MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
There are some passages of Scripture that are so clear in what they say and so relevant in their application that I fear that anything I say or write about them will diminish their impact. I have always thought that the words below by James fall into that category but they are so important to every church that even given that danger I want to talk about them.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. James 1
If I had to identify the biggest danger to Christian community, the one thing that I have seen cause more damage in the church than anything else, I would look in the mirror and stick out my tongue. Just as with every other church, the biggest threat to our sense of community and unity at Westlake are our words to each other. More people leave congregations, more conflict is caused among Christians by careless, thoughtless, unloving, hurtful and to be honest at times hateful words than anything else. No wonder James likens our words at times to the spark that causes a devastating forest fire. I know of churches that have been metaphorically burnt to the ground by incendiary words which ignited a conflict in the community that destroyed it. Its not just churches either, Billy Graham once said in a sermon,
“Guard your tongue, and use it for good instead of evil. How many marriages or friendships have been destroyed because of criticism that spiralled out of control? How many relationships have broken down because of a word spoken thoughtlessly or in anger? A harsh word can’t be taken back; no apology can fully repair its damage.”
Billy Graham was right, our words can do irreparable damage to our marriages, our friendships, our working relationships and fellowship in the church. I worked with one church which was still terrible split due to harsh and hasty words exchanged during a business ten years before. Words said in the heat of a moment often have an impact that lasts for years.
In our generation written words as well as spoken words are increasingly igniting conflict, poisoning fellowships and destroying relationships. I suspect most of us have been hurt or made angry by emails and responses on Facebook and Twitter we have received. Maybe if he was alive today James would tell us to “tame our tweets?” Sadly, the very fact that James had to address this problem should tell us that its an issue that every generation of Christians has had to face.
Sometimes our words cause unintended offence and hurt. Its easy to say things that are insensitive without realising it. I had a teacher in High School whose favourite saying was “think before you speak” the older I get the better advice I think that is. Living in today’s social media world, I would add “think before you type” or “think before you hit send.” If you have had a hurtful e-mail or response on social media if you reply right away, in the heat of the moment, very often your words will inevitably inflame the situation. A lot of conflict and hurt could be avoided if we just waited till the next day to reply to emails or waited and spoke to people face to face. Our lives and community would be immeasurably improved if we remembered and acted on that ancient piece of wisdom from Proverbs “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” 15:1
James points out that sometimes our words are destructive and damaging for deeper reasons than thoughtlessness and insensitivity. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
We need to be honest with ourselves. If we are routinely getting caught up in conflict. If people are often telling us that they have been hurt by our words. Then Scripture says we will find the heart of our problem in our heart. A heart vitally connected to God will express that connection in how it expresses itself verbally to others. When our tongues are expressing a heart into which the Holy Spirit has poured His love our words will naturally encourage people, forgive people, build people up and bring healing to others. On the other hand, if the connection between God and our heart is disrupted or disconnected our tongues will regularly bring hurt and offence to others. Probably the most reliable indicator of our spiritual condition is the impact our words are having on other people.
So, what are we going to do about the trouble caused by our tongues? James says on our own we can’t actually do anything “no human being can tame the tongue:” We need the power of the Spirit to tame our tongues. The closer we are to God, the more vital our relationship with Him is, the less likely and less often we are to use incendiary words. Through the power of the Spirit we can do the humanely speaking impossible, learn to control our tongue. To the degree we keep in step with the Spirit we will find our words being helpful or hurtful to those around us. In that sense tongues are indeed the surest sign of being filled with the Spirit, tongues that are tamed that is.
I want to leave you with some questions to reflect on. What if we, on an ongoing basis, asked the Lord to help us to use words that are helpful to others rather than unnecessarily hurtful? What if we didn’t just say, or type, the first thing that comes into our mind but asked God to help us respond appropriately not rashly? What if we asked the Lord to make us sensitive to the impact that our words are having on other people around us? What if we just held our tongues and kept our fingers away from the keyboard more often when we have been provoked? What if our words made the fruit of the Spirit tangible to others?