The Weight of Words

I’d like to begin today’s sermon by asking you to think about this question: “Who is the person you most trust in your life?”  For many of us this will likely be a spouse, family member, or very close friend.  When you consider what makes this person trustworthy or how you have come to trust them the answer is probably based on spending a significant amount of time with them.  The more time we spend with  someone, the more likely it is that we are going to exchange stories, anecdotes, theological views, and jokes. The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day and their choice of vocabularly really does show us the true character they hold.  As my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor said during our class “the stories people choose to tell us about themselves reveal a great amount about who they are.  Who they are reveals a lot about their values and beliefs.”  Trust is not granted right away, it is something that needs to be earned and developed, and also which can be shattered in a matter of seconds.  Trust is something that builds slowly, but crumples quickly.  One of the biggest reasons why we may decide to no longer trust someone we once did is not only because of their actions, but also because of their words.  
In today’s passage from James 3, we learn all about the dangers of the tongue.  James writes that the tongue is one of the smallest parts of our body (in fact, the average human tongue is only about 3 inches long or the size of a ring finger) and yet it has the power to control and ultimately destroy friendships, marriages, careers and our reputation.  

The tongue is so influential in fact, that over 100 Bible verses are devoted to it with the power of words being one of the most sustained topics in all of the New Testament.  The power of speech is so crucial that the Bible actually gives us the following instructions and this is just scratching the surface: we should be slow to speak, we need to guard against careless words, we ought to answer one another graciously, we must seek to build up and encourage others rather than to tear down, and our words are to be seasoned with love.  Some Scripture passages take this even further though to show the true seriousness of verbal transgressions.  If we back up a few passages, James warns in 1:26 that the careless words can completely demolish one’s public faith witness, and in Proverbs Solomon tells us that “the more words that are spoken the more likely we are to transgress” (Prov. 10:19) and that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).  At first this may seem a bit of an over the top reaction, but sadly we know it to be true.  Verbal bullying has resulted in teens ending their lives.  Bullying can severely harm and damage the soul of an innocent child. 

For James, the way a person handles their words shows a great sign of spiritual maturity, and I believe this to be true.  If you have ever spent time with children, people with developmental disabilities, or the elderly who endure dementia, you likely know that when someone is not completely cognitively there that they often lack a filter.  They may sometimes say things which no one else would get away with. As a child grows up, they learn that some of their words and phrases are no longer culturally sensitive or appropriate and they learn that when they are angry, they cannot just lash out at someone and expect to get good results.  The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that when we were children we thought, acted, and behaved in the way a child does.  We spoke in baby language.  But as we become adults, we mature, and we learn to speak, act, and behave the way an adult does.  We must put away childish things if we are to grow more into the likeness and image of Christ.  

To put words into visual images, James gives us four different pictures to show how the tongue can be used for good or evil.   First, James says the tongue is like a bridle used for a horse.  This would have been an image that many in the ancient world connected to because they were used to seeing horses in military capacities. A wayward horse could really put an army operation at risk.  The second image used is the ship’s rudder – again a common form of transportation in that day. The third image is of a forest fire, and the fourth image is that of the body being corrupted through disease.  All four of these images share a few common threads – firstly, they all are means of control, secondly, they are small things which can grow and expand into destruction.  Yet, whereas the first two images: a horses bridle and a ship’s rudder are rather theoretical, the example of a forest fire is destructive.  In Canada 1 in 4 fires are caused by carelessness – even a small cigarette left unstamped can cause severe damage, a burner left unattended can bring damage to a kitchen, and an unattended ember left at the site of a campfire can quickly spread to greater extremes.  I love the way the Message version puts it, “by speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”  

The discussion continues when we consider the difference between humans and animals.  Humans are given a greater intellect, emotional capability, and spiritual yearning, but yet as Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame the tongue.” I liked this analogy that I came across as I was researching for this sermon.  When we were younger, many of us had to go for check-ups at the doctor’s.  One of the things the doctor did was to depress our tongue with a wooden stick and look inside our mouths.  Sometimes the doctor would even ask us to stick out our tongue (probably the only time we would ever get away with it).  A skilled doctor can tell a lot about our physical health just by looking at our tongues, and people can tell a lot about our spiritual health by the words we speak and the way we speak them.  

