For the last two weeks, we have been reflecting on the reading from the Epistle of James, and we continue with that today.
In today’s reading, we come to one of James’ big themes – the way we control our speech.
James uses two metaphors here, two word pictures. He talks about horses, and the way horses could be controlled by using a bit, which goes in the mouth of the horse. A small thing can control a mighty beast. And then he talks about ships – obviously he is talking about ships in the ancient world – and the way the direction of the ship could be controlled by a rudder, a relatively small piece of wood that could be manipulated to alter the direction of the ship.
James says that our tongues are like a bit in the mouth of a horse and our tongues are like rudders on a ship. A small organ of the body controls the direction we take and the things we say and do, and the way we are heard and regarded by others. If we don’t control our tongues, all kinds of trouble can ensue. James says it’s like setting alight a forest fire.
Think about gossip – there can be positive and helpful aspects of gossip, when you are sharing information because of concern for someone or to enable prayer. But gossip can be very damaging, spreading unfounded rumours, or to generate mockery and humiliation. You don’t have to pass on every salacious story you hear about someone. Keep control of your tongue.
Think about the way you talk to other people, particularly vulnerable people. I heard of someone who was talking to refugees in a very demeaning way – it made me very cross when I heard that. Sometimes people can be patronising to older people – talking to them as if they were idiots. That just won’t do! Sometimes people talk roughly to children. That is not acceptable! Keep control of your tongue.
Sometimes we just say things without thinking, words that hurt others, and once you’ve said them, you cannot take them back. I know I do this sometimes, especially when I’m tired. And when I realise what I’ve done, I am very sorry. I did a funeral once where a relative hadn’t responded appropriately when being told about the death in the family, and the two sides of the family had stopped communicating. Keep control of your tongue.
Other times we hear one side of the story about an incident, and we react hastily with anger to other people involved without listening to the full story. That only makes the situation worse. Keep control of your tongue – at least until you know all the facts.
With our tongues we praise God and sing hymns; we encourage and build up our friends; we put into words great thoughts and wisdom; we tell the truth. But with our tongues also we curse those whom we don’t care for; we create trouble and dissension; we demean and belittle others; we spread lies. There are those who get a reputation for moaning and complaining about everything. There are people you know will be talking about you in a bad way, because they complain about everyone else. People get known for the way they express themselves in words.
James uses more metaphors: he says that a spring doesn’t produce both fresh and foul water, a fig tree doesn’t produce other kinds of fruit.
It is not entirely straightforward – it never is! Sometimes we need to use our tongues to speak unpopular truth to those in power. On Thursday, 13 September, it was the feast of John Chrysostom. His nick-name (Chrysostom) was “golden tongue”, and he was a great preacher. He was made Bishop of Constantinople against his wish and he set about exposing corruption amongst the clergy and the Roman Imperial administration. This didn’t make him popular and he was exiled twice. He died of exhaustion and starvation in 407. He used his role as a preacher to tell the truth, not to placate the religious and political authorities.
I invite you this week to listen to yourselves, listen to what you are saying. Do you speak intending to put others down, or build up your own estimation? Then keep silent. Will your words be helpful to others, kind and encouraging? Then speak them. Are you speaking the truth, even though it may upset people? Then say it. Not many people can control their tongues all of the time. But we should strive to have better care of what we say. Tame your tongue!