When I was growing up, I often stayed overnight at my Grandma Greenlee’s house. When Grandma was talking on the phone or busy with something, I would browse through the magazines on the table by the couch. I was always glad to see a new issue of “The Reader’s Digest.” I liked the columns with funny stories and jokes, like “Life in the These United States” and “Humor in Uniform.” But I especially liked the column “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” If you’ve never seen it, it’s a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz. It began appearing in the “Digest” in 1945, and it was written by Wilfred Funk, the president of Funk & Wagnalls (of encyclopedia fame). I liked taking the quiz to see how many of the words I knew, and I expect I learned some new ones in the process.
It turns out that I was actually doing myself a favor, because studies have shown that the size of a child’s vocabulary is a pretty good predictor of future academic and financial success. Vocabulary is related to reading and writing ability, which leads to better scores on college screening tests, which often predicts the likelihood of college attendance and graduation, which, generally speaking, means higher wages. But it’s not just important for college-bound kids. Studies of the Armed Forces Qualification Test show similar results. Mr. Funk was right. It does pay to increase your word power.
Like Mr. Funk, James was convinced of the power of words. But his concern wasn’t with the size of a Christian’s vocabulary. He was concerned about the choices Christians make about the words we use, and what those words reveal about the speaker. What we say is evidence on the outside of who we are on the inside. Our words have great power and, used well, they can reflect our faith in Jesus. It pays to increase that kind of word power, too.
Speaking held a special place in the society James’ readers lived in. Speech was to be under control at all times. Being able to control your speech showed that you had the virtue of self-control—very important in that time and place. Words were never to be fueled by anger or envy. Outbursts of uncontrolled speech would heap shame and ridicule on the speaker, not the target. In a society where honor and shame were at the heart of the social structure, that was important.
It makes sense that James would begin this part of his letter with a special caution to would-be teachers. Teachers were something of celebrities in James’ day. In fact, teaching was the very model of virtue. (Teachers today would probably love to get the same kind of respect.)
Since teachers had more opportunities to speak publicly, their words were heard by more people. And because their speech put them in the public eye and brought them honor, they were also more vulnerable to the temptation to abuse their position by speaking in anger to those who disagreed with them, or by speaking disrespectfully to those under them. They could be tempted to use flattery to increase their own popularity. They could become arrogant and self-important.
But James’ cautions about speech aren’t just for those who would be teachers. They are for all his listeners. So, James uses images that were especially common in his time and which we can all understand: a horse restrained by a bit, a ship steered by a rudder, or a flame that becomes a raging fire—an image that we can really identify with right now.
James equates the tongue with other very powerful objects that need to be controlled to avoid great damage. An unrestrained horse can crash through a crowd, stomping everyone under its feet, but with appropriate control, it can race across the land with warnings or news. An out-of-control ship can end up on the rocks, but the same ship, controlled by its rudder, can safely carry passengers and goods across the sea. Fire can reduce a community to rubble, but tended carefully it can provide light and warmth. Our tongues can utter words that hurt and tear down, or ones that comfort and build up, depending on they are controlled.
Of course, now our tongues have expanded their reach. I wonder what James would have thought of all the ways we have to spread our words now? What would he have thought if he knew that our speech can travel across the globe instantly through cable television and satellite radio, voice mail and email, texts and blogs, Facebook posts and messages, Instagram and Snapchat, YouTube and Twitter, and probably a dozen more you have to be a teenager to know about?
It used to be that all we had to do was to mind what we said face-to-face or wrote in a letter. Grandma Greenlee used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Don’t say out loud what isn’t kind, isn’t honest, isn’t appropriate.
But now our technology eliminates the face-to-face feedback that tells us when we are going too far or headed down a wrong path. We no longer have the insulation of time that came from writing out a letter, addressing an envelope, affixing a stamp, and walking to the mailbox—time we could use to reconsider what we’d written. It’s so easy to fire off a quick response to an irritating email. Or to instant message or tweet in the heat of anger. Or to post a comment on Facebook that seems funny at the time but comes off as disrespectful or just plain mean-spirited and snarky when read by others.
I often have posts appear on my Facebook newsfeed that are very belittling of my own personal political and social views. They’re posted by people who asked to be my Facebook “friend” because we’ve casually crossed paths or have mutual acquaintances or through my work as a pastor, but they don’t really know me. One of these is a man whom I know is a very active member of his church. It really bothered me, because he always treated me so nicely in person.
One day, he stopped by my office. We were having a nice chat, and I decided to ask him about it. I said, “You know those people you describe on Facebook as ignorant and unpatriotic? I’m one of them. It hurts to know you think that way about people like me and, to tell the truth, it affects the way I think about you.” He was kind of dumbfounded; he had no idea how powerful his words were.
