By Chuck Griffin
We are called today to consider how we speak to others. As James notes, “We all 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. 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 simply repeats advice that had been circulating for centuries before his day.
When I worked for a corporation, I had a boss who taught me these principles in regard to email. Thanks to email, texting, Facebook, and such, we can now lash out at someone while typing, making our fingers as dangerous as our tongues.
A short-tempered project manager had used email 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 email? 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.
A lot of this has to do with self-control. Be the calm one. Be the one who speaks softly when others are angry. Control yourself, and you’ll control the situation.
These lessons go beyond day-to-day practicality, however. 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 tongues act like litmus strips, telling us if we’re out of balance with Christ.
Biting our tongues does help, but it’s not a long-term solution. Remember, we cannot work our way into salvation. We could gnaw our tongues off trying to achieve holiness through our own strength. As I mentioned on Monday, we begin with faith that Jesus saves us, and works proceed from there.
We do those things that grow our faith. We pray. We study the Bible. We seek to be true disciples of Christ, and not just people who occasionally walk through the church door on a 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.
Tomorrow, 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 depths of our souls.
Lord, may our speech today, and then each following day, demonstrate that we walk with you. Amen.