Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns.
by Tom Beutel
but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. James 3:8 (NRSV)
I identify with James, the writer of the Letter of James; first of all, because his letter focuses on practical Christianity. Unlike, John who by and large is more mystical and theological, James gets down to how to actually live as a Christian.
But, there is another reason that I tend to identify with James. I suspect that, given his focus on practical Christianity, James was wont to speak up without thinking. His vehemence about the dangers of speech in James 3 makes me want to say, “The author doth protest too much, methinks.” (See Shakespeare’s Hamlet) What I mean is that James is well aware of the dangers of incautious talk, perhaps by himself or directed at him. Perhaps pointing the finger at himself as well as admonishing others he soundly warns about what we say and how we say it. I can identify with that!
As peacemakers we need to be aware of what we are saying and how we say it. Our goal is always to restore right relationships, to provide well-being, for things to be “as they ought to be.” Thoughtless, hurtful, or offensive words do not accomplish this.
Scripture has a lot to say about our speech. Beginning with James 3, we must be aware that it is difficult for us to discipline our speech. We should not underestimate this fact.
Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle…look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. James 3:2b-8a (NRSV)
Perhaps the most obvious thing we need to keep in mind is that we should not be offensive or hurtful in what we say. Although we may need to confront or correct, we do not need to do so in an offensive or inflammatory manner.
if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. Matthew 5:22b (NRSV)
This is true even for those who oppose us, who are, perhaps, oppressors or seek to do us or others harm, who through intention or ignorance are themselves offensive. On the contrary we are encouraged to speak in such a way that it encourages and builds up others.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Romans 12:14 (NRSV)
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29 (NRSV)
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NRSV)
Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians in Ephesians 5:4 may be a bit harder for us to swallow. Paul warns about not only offensive or hurtful talk, but also careless, inappropriate talk.
and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.
This kind of talk is easy to slip into, especially when we’re in a crowd. It may fit in well with “the gang,” but it seldom glorifies God or reflects well on others or ourselves.
Finally, sometimes we need to simply resist the inclination to say anything. Rather than adding fuel to the fire, it may be best to calm a situation down by not speaking. Rather than possibly saying something we will later regret, it may be best to remain silent.
When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise. Proverbs 10:19 (NASB)
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; James 1:19 (NRSV)
A lot to think about. At all times, but particularly during the season of Lent, it would be good for all of us to consider what we say and how we say it. Our speech should build up others, glorify God, and make peace.