This week’s passage: James 3:1-12
“Oh, my dear, I would be very careful around that man. I believe he’s been in jail for stealing houseboats before…”
“I don’t really know, but I’ve been told that Mrs Jones… Of course I don’t believe it, but, as they say, ‘there’s no smoke without fire!’”
“In love, and just so that you know how to pray, have you heard the latest about Clarissa?”
Gossip. We hate it when we’re the target of gossip. And yet we love to catch up on the goss. We have magazines and websites dedicated to getting the most salacious, outrageous, or even libellous claims to us. We eat the stuff up. There’s something about hearing of other people’s misfortunes that makes our lives seem so much better. After all, if everyone is focusing on their issues, at least they aren’t focusing on mine!
Words are powerful things. Despite what we sang as children, words have an incredible capacity to harm us. An unkind word can sit with us for ages. When someone is rude to us, how often is our first response a desperate desire to figure out how we can show God’s love to them? Don’t we often find ourselves biting back our own hurtful rejoinders?
As Christians, we are called to a different kind of life. Jesus said that the way people would know that we were His followers was by our love for each other. But we have a problem. Because the evils of gossip, slander, hurtful speech, unkind words, harsh words – the evil of the human tongue – exists in the church just as it exists in the world around us. We might self-righteously not buy the gossip magazines, and yet happily gossip about people we know; sharing with others either what we suspect, or what was entrusted to us in private.
James, Jesus’ brother, has much to say about how we as Christians use our tongues. He goes as far as to say that if we were able to control our tongues, we’d be able to control every part of our lives. Anyone who is able to control their tongue, says James, would be perfect. Of course, some are better than others at controlling their words outright. But the fact is that we have to bite our lips, and the fact is that we are all prone to stumbling when it comes to what we say.
The problem, says James, is that we can’t actually control our tongues. And that’s a big deal – because our words are powerful. Just because they’re “only words” doesn’t diminish that. A tiny bit allows a horse to be utterly controlled. A tiny rudder, steered by a pilot, is able to direct the course of a huge ship. A tiny spark can set a forest ablaze. And our tongues, our words, have a similar ability to direct our lives.
And not just our lives. Words can be used to direct the lives of others for good or for evil. Hitler was a powerful orator, leading a blind nation astray and a world into war. Words of encouragement can see a child who has never succeeded flourish. Harsh words, repeatedly spoken to a child (or an adult) can cause them to wither and retreat defensively into their own cocoon.
With our words, we can use someone’s past to tear their future to shreds. Or we can speak God’s grace and love. With our words we can drive people away from God. Or we can encourage the weak and the downhearted. Loving words can help people know God’s great love for them.
But why can’t we fully tame our tongues? Why is it that words of scorn, or gossip, or anger, etc. want to flow from our mouths?
The issue with our tongues – with our words – is a spiritual issue. James says that our tongues are like a fire that has been set alight with the flames of hell. It’s so easy to speak of others as if they were less valuable than we are; as if they weren’t made in the image of God – precious to Him and very loved.
Jesus knew very well how precious people are to God. He – God became man – died for us all. And when he spoke, his words resonated with the love of God. True, he got angry with people who stood in the way of people coming to know God’s love. But even on the cross, He didn’t curse or lambaste those who had chosen to be His enemies. Instead, He asked that they be forgiven. How many of us, when injured or in great emotional turmoil, inadvertently let a swearword slip out? And yet, when Jesus was in agony on the cross, He looked at those who had put him there – and asked forgiveness for them.
There’s something different about the way Jesus spoke. There’s something… beautiful about it. As God become man, Jesus shows us what humanity was meant to be like. He shows us a tongue controlled not by the destructive fires of evil, but by the loving gracious heart of God.
James says that none of us can control our tongues. Which makes sense. What we say flows out of who we are – and we are sinners. But Jesus had perfect control of His tongue… And, as Galatians 2:20 reminds us, it’s no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me…