“Do not grumble, brethren, against one another, that you may not be judged; behold the Judge is standing at the doors.” James 5:9
Words. What’s the big deal? The deal is very big. According to a recent Pew Center report, the American teenager (13-17) sends an average of 3,339 text messages per month. Let that sink in for a moment . . . . yes, that’s more than 100 per day. And that’s just the average. Some teens have told me they hit 10,000!! Of course they said that while texting. Is there a carpel tunnel equivalent for thumbs?
Moving to another area of illustration: cell phones. Misplacing a cell-phone is now like misplacing a limb. Concern quickly transforms into alarm. I have to have it! What if someone calls? What if a teenager wants to send me 20 text messages in the next two minutes? What am I supposed to do without my cell phone? The answer is relatively simple: the same thing I did for the first 40 years of my life without a cell phone. Still, I need the cell phone.
The exchange of words is multiplying. Skyping, instant messaging, facebooking (yes that is a verb), etc. are part of the verbal explosion. The only exception to this trend among the general population is in the area of sermons. Some people prefer sermons to be twitter-length.
This ever-expanding explosion leads me this week to consider what the Bible teaches us about words. The short answer is quite a lot. James connects the control of the tongue with genuine religion (1:26), ranking it with visiting orphans and widows and staying away from sin in general. In fact, he focuses on words/tongue several times in his brief letter; extensively in 3:3-12, and again in chapters 4 and 5.
James drew on a deep tradition of wisdom literature addressing speech. A few years ago I categorized every Proverb (marriage, money, relationships, etc.). By far the most extensive list concerned words. It ran onto a fourth page, 12 point, double spaced between each proverb.
The Hebrew concept of speech and words helps us understand the reason for this extensive focus. The Hebrew word for “word” is dabar, and a word was something like a unit of energy. A spoken word had a result. Something happened when you spoke. Thus, God did not wave His hands to create the universe. He spoke, and there was light. In this same way we are to understand the Hebrew concept of pronouncing a blessing, naming children, making a covenant. A word was spoken and something happened, something was created, and it could not be taken back. John’s gospel reflected this powerful concept by referring to Jesus as The Word (1:1, 14).
Now back to this week’s verse. It focuses on the negative speech: grumbling. The Greek word can mean groaning. At its root the word means to constrict (we get the English word stent from it) and that is where we derive the negative connotation. Complaining speech constricts relationships. It presses and magnifies contentious situations.
If I were to focus solely on gossip, then most of you would devote your reflection to trying to determine whether or not your gossip is truly gossip (it probably is). The more general word, grumbling, subsumes all negative speech; complaining, criticizing, judging, even cursing (I have some friends who appear to curse as a sign of sophistication and authenticity). We need to reclaim a higher regard for words. We need to be more Hebrew. Without question, your words, even the private ones, contribute to the spiritual environment around you. In regard to speaking of others, following the general rule of only speaking of another person as if they were present will prevent misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and embellishment. James reminded us that “the Judge” is listening!
Of course, the flip side of this truth is very good news. You can also bless, encourage, and contribute to making a situation better by good speech. I love to see my children “glow” when I praise or encourage them. I have seen this effect in an entire congregation during a sermon. You can do the same thing through kind, gracious, encouraging, and true words. Try it and see what happens in your workplace, your relationships, and your home. Gracious speech surely is one of the treasures you can store up in heaven.
So do watch your words. Take advantage of all the platforms you care to. Just remember that your words create. What are you creating with your words?
Dr. Terry Ellis
October 25, 2010