Taming the Tongue
[Editor's Note: The following post is taken from a sermon preached by the author on Sunday, Sept. 16, at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif.]
Text: James 3:1-12
“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
How many of us grew up with this old adage ringing in our ears? How many of us believe it’s true?
I’ve gone back and forth over the years. I understand that the saying is an invitation to turn our backs on harsh, mean-spirited words thus robbing them of their power, but how many of us are really capable of simply doing that? The truth is words do hurt and sometimes they do more than hurt. Sometimes they are downright destructive and on a large scale.
I think this is what the writer of James is getting at in this morning’s text. Words, the works of our tongues, can be used for good and evil. It is not always easy for us to shape our words and move our tongues in a fashion that serves our faith, our calling as Christians, our work for the reign of God on earth.
One important spiritual discipline, one vital element to our faith formation, then, is learning to tame the tongue. That is, we are challenged to develop custody of our speech in such a way that good news is proclaimed and people are lifted up toward the fulfillment of their creation in the image and likeness of God. Remember, James is especially concerned that we align our words and our work so we both “talk the walk” and “walk the talk.”
If we are offspring of the heavenly parent, if we are made in the likeness of God, how should that shape our speech and control the way we wag our tongues?
Let’s look at the consequences of an untamed tongue in a couple of categories. First, what are the consequences of an untamed tongue in our daily living, yours and mine? Have you ever been the victim of mindless speech, thoughtless comments, harsh words, gossip, bullying? Does anyone here have a story you might want to share?
[Dan tells the tale of little Melanie, a pupil in his wife’s second grade class. “When Melanie wouldn't do her work, my wife asked why. She said, ‘my dad yelled at me last night 'cause I couldn't go to sleep.’” In addition, he reports that “Melanie's mother is in jail [and a] self portrait she drew pictured an angry child with eyes squeezed tight and bared teeth.” Dan sees this as “…a painful example of the power of speech to inflict personal harm” and shape the life of a child.]
Sticks and stones can break your bones, and words can twist a young life into such a grotesque shape that it is almost unrecognizable as a child of God.
Sometimes those misshaping words are born of pure evil. Sometimes they are the result of the battering wounds that the perpetrator incurred as a child. Sometimes they come as the result of thoughtless, careless, seemingly innocent speech.
We have heard horrible stories of parents and caregivers cruel beyond belief. We know the devastatingly linked stories of abusers who have been abused. How often have you or I called a name or uttered a judgment without thinking about who would receive our shot and how it might wound?
This business of taming the tongue is serious, significant, practical work. It asks us to think before we speak, to count to 10 until high feelings can subside, to wait overnight before we send that email drafted in passion. Even if we only mean to help or sincerely believe that we are righteous in our judgment, how we articulate our message becomes crucial to how it is received. And isn’t that point of our communication, that we be heard and understood, most importantly, without breaking relationship?
Another dimension of this sort of tongue taming has to do with a subject that has been much in the news recently: bullying. We have read more than one heart-breaking story of a young person who has taken her or his life because of the relentless torment of bullies. Of course, a lot of bullying, as with a lot of abuse, is physical. But a lot of it is also verbal.
Again, we see the power of a loose tongue and ugly words to convince others that they are worthless, that they don’t deserve the air they breathe. And again we know that much of this bullying is cruelly intentional, often compensating for the bully’s own deep-seated sense of inadequacy and projected fear.
At the same, you and I need to be very careful that we don’t mindlessly call names, tell or even laugh at denigrating humor, repeat stories that eat away at another’s self-esteem. Taming the tongue may mean standing out in the abusing or bullying crowd and standing with an individual or group that is being beaten down and tongue-lashed. Surely that is where we would find Jesus, standing in oppression’s way.
Finally, I want to say a word about taming the tongue on national and international stages.
It is particularly bad, when the political season is in full swing, to have to hear repeated over and over again through TV, radio, press and social media the mean-spirited attacks that walk precariously the line between nastiness and slander. In this campaign, not only are we being inundated by attack ads — which I will argue passionately is a pathetically lame way to run a campaign — we also are being subjected to a growing litany of half-truths and untruths in political speech and advertising.
In this country —in the ideal — ours is a political system that asks for careful, reasoned argument about what each party and candidate can do for the common good, the general welfare of all the people in our land and the land itself. It is a shame when systems, and individual people who accept the constraints of those systems, relinquish custody of their tongues, insulting the intelligence of the electorate and sullying themselves and our democratic republic in the process.
I’ll finish my rant by mourning the untimely death of Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Apparently, some cowardly character, using a pseudonym, claiming to be a Coptic Christian, made a thoughtless, hateful short film demeaning Islam and insulting Muslim people. Was it supposed to be a joke? An attempt to be clever? A socio-cultural diatribe? An act of sheer hatred? Or worst of all, a manipulated tool of the political process?
At this point, no one knows. Perhaps we never will. What we do know is this irresponsible act of free speech — this unbridled slip of the tongue — has been the spark to cause a wildfire in the tinderbox of the Middle East. A good man whose agenda was to bring about peace through diplomacy and cooperation is dead along with a number of others. Under threat of death and destruction, the positions of the varying parties harden, hateful, threatening language intensifies and all are increasingly painted into corners that seem impossible to escape.
The flowers have gone to young men and women who have gone to soldiers who will go to graveyards — everyone. When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn to tame our tongues, to see that those who appear different are really our sisters and brothers, to understand that those we label as enemy are really our neighbors and that we are all — each and every one of us — made in the image and likeness of God?
Now, maybe some of you think I’ve strayed too far afield and need to rein in my own tongue, but I believe that the aspects of tongue-taming that we have considered today fit squarely into the message of James.
The tongue, though small, can be an exceedingly sharp instrument and wield a great deal of power in shaping and misshaping life, individually and corporately. Misinformation, self-righteous judgment, gossip, slander, hatred can spark from a word and spread like one those terrifying wildfires with which we in the western US are so familiar. I saw some scorched hillsides in Idaho this summer that are a somber reminder that a single, tiny match can destroy a countryside.
And just in case you think that the minor epistle of James, hidden at the back of the New Testament, just barely making it into the canon at all, can’t serve as an authority, hear these words from Matthew’s gospel:
"Out of the overflow of the heart," said Jesus, "the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34–37).
James really has gotten it right. Taming the tongue is a gospel matter. As followers of Jesus and children of the living God, it is a discipline to which we’re called and for which we will be called to account.
Sticks and stones can break my bones, and, yes, words can really hurt me and you and all the world. But, according to James, words can also bless us all, everyone. Serious though the work of the tongue may be — and trust me it is serious, important, life-shaping — the final word may yet be given to the joy and blessing our tongues can bring.
The tongue can be a double-edged sword, but the discipline of taming it can give us the delight of blessing, the treasure of building one another up, the joy of living in peace and harmony, and the fulfillment of finding a common home in the realm of God.
In taming the tongue lies hope for the world. Let’s give ourselves to realizing that hope and use our tongues for blessing.
The Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon is pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif.
Photo credit: Tongue and mouth image by F.C.G./Shutterstock. Photo of the Transfer of Remains Ceremony for the return of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Libyan embassy employees September 14. 2012 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Stevens and the three other embassy employees were killed when the consulate in Libya was attacked September 11. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)