The world is very dry. Everywhere the dead timber of crushed spirits and faded dreams piles up. Hurt feelings and insecurities skitter on the wind like dead leaves gathering in dark corners. White-hot hatred and hazy fear evaporate whatever moisture might remain. The world is a tinderbox, and words have set it to blaze.
The apostle James paints this picture as he expounds the risks and responsibilities of Christian speech. The tongue, a small and seemingly insignificant part of the body, can cause both personal and cosmic calamity. “How great a forest fire is caused by just a spark,” he writes. “And the tongue is a fire.”
It seems like almost everyone is wagging their tongues and throwing sparks around these days. And the world really does seem to be ablaze. In the highest seats of power and influence, people in the spotlight utter strange, ridiculous, or malicious sentiments with seemingly little forethought about what they say or about the effect of their words. Social media expands the spotlight; those who previously had no audience now enjoy a global reach. Whether we are looking to the stage of international affairs or focusing our gaze on our phone screens to see the latest posts on Facebook and Twitter, we cannot avoid the singeing aftermath of the torching tongue.
Yet isn’t our ability to say whatever we want to whomever we want whenever we want our guaranteed right in this country? We place a high value on our freedom of speech, and we vehemently defend it. Recently, we celebrated another Independence Day, marking the momentous event in our past when our forebears chose the value of self-governance over that of tyrannical rule, and the first right guaranteed to the citizens of this new nation was the ability to speak freely.
We are blessed and privileged to live in this nation, however, scripture tells us that we are residents of another kingdom altogether. When we become followers of Jesus Christ, he takes our US passport and gives us a new one – a passport from the Kingdom of God. We are citizens of God’s country, and we are merely resident aliens and exiles while we are here. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” Now, while it is generally true that you must abide by the laws of the country in which you find yourself, God holds us to a higher standard. We are more than residents of the kingdom of God – we are ambassadors. While we enjoy the privilege of free speech in the United States, we are expected to exercise responsible speech as Christians. That’s why that statement from Peter concludes by saying the reason we are citizens of a holy nation is so that we “may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
James acknowledges that we cannot be perfect and that we cannot tame the tongue. In that regard, the tongue is more wily and unpredictable than any wild animal, all of which, according to James, are subject to human subjugation. Yet that does not mean that we should not try to tame the tongue. We have a faithful responsibility to pay attention to the things we say and the spirit with which we say them. We are to think about what we say so that we can consciously focus our speech on blessing the Lord over cursing those who are made in the likeness of God.
The apostle Paul takes this responsibility seriously when he tells the church in Ephesus to put away falsehood and “let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors… Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up… so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (4:25, 29). He instructs them to “put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (31-32). Can you imagine a political campaign ruled by those instructions? What would your Facebook or Twitter feeds look like if users adhered to these guidelines? Any politicians or social media users who claim to be Christian should show us what it would look like through their speech and behavior.
While we have a responsibility to avoid issuing such toxic speech, we are not to perpetuate it, either. We are not to fan the flames of the fires set by wagging tongues. When we hear speech that does not conform to the standards of Christ’s holiness, then we are to correct it with the truth and with love. That will be the outward demonstration of our inward faith. When Christ is in us and in our communities, and we speak peace, truth, grace, and love, people will recognize it. They will see the lush, cool oasis of Christ’s love in the midst of a scorched and burning landscape. Those who are seeking such a respite will go there to find rest for their weary ears and burdened spirits.
James ends this passage with the beautiful image of a spring gushing with water. Only the water must be either fresh or brackish; there is no in-between. In the dry and arid world set afire with evil speech, people are wandering about looking for a refreshing drink. James tells us that the world can only offer them salt water to quench their thirst. When you go to the source of evil and derision to satisfy your longing, the stuff they give you to drink makes you more thirsty. For James, righteous speech is like a spring that gushes with fresh water. Those who seek refuge from the harsh and degrading talk of the world need a place to come and be refreshed. We are called to be those springs in the world. We need to preserve our water from being contaminated; not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of the souls God will lead to us to find a peaceful, loving community. We are called to share the Good News that Jesus offers us and everyone the gift of living water. With this water, we will never thirst again.
Our speech matters. We can indeed say whatever we want to, but that does not mean we should. Words have tremendous power to tear down and to build up, and to give grace. While we enjoy the freedom of speech, we need to remember that we are also called to speak differently. We must think before we speak. If you are talking about someone behind their back, would you say it to their face? Are your words giving grace to those who hear them? Is what you are about to say going to build up or tear down? These are all questions we need to reflect on before we speak as citizens and ambassadors of God’s country. We are also called to tell the truth when confronted with lies. In doing so, we will be the fountain through which Christ’s life-giving Spirit flows to put out the fires of hate, anger, and deceit. We are free to use our words. Let us use them wisely.