confronted by an impossible question or unanswerable problem, Jesus ended up knowing exactly what to say and do. You and I are no Jesus, of course, but if we slow down our speech, we have a greater chance of remembering Jesus’ way of living and speaking and, perhaps, imitating his example in our conversation. As I told the youth during my kids’ sermon, a simplistic trick for evaluating your words is the THINK system. Is what you’re about to say true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring, as in does it build people up? Is it necessary? Is it kind? THINK—true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind—lets you evaluate the words you wish to speak, to see if they likely will bless the other person in the name of God or if they might cause harm. The tongue is a ferocious beast, something you and I cannot fully tame on our own and that can cause great harm. But we have the promise that Christ makes us new. We have the example of Christ to guide us. We have the hope in Christ that, even when we misspeak, the grace of God covers up a multitude of our sins. But as Christians seeking to deepen their faith, let us strive to imitate Christ, in part by slowing our words to listen for the voice of God. Amen.