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. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 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! 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. 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. With it 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. 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.
To speak is to wield a deadly weapon. Our tongue is an implement sharper than any sword and its reach stretches far beyond its simple frame. To open our mouth ant to pass air through our larynx is to make a large move toward either goodness or evil. No pitfall is dug more quickly than the one we dig with idle talk, and no mess is harder to clean up after than the mess left in the wake of hurtful words.
The dangers of speech should be plain to us. James spares nothing in how harshly he expresses their effects here. More than just what we have read, we should see how much of our own lives are consumed in the outcome of words. The serpent in Eden did not conquer us through force, but by a few spare words. The pages of a few telegrams were enough to launch a world war. Marriages end, friendships crumble, and even Churches fall when we let our words get way from us. Though actions speak louder than words, it is the multitude of our words that ultimately sinks us. Perhaps that is why Jesus taught us as he often did, not only in simple parables, but in admonitions against wordiness.
To our tendency to tell tall tales and make false promises, Jesus forbids oath taking (Matt. 5:33-37.) The words we speak are lifted up as one of the fruits of either a good or bad life (Matt 12:33-37.) The Lord’s prayer is taught to us so that we do not overcomplicate our prayers, but keep them brief, earnest, and to the point (Matt. 6:7-8.) Jesus builds upon a wealth of wisdom from scripture to make clear time and time again that we are to guard our tongue. It is, perhaps more than any other tool we use in life, the most closely linked to our heart – for good or for ill. The things we say, and how we say them, matter.
There is a tendency for us, when we begin to study passages that speak about how evil roots itself down into our hearts, to respond in one of two ways. Either we direct its lessons outward and try to attack others or we over emphasize our own fallenness to the point of absurdity. The former looks like the impulse many of us likely had as I read our scripture. This impulse take the form of a long list that populates the moment we hear about gossips and people who speak carelessly. We think of them with a dismissive chuckle and thank God we are not nearly so sinful.
The second impulse is antithetical to the first, and more subtle in its danger. We sometimes hear of the wickedness of our heart and decide that we must be completely evil as a result. We decide that, since we are really so dirty and sinful, then there is no meaning to us trying to be good, and all that matters is that we can acknowledge how bad we really are. Yet, the reality sits somewhere between these two ideas. In every person is both good and evil, two trees that feed off of very different streams. As se inspect our own souls, we cannot presume either tree is greater than the other, but we must seek the truth honestly.
The difference between appearing to have found the truth and actually living into is demonstrated, I think, by a Facebook post I saw long ago. The author was responding to someone else they did not name, about how foolish it was to try and be “authentic.” They described what it would mean if they were authentic in their thoughts and feelings. The listed about how they would yell at people who made them angry, that they would tell people they looked ugly when they asked how he liked their hair, and that he generally would be vicious to anyone and everyone he met. To be authentic, he argued, was to be cruel, and we were better off pretending than acting in a way consistent with our hearts.
In a way, he was correct. It is better to not say something cruel even if we think it. However, I hope we can see in his self-examination, an example of something that straddles both extremes of our less productive responses to our own sinfulness. On one hand, the author successfully identified that he was a mean person, and so living into the meanness would be more hurtful than it would be helpful. However, his conclusion was not then that he should change that disposition of his heart, but instead pretend it did not exist. Thus, he could triumphantly say those arguing for “authenticity,” were the real fools, because lies alone preserved society.
We must be more nuanced in our self-examination. Everyone here is a sinner, myself included. Yet, no person here is completely evil, myself included. We all have good and we have bad, the good which God grows within us and the evil we have grown up ourselves. If we are honest when we look in the mirror, we will not think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but honestly assess both our strengths and our weaknesses. Returning to the idea of “authenticity,” the authentic Christian is not someone who tries to be the best version of who they presently are but is constantly in a state of becoming. We are presently both good and bad, but we must seek to be more good and less bad as time goes on. This goodness and badness is something, again, which we must see in how we speak just as much if not more than how we act.
It is appropriate to draw my example from Facebook, because social media is where much of our daily conversation happens these days. Not just on Facebook, but on Twitter and Tiktok, and to a lesser extent Snapchat and Instagram, we are constantly broadcasting speech to the world. It is in these places that we see ourselves in our most idealized and raw states. On one hand the keys on our phones and laptops give us distance to manicure an image. Our photos can be of us and our things at our best lit and most put together.
We share and write posts that put forth an image of who we hope people see us to be. Contrarywise, that same distance makes those we disagree with seem unreal. Suddenly, the well manicured image we have made disappears as we remove the mask to yell at strangers across cyberspace.
Entire online industries depend on this outrage. Videos of one person “destroying,” another are shared with incredible ferocity. We love to see our opponents humiliated by people we agree with. Every comment and share is an affirmation of the violence which our words work in the world around us. I think that much of the perception which people, especially older people, have of a more sensitive world is actually an acknowledgement of a more aggressive one. Our words cut deeper, our actions that follow likewise are intensified. We go for the jugular of one another the moment the chance presents itself, often to the harm of all parties involved.
These issues are not limited to violent or cruel language, abut also to dangerous falsehoods. Lies spread quickly these days and the faster they fly the harder it is to untangle or stop them. Sometime last year in the midst of one of the many popular scandals that was flying around, I had a loved one say something to me that I knew was untrue, but that I could not satisfactorily debunk at the time. Digging into the matter took me several hours. In that time I found the original quote that was then misquoted elsewhere, then misrepresented somewhere else, that was then lied about in yet another place.
By the time I knew the cause of this lie, I had a full plate of evidence. Yet, in that time those lies solidified in the mind of my relative, they were now part of their worldview. No amount of evidence could change that.
