Barbara Brown Taylor begins her comments on this passage by writing, “Preachers wise enough to know that they preach chiefly to themselves will spend some time praying this passage before attempting to interpret it to their congregations.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, p. 63)
James starts out with a warning: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James is speaking in a church context, so he is talking about teaching leadership roles in the church. It is a principle which can be applied to other teaching positions as well, and in fact we should remember as we begin looking at this passage that all of us probably are in teaching roles. Do you have children at home? Do you go to school with other people or work with other people? Are you involved in neighborhood associations or community groups? Do you post on Facebook or write letters to the editor? Are you married? Do you participate in a Sunday School class or committee? Okay, you get my point I hope that all of us teach constantly by our words and our actions.
The main thing James addresses is the power of speech, and he talks about it in terms of the tongue, with which sounds are shaped into words. The gift of speech is one of the greatest gifts and one of the greatest curses given by God to human beings. Jesus says blessing and cursing comes out of the same mouth. It gives us the ability to communicate and build bridges, and it gives us a mighty weapon with which to communicate and destroy bridges.
James says the tongue cannot be entirely tamed. He calls it a restless evil, full of deadly poison. He says it is a fire, and a small fire can set the whole forest ablaze. He says this tiny piece of our body infects the whole thing, it is set on fire by hell and it sets on fire the cycle of nature. Wow. Clearly James has had some bad experiences!
James is right about this, but I want to remind you also that the ability to speak and communicate is a wonderful gift from God. Just because it is frequently misused does not mean that we should take a vow of silence and never speak again! It is as people talk with one another and open up their hearts that we truly come to know each other. Words can inspire us to do great things. Words can encourage us, comfort us, strengthen us, and challenge us. Words can express love and deepen relationships and create lifelong bonds.
But yes, words can get us in a lot of trouble. The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a huge lie. A few words can destroy relationships that it has taken many words, much work, and many years to build. Words can discourage us, intimidate us, and even crush us. Words can incite a crowd to riot, to lynch, to war. Shakespeare had a great way with words, but so did Hitler. So how can we tame the dark side of the tongue to the greatest extent possible so that the gift of speech is primarily a positive one in our lives?
I happen to believe that the topic James addresses here is the single worst problem of 21st century American culture. Some call it the loss of civility. James would call it the unwillingness to do anything about taming the tongue. I am constantly amazed by the things people say to and about each other. Sometimes it is careless communication, but frequently it is uncaring communication. If I could have one superpower, it would be the power to send people to timeout or to their rooms to think about what they just said to their brother or sister or friend or spouse. Of course I would have to send myself, too.
The media has played a huge role in this. What images do these words and phrases conjure for you: “talk radio;” “sound bytes;” “talking heads.” What sells in media? Controversy, conflict, anger. Setting two people with polar opposite views against each other so they are constantly interrupting each other, constantly getting louder, never listening, never any interest in common ground. Political advertising consists of attacking others, frequently by taking a statement out of context. The television and the radio are major teachers in our society because we spend so much time taking in what they feed us. What channel they are on makes a big difference in what we learn and practice about what it means to communicate. How are you going to work with someone next year if you have spent six months running that person down publicly in advertisements?
You see it locally when people square off at a county council meeting over a zoning request or at a school board meeting on the budget or the color of the carpet at church. Churches have actually become so swept up into politics that the rhetoric is frequently as rabid and damaging there as in society.
How do we make a difference? We start with ourselves, the only thing in the equation we can really control. We make up our minds that we aren’t going to be that way. We aren’t going to rant and rave and call people names in front of our children. We are going to discuss people’s ideas rather than impugning their character. We are not going to watch “news” shows that amount to shouting matches. We are going to think about the jokes and stories we might tell co-workers and be careful not to tell them if they will be offensive and hurtful. We are going to listen more and talk less. We are going to assume we might be able to learn something from someone who thinks differently than we do rather than writing the person off as a complete idiot. We are going to start with our own homes and attempt to develop them into places of civility and respect, and then work out from there to the church, the school, the work place, the community.
