16th Sunday after Pentecost: James 3:1-12
You know the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. This little chant from the last century was used primarily to mock bullied people for being “triggered”. Or at least that would be the modern translation of this rhyme. Different words, same mockery.
At first hearing, this chant makes sense, except words do hurt. Words can do real damage. The fact that James is spending time on this issue means this social dynamic isn’t new.
This letter from James is wisdom literature. I describe the purpose and style of this literary form in my article Rules Much? In this part of his letter, James is taking a look at the damage we can do with our words.
Harsh words, untrue words, and gossip can change our lives. Sometimes words “roll off our back” and sometimes the impact lasts for decades. We find this everywhere: in social media, the news, our families, and our churches. Reflect on your own experience for a moment. When have you been impacted by words? A criticism taken to heart, a lie that influences how people thought of you, or hateful words that revealed a betrayal of friendship?
So, we have to ask ourselves, do I do this? Do I criticize or tear people down? Do I lie to people? About people? Or the subtle version of lying—do I insinuate things about people? James says that everyone struggles with their words. He compares the fallout to a forest fire. James wants his readers to understand the severity, so that they’ll want to work on how they speak to each other.
This isn’t completely doom and gloom. The encouraging part is that God entrusts us to be a blessing to others.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 NRSV
We are the hands and feet of Jesus to each other. God entrusts us to bless others. It’s not that everything we say is bad, we just have to be intentional about how we use our words. Not only is there the potential to hurt with language, there’s also the potential to heal. When we get this right, we are a blessing to each other.
However, we will all slip up. This “taming of the tongue” takes time. That’s why we remember that our tongues, which bless and curse, can also ask for forgiveness. We can ask for forgiveness from God and from each other when necessary.
Remember, our language steers our course. If we curse at people or lie: our lives are steered in that direction. When we pray, bless people, and are truthful: our lives are steered in that direction. If we bless one minute and curse the next, we don’t have a direction.
It’s difficult to control how we talk—it comes from our sub-conscious, our heart. It takes time to re-direct. Just like the rudder of a ship or a bridle in the mouth of a horse, we can have self-control over the way we talk. When we do, we will have learned the kind of self-control that guides our actions as well.