“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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:5-6
The kids are joking and teasing before class starts. It seems harmless at first until one boy pokes a girl sitting near him. Holding up a hastily drawn cartoon he exclaims: “You know what’s uglier than this, picture, Sasha? Your face!!” The kids around him laugh. She winces, but tries to smile and act like it doesn’t bother her.
Jarred by his words, I ask: “What did you just say?” The grin vanishes from his face, he slumps his shoulders and responds quietly: “I was just joking.” Trying to contain my anger, I address the class of 5th graders who I teach weekly after school: “I don’t EVER want to hear that kind of joking again. We do not talk to each other unkindly in this class. We don’t make fun of each other. The cruel words you say in a joke are never forgotten. I still remember mean things kids said to me when I was your age.” They are startled by the emotion in my words and sit quietly.
Embarrassed, the boy turns to Sasha without being prompted and says sheepishly: “Sorry, Sasha, I really was joking.” She tries to smile again but can’t find words to respond.
My emotional response to this boy’s cruel joke came from deep inside me. When I was a child, people used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Later in life I realized the saying really isn’t true. Maybe that’s why I relate so much to Beth Moore’s comment in James: Mercy Triumphs when she says: “Usually when I’m most passionate about a subject in my teaching, it is either because I struggle with it myself or because I’ve been personally injured by it” (p. 113-114). Both hold true for me with this topic. We may be more sophisticated than fifth graders slinging insults, but our hurtful words are no less damaging to our relationships and our community.
The tongue is the strongest muscle in the body relative to its size. It also wields amazing power and reveals the contents of our thoughts and characters. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34 “The mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” James is one of the shortest books in the Bible and covers many topics quickly, so it is significant that a large portion of one chapter discusses the tongue and its dangers in such detail.
I’ve had to ask for God’s help consistently to keep my tongue under control. There are subtle ways I use my words in a hurtful manner. My guess is that some of them may resonate with you, too. Here are a few:
Silence when words are needed:
When a conversation turns negative about a person, I’m more inclined to remain silent than to re-direct it for fear of seeming judgmental or morally superior. It’s easy to speak with boldness to a room of 5th graders who look to me as an authority; it’s much more challenging to cut off the negative words of my peers. When I do speak up, the words must be chosen carefully, spoken with sensitivity and tempered with grace. Sometimes I’m too cowardly to do it. I’m learning to ask God to give me the wisdom and the words when I find myself in those uncomfortable moments where silence might indicate I agree when I don’t.
Sometimes we share negative thoughts about someone to feel connected to the person with whom we’re sharing. We may say something critical under the guise of “needing to vent” and be totally tainting the hearer’s view about the other person. Conversely, we might goad someone into sharing information that they shouldn’t. Maybe you’ve been in a situation where a friend shares, “ I probably shouldn’t say this but…” Do you stop your friend right there or encourage her/him to continue? Maybe your curiosity gets the best of you and you say, “Go on and tell me, you can trust me.” You feel privileged to be hearing private information and want to believe you’re mature enough to handle it. Even if you don’t ever share what’s been said, you’ve been impacted and influenced by it.
I’m learning the importance of talking to a person instead of about a person-especially in regard to being hurt or frustrated. If I have a problem with someone, the Biblical response is to address it with that person directly. Matthew 18:15-17 gives very clear instructions for how to handle this. Nowhere does the Bible tell us to talk about our problem with others and get sympathy to fuel our fires of indignation. We also risk unfairly tainting someone else’s opinion of that person. This can tear a community apart.
If someone has shared personal information with us, it is important to remember that it is not ours to re-tell. No matter how innocent the information may seem, it does not belong to us. This goes for stories about our kids, spouses and parents too. There is no greater way to break trust than to tell a story that wasn’t meant to be re-told. Sometimes a friend may share something in confidence that we’re tempted to repeat to a different person who doesn’t know her, thinking this is “safe” (especially if we leave names out). Several times I’ve been told a story about a stranger and later on I’ve met the person. It’s awkward because I already know a story about him or her that I shouldn’t. It causes me to prejudge. When a story is told because it is interesting or “juicy,” we make the person it’s about into a character in a drama rather than a fellow human being. We can talk about others the way we’d discuss characters in a book or movie. The difference is they are real people who can be hurt by this.
Asking for prayer for someone else can be a veiled form of gossip. Sometimes a story is so sad or so ugly that we ache for the person and want others to pray too. We need to be careful that we don’t share more than we should and that we ask permission before repeating the story and all of its details. Consider asking a friend for prayer about how you can be supporting the person instead of sharing all the ugly details that she might not need to know. God knows the person’s situation regardless and Romans 8:26 tell us the Holy Spirit will intercede to tell God exactly what is needed!
Positive vs. Negative:
While James spends much time discussing the negative effects of the tongue, it can also have a positive impact. If our tongues can praise God, aren’t they also capable of praising people? Don’t we have the chance to set the tone in a situation by the words we say? Every day we have opportunities to speak with kindness, affirmation and love to those around us- whether it is the checker at Trader Joe’s, our spouses or the neighbor next door. Our words can bring life and hope to people. The smallest positive comment can put a smile on someone’s face for the rest of the day. Sometimes we’re better at affirming people behind their backs than to their faces. Try sharing your positive thoughts directly and see what a blessing you can be!
If you’ve been convicted by any of the things, know that you are not alone. I write from experience- these are real struggles in my life. Through prayer we can trust God to help us keep a reign on our tongues and speak with wisdom.
Where have you seen the power of words in your life? Post a comment and share some ideas that will inspire others to use words for good instead of evil.
Click on the link below to listen to Josh Wilson’s song “Forest Fire” that is based on James 3:5-6. Music is a powerful way to help God’s truth stick in your mind.