13th September 2009 (Trinity 14)
James faced a problem in the early church that is common in churches today – the problem of untamed tongues. Words have great power, for good or ill. James acknowledges the value of good teaching – he is, after all, trying to build up the churches using the words in this letter. But he knows that it is all too easy to say unhelpful things, and that those words, too, have power and can do great harm.
Respected teachers in the church have a particular responsibility to watch their words because of the influence they have; so verse 1 warns those who want to become church teachers to think twice – particular responsibility carries with it particular accountability. However, his warnings are addressed to each one of us: our words matter.
James lays it on with a trowel. He piles up illustrations and images to leave us in no doubt about his feelings in the matter. (Some of the verses are quite difficult to translate, but the overall message is very clear.) He points out that even the smallest remark can cause damage out of all proportion – and that it is so difficult to control those slips of the tongue, or those little comments (“I shouldn’t really say this but...”).
Most of us have experienced the truth of what James is talking about. That saying, ‘sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt,’ is so untrue. Many of us have been deeply hurt by comments people have made. Our self image may have been deformed by put-downs from parents or school teachers or peers.
It is not just what we hear that may hurt us. What we say can be almost as bad. The disparaging comment about another person may not only damage them – their confidence, or their reputation – but damages our own character: while it may feel as if we are building ourselves up when knocking someone else down, it is building with rubbish.
James finishes this section with a lament about double standards – how can we praise God and in the next breath say something destructive? As Christians we must do our best to use our tongues positively. St Paul had a lot to say on that, in his letters. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). “Let your conversation be always full of grace” (Colossians 4:6).
1) What is wrong with gossip, if anything?
2) How can we tame our tongues?