This weekend we observe a solemn remembrance of the September 11th attacks. Much has changed in the two decades that have passed since then. Most striking of all is the change in how we speak of things, sometimes for good and often for bad. I think that our response, literally how we talked about the attacks and what followed, has revealed a great deal about ourselves. To articulate what I mean a bit more concretely, I want us to look at a medium most of us can relate to on some level – namely country music. Though I am personally more a fan of alt-rock and metal, I am too much a West Virginian to not have some affinity for Alan Jackson and Reba.
Alan Jackson is one of the musicians to respond to the tragedy with his song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning.)” The song is a ballad that captures how it felt to live in a world that suddenly changed faster than anyone could respond to. It captures feelings of sorrow and anger and fear, but it rests on a thoughtful refrain asking us to really think about what it means to live in a world that has been shattered. The other song that was archetypal of our speech following the attacks was Tobey Keith’s, “The Angry American.” Keith had written a battle hymn that dreamt of a fiery revenge against America’s enemies, and glorified those attacks that had already been launched against Iraq and Afghanistan. These two responses capture a variety of valid emotions, but one is rooted in thoughtfulness and carefully chosen words, and the other puts emotions before anything else. For myself personally, twenty years later having only the slightest sense of a world before the attacks, I take much more from Jackson’s words than I do Keith’s. In particular, it is Jackson who quotes scripture, saying that though he knows nothing else, he knows, “Faith, hope and love, are some good things [God] gave us, but the greatest is love.”
Despite my own predilection, I think Keith and his style has won out in modern country and in our disposition as culture. We are more combative than ever and Country music, and indeed most genres of music, now are confrontational when they are not vapid. There is much to critique in Country music, and in rock and pop and any other kind, but perhaps the most distressing thing our musical tastes show is our continued willingness to fight with one another. Though Keith wrote “The Angry American,” about revenge, his later songs were more pointed towards those he disagreed with generally. That tone, dismissive at best and violently oppositional at worst, defines how we speak to one another. Exacerbated by tragedy, our words have torn each other apart more and more over the years.
Before I pontificate on “cultural issues,” or become just another minister complaining about “today’s music.” I want to return to more obvious ways words affect us, but looking at a case study of when my own words got me into a bit of trouble. Once a dear friend of mine and I had a falling out because of five words I spoke without thinking. I was working at WVU, sitting at the Bennett-Lyon residence hall desk, and after a few hours on duty a coworker came down to speak with me. After a bit of back and forth, she shared concerns that my friend was mistaking her friendliness for romantic interest. I shook my head and told her not to worry because, “He thinks everybody loves him.”
Fast forward almost a year. My friend decides to ask a different woman we worked with if she has feelings for him, afraid that she was going to be hurt when he did not reciprocate. She snapped back at him for this. In her response to his question she said that she had heard about him, and the fact that he “thought that everybody loves him.”
It did not take long for him to track those words back to me, and he was rightfully angry. He did not speak to me for several months after that, an impressive feat because we lived in the same building and worked together. The silence broke when he asked me to help him at a food bank. We went and worked and, on the way back, he said this to me (slightly edited to avoid colorful language.) “John, there are a lot of crappy people in this world, but I guess you are one of the least crappy.”
These words, backhanded as they were, began the process of healing. Several months would pass before our friendship looked even passingly like what it once was all the same. The story, unfortunately, does not end especially well. We both went on to separate callings, moved away and fell out of touch. Distance and circumstance worked into the cracks of what we had rebuilt and pushed apart the ruins into nothing. I still think of him, and a few others I’ve hurt in my short life, and the weight of what was and could have been sits heavy in me.
The image of fire that James uses is appropriate because when fire burns a forest down, the same trees that burned are seldom what grows back. When we speak without thinking, we hurt others with wounds we cannot just take away with apologies or gifts. The damage is done and even if the earth should heal, something else must grow in the place of what once was. Our words matter because they are deadly in a way weapons could never be. Lies, insults, even just inconsiderate speech, these all burn away the bonds of love faster than anything else ever could.
What then is our cure? Can there be hope for us? There is always hope, hard won though it may be. Firstly, we must be honest about the damage our words have caused in the past. If we confess our sins before God and one another, we can identify the wounds they have caused.
Next, we must not simply ask for forgiveness, but offer penance for the wrong we have committed. How can we trust those who have hurt us? By seeing them prove they are committed to repairing the damage and healing the relationship that was severed. Absolution is only complete when the damage that was done is healed to the satisfaction of those who were wronged. Sometimes that means things go back to how they were, sometimes that means that they must sadly end, and sometimes that means something new and in-between must take that place.
As a confessed sinner by way of my words, I must acknowledge how James begins our passage. Not all should be teachers, for we are held to much higher standards, and we should be. As your minister, I seek in all things to speak truly, but also kindly and considerately. If I ever breach my responsibility to any of these callings, keep me honest. If you do not wish to speak to me directly about something I have said or done, go through the PPRC, they exist to mediate such trouble. While I strive in all things to be compassion, considerate, and to listen more than I speak, I still a sinner with a speech impediment dependent on God’s mercy. Correct my wrongs.
If we do this together, then we will see growth. If you keep me in line, I’ll try to the same for you. We all must work together to grow, to mind our tongues, and to learn to bless rather than curse. We must reach out to one another and to the world with love and peace on our lips more often than anything else. We will still fight, we will still disagree, but we can do so with love and respect for one another.
That respect means honoring one another feelings, opinions, identities, and backgrounds. That love means seeking one another’s good above self-interest and self-satisfaction. We must avoid petty fights, because we all must agree, it is easier to prevent a fire from happening than try to put it out. Let us seek together to be better in controlling our words and through this exercise together let us someday learn how to perfect every aspect of our conduct toward one another. – Amen.