As a young Christian stumbling on James 3:2, I remember feeling relieved. You mean all I have to do to achieve moral perfection is get control of my tongue? Does the pastor know about this short-cut?
Yes, and up and over Everest is the shortest way to Kathmandu.
To James, tongue-control is anything but a shortcut; it’s the place where our shortcuts fail. One might not expect a man so big on verifiable deeds to be so concerned with something as ephemeral as words. But James recognizes two things about speech that the rest of us often miss.
First, we can fool ourselves for quite some time into thinking we have it together by polishing the surface of a few good deeds. But the tongue has a way of revealing what we’ve swept under the spiritual rug or tucked beneath the bed.
For all its generative power, paradoxically, the tongue is the weak link in the moral facade, exposing where we took the shortcuts, where arrogance, anger, greed, bitterness or fear have simply been shoved into the closet, awaiting their moment to spring forth in chaotic revelry.
But second, for James, the tongue does not merely reveal reality. It also creates it. Like a runaway horse hitched to a cart, the tongue drags the body after its lead. Bitter words stoke the fire of resentment. Gossip fans the flames of pride and judgment. Sighs of envy feed habits of greed. Lies repeated often enough trick the mind to self-deceit.
It’s hard to avoid concluding James is a bit of a pessimist when it comes to the prospects of speech. Prov. 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death,” to which James responds: “But with a particular bias toward the latter.” He dwells on the dark side of words in his comments to believers because there is nothing more dangerous than confusing a cougar with a kitten. Anyone who would befriend that tongue had best understand its instincts and respect its destructive power.
Yet there are also hints that James recognizes the positive potential of power. His treatise contains several allusions to the biblical account of creation: 3:7 names animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of sea; 3:9 describes human beings as “made in the likeness of God.” Back in Genesis 1, God speaks “let there be,” and with a word calls a universe to being. This is the image, this is the likeness, in which we humans were made.
Speech may in fact be the part of the image we most often underestimate. It is in a sense “godlike” and thus profoundly dangerous. “The tongue has the power of life and death,” Proverbs states.
By our words we call worlds into being: worlds of hope or of hate, worlds of grace or of fear, worlds of death or of life.
Through our discourse — personal, political, theological — we create a world we and others must inhabit. Encouragement spoken over a person generates possibility. But when called worthless, useless, shameless, a person (de)forms to the shape of the name. Untruth consistently spoken becomes new reality.
Like water drops falling on bedrock, the world may seem too large, too solid to be re-formed by the patter of speech. Yet canyons are cut and shores are remade one drop at a time.
Each time we open our mouths we join God in an act of creation. We invoke a world of abundant fruit, flowing with rivers of hope. Or we invoke a world of wasteland, billowing with toxic sand.
By God’s mercy, let us speak as those who understand our power. May our words together create a world in which Christ would feel at home.
Meghan Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church.