If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!
My thoughts on James 3
How many times do you find yourself thinking: “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that to or about so-and-so” or “Maybe I could’ve worded that criticism in a kinder, more constructive way?” Perhaps snide comments you made out of spite or envy have gotten you into trouble. Well, you are not alone. I, too, have suffered from diarrhea of the mouth. We all have a sinful nature, a “restless evil” within us that poisons everything that we think, say and do. I’d wager that everyone on the planet has at some point in their life said things in a foul humor to someone else that they regret afterward.
7 Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. James 3:7-8 (EHV)
My friends, this is a prime example of how desperately we all need Jesus Christ. Our vilest thoughts are always seeking expression and often burst out of our mouths despite our best efforts to cage them. We cannot tame the sinful nature on our own. Only Jesus vanquished that ravening beast.
It’s bad enough to think nasty and hateful thoughts about others, but once you utter the deplorable words aloud to someone it is too late to call them back. You might regret what you said as soon as you say it, but the fact of the matter remains: you spewed forth vitriol with the intent to harm. Unless your companion is completely oblivious to reality you most likely – at the very least – hurt their feelings. At worst, you have irrevocably marred your relationship with that individual and their perception of you and by extension whatever group with which you are affiliated. We are judged by others based on our words and deeds among them. This is especially true for pastors of church congregations and anyone who is prominently in the public eye. James, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, points out this struggle:
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 To be sure, we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a fully mature man, able to bridle his whole body as well.James 3:1-2 (EHV)
The words we use and the way in which we speak shapes our relationships with other people and their perception of us ever after. Furthermore, how we choose to wag our tongues reinforces the spirit or attitude in which we speak, feeding back into our own unique worldview. You’ve probably heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” right? Well, I believe when one constantly vomiting forth negativity one also has a tendency to feed upon the same. Even worse, we not only hurt ourselves and others by giving voice to our spitefulness but we damage our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit inspired James to warn us that if left unchecked we could lose our faith and our wagging tongues will steer us straight into hell.
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they will obey us, we also guide the whole animal. 4 And consider ships: Although they are very big and are driven by fierce winds, yet they are guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it also boasts great things. Consider how a little flame can set a large forest on fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. It is set among the parts of our body as a world of unrighteousness that stains the whole body, sets the whole course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell. James 3:3-6 (EHV)
The imagery James uses here isn’t accidental. The bits used to control horses – a large animal – are rather small pieces of metal. The rudder is a relatively small plank of wood but a single person can use it to steer a huge vessel in the water. And I think we all learned from Smokey Bear how a single small flame can set an entire forest on fire. James likens our tongues – our words – to a fire capable of raging out of control. We can all agree that words have more power than we’d like to think, sometimes. If left unchecked, our tongues can stain the rest of our members with unrighteousness through lies, sarcasm, ridicule, gossip, and approval of evil actions. Garbage in, garbage out, and garbage back in again in a vicious cycle.
It is difficult to think of our tongues “guiding” us anywhere, isn’t it? Don’t our brains consciously control everything that we say? Well, yes. But what James is really telling us is that we need to exercise self-control. And for that we need to ask God for help, because we cannot do this on our own. Not for long, at any rate…just up until the point that we have to interact with another person.
7 Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who are made in the likeness of God. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 A spring does not pour out both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree bear olives, my brothers, or can a grapevine produce figs? A salt spring cannot produce fresh water either.James 3:7-12 (EHV)
Our words often show us to be hypocrites, don’t they? I praise God in a church service on Sunday mornings and not two hours later I’m cussing out someone for their failure to follow basic traffic laws. In front of my children, to boot! It is so easy to slip into unwholesome talk, diabolically easy when we are among those who thrive on malicious gossip. I have been guilty of feeling a delicious thrill when I heard some juicy, secret detail from someone’s life that really isn’t any of my business. Sarcasm is also one of my guilty pleasures; it is a popular form of humor that never seems to get old. Unfortunately, it is difficult to trust a sarcastic person because you can never be entirely certain that what they are saying is what they truly mean. But trust me when I say this: we as Christians have to maintain constant vigilance over our tongues and pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.
13 Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but it is worldly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 In fact, where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who practice peace.James 3:10-18 (EHV)
Everywhere we turn – on the Internet, the television, the radio – we hear people saying nasty things about each other. Some of these nasty things might even be true. But in what spirit are these facts presented to the masses? Is it merely to entertain or provoke impassioned responses and thereby gain glory through a multitude of “followers” who “like” the information that one shares? Are people speaking out of a sincere desire to help or warn others of danger, or are they spreading negativity out of envy or selfish ambition? In this day and age, Christians – all of us, really – need to watch very carefully what we share on social media as well as the words that come out of our mouths.
And not just to save ourselves from looking like idiots. Although that might be a lost cause, in my case.
James might seem to dwell on the negative side of the tongue’s power, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s not all bad news. Never forget the power of God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit kindles saving faith in unbelieving hearts and nourishes the struggling saint-sinner’s soul. We are empowered by faith in Christ to use the power of words for good, too! We can encourage peace rather than saying things in order to get people riled up. Even when it is necessary to rebuke someone or speak on an unpleasant topic, we can do so discretely and with compassion, always keeping the best interests of others in mind. We can avoid perpetuating vicious rumors – no matter how juicy – and avoid those conversations whenever possible.
Or, when all else fails in a tricky social situation and you don’t know what to say, you can always fall back on my great-grandma’s advice:
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”