Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or 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.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
The cartoon showed two young couples talking over coffee, with toddlers and toys spread across the carpet. Then a child stopped playing, pointed intently at one of visitors as he sipped, and said with painful and honest clarity, ‘He does NOT drink like a fish.’
Oops! Words get to places we do not expect. Then they come back to bite us, and damage friends and friendships along the way. Words can be potent and poisonous.
‘The knack of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in the wrong way at the wrong time.’ Someone I knew was described in this way, many years ago. The person in question has been long with the Lord. But the words have stuck with me. Words do that. They hang around, like an old bruise or strain. Sometimes they can make us limp a bit, long after the original blow.
Words make a difference to the world. They bind us to promises, reveal our thoughts and feelings, and make and break relationships. Words stir, scare and assure. They insult and deceive, encourage and honour, beckon and warn. Words matter. What we say, how we say it, and where and when and to whom, shapes the world, and sculpts a landscape of hope and concern around our neighbours and their living.
Be careful, is the message of James. Let us not be too fond of the sound of our own voice. Surely the best way for our speech to flow pure is to keep the spring fresh – the state of our heart, as we walk with Jesus. Then God’s word-made-flesh might just be heard in the words we say. That would be good news.
Prayer God of truth and trust, guard our tongues and our talk, guide our tone of voice and our turn of phrase. Teach us to bless, to build up, to nurture, to nourish, by the words we choose and the ways we use them. For the sake of Jesus Christ, your word in our world. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor is General Secretary of the URC, and a member of Emmanuel URC, Cambridge.