This is the kind of situation that would have made the folks in James’ world shudder. in a culture that valued restraint in speaking, it would have been an embarrassment for the person doing the posting. But even so, they were also pretty confident that reason and other virtues could bring the tongue under control.
James was not so optimistic. James despairs of being able to control our tongues—what he calls this “world of iniquity” that “stains our whole body.” What we say is so powerful, James says, that it influences not just our own being, but the entire world—the entire cycle of nature. We can tame every other creature, he says, but not our tongues. They are “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
We can guess from James’ passionate words that he is concerned about something much more important than potential embarrassment for an unrestrained speaker—something crucial at the heart of the faithful Christian life. For James, destructive speech from an untamed tongue directed at another person is a sin. If you think of sin as anything that separates us from God, from neighbor, or from the true self that God intended us to be, then destructive speech is a sin on all three counts.
Speech that harms others certainly separates us from them; it is sin against neighbor. Earlier in his letter, James warned against speaking differently to rich and poor. He cautioned his readers not to speak to the rich in flattering, fawning ways, while telling the poor they had to stand in a corner or sit at the feet of the better off. We all know what it’s like to have had unkind words spoken to us or (worse) about us behind our backs. It hurts. As hard as we try to ignore them, or say they don’t matter to us, they make us feel just a little smaller. And, unfortunately, most of us have probably spoken words like that ourselves to or about others. Our unkind words build walls between us and others. They separate us from those Jesus told us to love.
Our words can also hurt ourselves. When we allow our tongues to control us—when we give ourselves free rein to say whatever we want—we often find that we ourselves are the biggest losers. As a ship with no rudder can go crashing against the rocks, our speech can carry us to destruction—of our relationships, of our reputations, of the trust and respect others had in and for us.
Our words can lead to the destruction of our own peace of mind. We know we are called to grace-filled living—to being as much like Jesus as we can. We know when our words are not ones that reflect who we are called to be. Hopefully we will hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit alerting us that with our words we have separated ourselves from the beings we were created to be.
Finally, and most importantly, destructive speech is sin against God, because its targets are human beings created in the image of God. “With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God! This should not be!” James says. For Christians, destructive, belittling speech directed against other people is a sin against God, because we are cursing the very image of God that is in them.
When God created humanity, we were given an incredible gift: the power to name things. The second creation story in Genesis says that God allowed Adam to name every creature God made. Naming is a powerful gift. It’s an extension of God’s own creative power.
When we speak to or about others, we are naming them, for better or worse. To bless God in one breath and curse others in the next is to abuse the gift of naming that God gave us. It is reprehensible to James—and should be to us—that we should use this gift of speech to give ugly names to the very ones God created in God’s own image. It is unthinkable to James—and should be to us—that we would apply names that demean or belittle or hurt, rather than honoring the Divine Image which is in every person.
We can’t curse those who bear the image of God and at the same time truly carry a love of God in our hearts. Words that hurt others do not come from a heart that is filled with the love and grace of God, any more than grapes can come from a fig tree or an ear of sweet corn can sprout from a soybean plant. What comes out in our speech is an extension of what is inside.
Now this doesn’t mean that we should not use our words and voices to speak out against injustice. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in discussions about difficult topics. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in conversations that can clear the air about misunderstandings or disagreements or find solutions to conflicts. But it does mean that our words should not attack the character or devalue the worth of others.
Our words should reveal the faith we claim to have and paint a picture of the one who is the source of our faith. How can we do that? It all comes down to controlling our tongues. And, God has given us the tools and power we need to do that.
First, we can tame our tongues by turning them to prayer. We’ll talk about what James has to say about prayer in a couple weeks, but for now, let’s concentrate on praying for the power to speak wisely, faithfully, and kindly. James invites us to do this back in Chapter 1 when he says this: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”
That wisdom from above, James says in the verses just after ours, is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” If our tongues are dedicated to prayers for God’s wisdom, there will be no blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth. If we ask in faith, God will give us the wisdom we need to bridle our tongues and guide our speech.
Second, we cool our tongues by drinking deeply of the sweet, refreshing water of the Gospel. The more we read and study the words of Scripture, the more those words become the rudder for our tongues and our lives. Scripture gives us words of life and wholeness and healing—words we can use to build up rather than tear down, words that reflect our faith, words that convey to others the grace we have been given.
Each of us has been given the gift of word power. As we grow in faith, our word power can grow as well. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can capture our fiery words and make them glow with the love of God. We have the power to steer our words toward the safe harbor of God’s grace. We have the power to rein them in so that they carry messages of life and hope and justice and peace. That is the kind of word power each of us has been given, and it pays to increase it every day. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young