“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire!” James 3:5-6
This week’s text contains a good measure of warning, but also great comfort. We all need to hear the warning, and all of us need the comfort. James repeatedly wrote of the dangers of the way we speak. This theme in his book of wisdom echoes a major topic in the Old Testament book of wisdom, Proverbs.
Proverbs contains humorous warnings about speech: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (18:2). And very practical exhortations: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent” (10:19). Or “A perverse man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (16:28). The book also contains dire warnings such as “Seven things the Lord hates . . . a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers” (6:19).
A few years ago I catalogued every Proverb and the subject of speech filled three pages. The verdict is quite clear. Our speech can be a blessing (“a gentle tongue is a tree of life,” 15:4) or a curse (“the speech of a perverse man is like a scorching fire,” 16:27). Or as James put it “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (3:10). At the very least let this week’s GraceWaves serve as a reminder, warning, and encouragement to use wisely this great gift of speech.
Now we have all done our share of flame-throwing, and goodness knows with cell phones, texting, e-mail, and twitter we can spread the fire very quickly. “A lie can get halfway around the world before truth gets out of bed” has never been truer (that’s probably from The Farmer’s Almanac). What used to be rather limited to a weekly Bunko game now flits around much more quickly. Let us all pledge to listen to the Word and turn down the heat of our words.
But what about when you are scorched? How do you respond when the gift has become a curse to you? What do you do when someone tries to set you ablaze with gossip?
First, remain silent and, when you do speak, remain positive. If you respond in kind to someone who has slandered you, you become equally small. The only thing that grows by fighting fire with fire is the fire. I know this kind of quiet response is hard and risky, but though evil wins some battles, good wins the war. Never do the wrong thing no matter how justified you feel.
Further, remember that Jesus told us to bless when we are cursed. This “inconvenient truth” consists simply of praying for an enemy. I can honestly say I have never known anyone I consider an enemy, but every time I have prayed for someone stirring up mischief God has shared my burden and helped me to live lighter. Jesus never taught us anything that harms us. All Christians have to make a basic decision about whether to take seriously the teaching of the One we call Lord. Simply pray a blessing on the gossiper and try to move on.
Second, make a conscious decision about which voices you listen to. You have three voices, or sets of voices, constantly calling to you. First, the critics’ voices seek to tear you down. Though we all need legitimate critics to provide for our correction, you do need to remember that if a critic is not acting Christ-like, he or she did not come from God. Ignore that critic. Second, the voices of your supporters seek to build you up. God never leaves you without someone to believe in you and encourage you. Seek them out. Third, God always speaks to you, and He reminds you of your value. Look at the cross any time you wonder about your value. God dearly loves you.
Now which voices do you listen to? Almost all of us give the greatest weight to the “unChrist-like” critic. Unwittingly we are letting the most unqualified and meanest people determine our sense of value. You will probably never silence a critic, for gossip likely has become part of their nature. You can resolve, perhaps daily if necessary, not to listen to them.
Turn your ears to God and to the people God speaks through. Those voices are a blessing to you. They probably also will help you to cool your tongue.
Dr. Terry Ellis
May 1, 2011