It requires a lot of retraining to learn new ways of communicating. If you are used to reacting immediately when you get mad and lashing right out, you have to train yourself to take some deep breaths and think about what and how you want to communicate. Surely we all would like for our communications to make a positive difference, but many of our habits will only bring a negative difference by hurting someone’s feelings.
It also requires a lot of retraining if you are used to holding everything in. If you have learned that there is a big price to be paid in a relationship by losing your temper you may overcorrect by not expressing anything. This creates resentment and anger that becomes harmful over time – it can either come out in a big explosion or act of violence, or it can eat you up inside and cause all sorts of health problems.
We don’t practice communicating much, and you have to practice to improve at anything. Find someone you trust and make a game out of it. Have conversations and practice listening and repeating what you have heard. Have discussions about something you disagree on, or take opposite sides of an issue, and consciously work on not interrupting each other. State your position in a positive manner rather than simply attacking the other person’s position. Work on not becoming defensive. Learn to admit the weaknesses in your argument as well as spotting the weaknesses in the other argument. If you practice these kinds of things, when you get involved in the real deal you will be prepared to participate in a totally different way than what is being taught all around us. Others will take notice and it will make a difference.
James says it is not possible to tame, or completely control, our tongues. But we can make some changes. A good way to start is by consciously evaluating our talk through a few typical days. How much of it builds up relationships and people, and how much of it tears down relationships and people? How much of our talk is positive, and how much is negative? How much of our talk is encouragement, comfort, expressions of love and friendship, and how much of it is bitterness, anger and hate? How much of our talk would embarrass us if we watched an instant replay of it tonight, or if we just remembered that God is constantly present with us and hears all our words.
James gives us a good blueprint if we feel the need to make some changes in how we communicate. I wish those who are passionate about taking obscure passages of the Bible completely literally would take passages like this literally as well. James writes, “The wisdom which comes from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” If we would live by these words our tongues might start fewer forest fires. And the final sentence is the key: “And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” The key to bridling your tongue can be found in the desire to live peacefully with all rather than hanging on to a contentious attitude that is always focused on the needs and wants of the self.
Perhaps you noticed the irony of the sermon title: “Tongues of Fire.” This is both a very positive image and a very negative image in the Bible. On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus experienced the blessing of the Holy Spirit as they were gathered together and they saw what appeared to be tongues of fire resting on each other. The Spirit represented by these tongues of fire enabled communication that day, communication that burst beyond boundaries of language and nationality, and the Good News was heard and understood by all. The Spirit created unity among the believers and they all worked for the common good. The Spirit represented by tongues of fire enabled disciples who had failed to get it time and time again with Jesus to not only get it but be able to communicate it with boldness and power.
But James says when we become self centered and self guided rather than Spirit guided, our tongues become fires which threaten to destroy all, including everything that is dear to us.
Is this an area of your life that you would like to make some changes in? If so, here are some things you can do to start retraining yourself in the way you communicate. One is to mark this chapter of James and read it regularly to remind yourself of the importance of your speech and how it affects others. Another is to constantly be on the watch out as you read the Bible for passages that will help you approach life and people with more kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity.
My father was an active Rotarian and would occasionally take me to meetings. I don’t remember much about those meetings, but I do remember the “Four Way Test” they reminded themselves of each week as a guiding principle for their personal and professional relationships. Before speaking, ask yourself these four questions:
Is it the Truth?
Is it Fair to all concerned?
Will it build Goodwill and Better Friendships?
Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?
And recently I have seen a similar but easier to remember learning device, based on the word “think” – a question for each letter in the word.
T – Is it True?
H – Is it Helpful?
I – Is it Inspiring?
N – Is it Necessary?
K – Is it Kind?
What if we all got in the habit of asking ourselves such questions before speaking? Is it true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind? I’m thinking we would find our corner of the world is a better place.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 13, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church