Read James 3
When was the last time your tongue got you in trouble? Odds are it was pretty recent. It was for me. Once spoken, words cannot be edited. They cannot be erased. They are out there, exploding in the listener’s ears like cannon blasts, causing untold damage.
“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,” says James chapter 3.
It’s a horrifying thought really. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark,” he says.
Recently, a small spark resulted in the obliteration of 538,049 acres of land in Arizona and New Mexico and raged for about 35 days. A reckless tongue can do that kind of damage. It can wound and individual and ruin a church body.
Somewhere out there is a fine line between the need to speak the truth in love and not to speak at all.
In our country, we have Freedom of Speech: the ability to speak without fear of consequences—except for when speech would put people in danger. (ie shouting theater in a crowded fire, or something like that).
But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
“Express yourself,” they tell us. “It’s not healthy to hide what you’re feeling.”
Nope. It’s sure not. But sometimes our self expression can have unintended consequences. It can open gigantic cans of worms and make a situation where only one person is uncomfortable become miserable for an almost limitless number of people.
I just deleted two paragraphs detailing the ripple effect of this sort of thing because you’re smart enough to figure it out. You’re welcome.
There are times when cans of worms need to be opened so they can be cleaned up. I’ll step out of my analogy to say the truth needs to be spoken with full comprehension of the messy consequences. A new hurt can lead to healing.
But saying hurtful things as a way of selfish self expression can only lead to trouble. Proverbs puts the conundrum this way: “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (12:18)
“No human being can tame the tongue.”
Sounds kind of hopeless, doesn’t it? James just reminded us that humans have tamed all sorts of wild beasts, but the tongue is unconquerable.
The use of our tongues (or not), our words, is closely linked to wisdom. We see the parallel all over Proverbs, and even in the book of James the two concepts intersect. In James 1:5 he says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Then just a few verses later, he brings the tongue into it with that scandalous zinger, “those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” (It literally hurts to read that verse. It hurts worse to type it).
We MUST learn to exercise wisdom BEFORE we operate our tongues. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” It’s as if the author assumes the spoken word will ignite fury, so he cautions the hearer as well as the speaker.
Have no fear. We are not alone in our responsibility, but isn’t it easier to keep the spark from igniting than to extinguish the whole debacle later on?
So what are we supposed to do? If we can’t confront out of selfish self expression, and we’re not supposed to let it fester, how do we maintain a healthy balance?
I’ve done the wrong thing in this scenario. I’ve done the right thing in this scenario. I know the difference because one worked, the other didn’t.
I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about how this person had wronged me. My husband would have taken up his sword to defend me, and I had hopes of maintaining the friendship. I didn’t feel like dragging anyone not directly involved into the drama, so that crossed mom and sister off the list. Church people and close friends were out of the question because my circles have too much overlap. Who was left?
There wasn’t a soul on earth I could talk it out with. I was isolated, alone and the other person was dead wrong. And my hands were tied. I clearly remember the moment I realized what I needed to do. Behind the wheel of my mini van, while transporting my children, I stewed about the dilemma—stewed myself into a frenzy.
I realized I had no alternative than to give it up. I opened my hand and (looking very much like a crazy person). “You take it.” I said. I stretched my hand as high as I could before my open palm hit the roof of my van. I guess sometimes you’ve got to fight drama with drama. “Take it.” And He did.
My spirit rested because He had it. All the words I wanted to say were in His hands, and I didn’t have to worry about biting my tongue anymore.
It wasn’t over in that moment. More than once after that I found myself in a tug of war. And more than once, I thrust that open hand toward heaven and audibly asked Him to take it.
Maybe you wont have to resort to drama. Maybe you need to resort to more drama. One way or another, we must give it up and walk away with our lips closed tight and our spirits light.