I can’t help but think as well that in this day and age social media and texting have become an extension of our tongues.  So much irreparable damage has been done in the heat of the moment through firing off an angry email or text or through posting something on social media without a second thought.  We may come to regret it later, but once something is said, it can never be taken back.  I used to do this activity with my Sunday School children where I took out a tube of toothpaste and squeezed as much out as I possibly could.  I would then ask the kids to try to put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Of course despite all their great ideas of how to do so, it remained impossible.  It is the same with our words.  Once they are out, the damage has been done.  

In the last part of this passage, James addresses a certain conundrum.  How is it that the tongue can be so inconsistent?  Such an enigma, so complex, and such a paradox?  Almost to the level of being an oxymoron?  It is the great mystery and puzzle of life that our tongue can be used for both good and for bad.  That our words can be both worshipful and wicked, our speech sacred or sinful.  James draws on this as a series of impossibilities: a fresh spring cannot produce salt water because a spring is to be pure, fig trees cannot produce olives, and a grapevine cannot produce figs.  As the Eugene Peterson writes in the Message, “you are not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of cold, clear water, are you?”  It is the same for those who are living into God’s image.  When we are following God, we have a call for accountability.  Someone who delights in God cannot speak evil of someone else whom God delights in.  Words of racism, sexism, and classism have no role or function for them.  Someone who desires a heart like God’s conducts themselves in a way that values and esteems others providing them with dignity and worth.  Words are weighty and there is no better example than to point out that Hitler is often cited as one of the best speakers of all time along with Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. And Mr. Rogers.  This just shows how words can so easily be used or misused to either inspire or harm the masses.  
People may pretend to be all sort of things.  When we first meet them they may try to convince us that they are someone they aren’t through sweet talk or impressive words, but eventually a person’s real character will always reveal itself.  Eventually a person can no longer keep up with the façade, and the let something slip which shows who they really are.  

This was the case in John Bunyan’s famous book “Pilgrim’s Progress.”  For those not familiar with this book, a pilgrim named Christian tries to find his way into the Celestial City (or Heaven) and encounters various traps and temptations on his way.  These temptations are all personified in characters.  One character he meets is named Mr. Talkative.  At first, Mr. Talkative appears to be very refined and informed, he speaks eloquently, even spouting off Christian Scripture and doctrine, yet his fake spiritual disciplines gradually get exposed and Christian discovers that “religion has no place in his heart, his house, or his conversation” all he is saying is mere noise without weight.  

At first this reflection may generally appear to be bad news. Hearing about how the tongue can harm can be quite distressing and alarming, and yet it is also a great conviction for us to consider our speech carefully.  Just as the tongue can be used to destroy, it can also be used to heal.  Our words can encourage and affirm another who is struggling to find their own path.  Our words can bring great inspiration and can even begin to cause positive change on major issues.  God has given us a voice for advocacy, reasoning, and guidance.  These positive attributes should never be forgotten in light of the damages we just discussed.  It is good for us to continually check on our spiritual heath through our words and to ask a few key people who we are close to to also help steer us in the right direction when we go astray.  
To conclude today’s sermon I would like to leave you with four resolutions that 18th century theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards left us with when it comes to speech.   

  1. Resolved, Never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against any one, to bring it to, and try it strictly by, the test of this Resolution. 
  2. Resolved, In narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity. 
  3. Resolved, Never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call to it. 
  4. Let there be something of benevolence in all that I speak. 

May God guide and direct us this week as we seek to honour one another through our deeds but also through our words seasoned with love, grace, mercy, tolerance, and acceptance.  May it be so.  Amen.  


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