“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Where did that bit of wisdom come from? Certainly not from James. He holds a counter position. “The tongue is a fire,” writes James, and “no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” And so dangerous is this appendage that everyone should think seriously before becoming a person of authority, before deigning to teach and to lead and to speak to other people. You almost get the idea that it would be better to just not say anything at all. A difficult position for a preacher to take!
We could imaginatively psychoanalyze James and determine that someone said some terrible things to him and now he’s taking it out on us. But if that causes us to dismiss his argument as a personal problem, we’re missing the point. Neither is this simply “political correctness” run amok, over attention to minor issues of social discourse. No, James elevates words and the power of words to an ultimate level, implying that it is a life and death issue, a salvation issue.
In our normal catalog of sins, gossip is somewhere far down the list. We are much more concerned about other kinds of misbehavior. James would have us reconsider our hierarchy and raise our awareness of the power of words to bring harm to the body of Christ.
Perhaps the sermon could focus on verse 9, or verses 9-10. Let’s talk about the good we can do with our words. Let’s talk about what it means to bless. The internet is full of lists of ways to praise a child, for example – the words we can use for encouragement and for building up. Some time spent inviting the congregation to recall how they felt when someone said good things to them or about them. Have them reflect on the impact of those words and then understand how powerful words are. Lead with the good examples.
Be careful, however, in doing the opposite. It might be more effective to talk about the effects of curses, of name-calling, of hate speech more obliquely, so as not to send someone down a spiral of despair or depression. Do not minimize the effect of the use of the tongue for curses, however. Do not imply that it isn’t as destructive as it truly is. The examples might be more social than personal, for example. This would be a good place to present the power of words to perpetuate white supremacy or a patriarchal culture. How we talk about other races, how we talk about different genders, or different orientations is very much what James is talking about when he says the tongue can “curse those who are made in the image of God.”
It is time for the preacher to be direct here. The changes that need to take place in our society must be addressed. The changes that need to take place in the human heart need to be addressed. It is possible that your congregation will respond that they do not use words in that way, that they do not demean others because of their race or gender or orientation, that they do not attempt to categorize human beings with such language. Even if that were true, they certainly hear others do it all the time. If we are to be salt and light in our world, then we can begin to bring a new way of speaking into the world. We can encourage others to change their tongues to focus more on blessing and less on curses.
Watch your tongue, says James. He says it here and he says it in chapter 1, verse 19, and again in chapter 4, verse 11. This is important. This is part of the works that betray the belief that we hold about who we are in Christ Jesus. The destructive, cursing kind of speech reflects on the community as a whole. One of the factors that is often quoted by those who leave the faith is how Christians talk about one another and about the world around them.
It is easy to dismiss this text as dealing with a non-essential. Surely, we might think, there are more important issues to deal with than how we talk. But James makes a convincing argument that the words we use reflect our relationship with and belief in Jesus as the Lord of all our life. He is giving the lie to the idea that says I can compartmentalize my life and give Jesus parts of me but not all of me. James is aware that the tongue is a small thing, and yet this small thing just might provide the direction for all of us. This begs the question, “Who are we really following and where are we heading?” “Can a fig tree bring forth olives or a grapevine figs?” The fruit we produce with our words reveals our hearts.