Posts Tagged ‘the tongue’

JAMES 3:1-12

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. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

According to the Genesis myth of creation it was the word of God – “Let there be!” – that brought forth light, matter, and the myriad creatures. Rather than reading this story literally we can interpret it as “an ode to the word,” capturing in a narrative portrait the profound power in speech for bringing forth worlds – or destroying them, as the case may be.

As creaturely reflections of God, human beings have the creative capacity in language to call intelligent order from the sensory chaos of experience. And as the agency of communication, the word carries into audible and textual signs the otherwise hidden intentions of our minds and hearts.

Seeing as how much of human culture is really the technical transformation of material energy into structures of meaning, and how totally meaning is a product of language, and finally how much of language is about words and the relationships among words, we begin to appreciate the real insight in what may have seemed like exaggerated warnings in the Letter of James regarding the tongue and its power.

The greatest of human capacities – to create and live within word-worlds of meaning – can be turned in either a godly or demonic direction. It can name and tame the beasts of the wilds, and it can curse, malign, and condemn our human neighbor. We can stand up on Sundays to recite the prayers and historic creeds of the church, but once back home we can pick up again with the destructive family patterns of the things we say to one another as well as the things we tell ourselves.

There must have been a toxic dose of hypocrisy moving about the circulatory system of the early church!

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JAMES 3:1-12

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. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

The science of cultural anthropology marks the arrival of our distinctive human consciousness with the emergence of language. As an evolutionary advance on the primitive signal systems of animal communication where the motivation is for behavioral responses of various sorts (e.g., territorial warnings, courtship rituals, dominance displays, social bonding), human language introduces a capacity for mentally representing the world in such a way that meaning becomes the overarching concern.

What is the meaning of property? What is the significance of love? Such questions reveal a mind that is no longer satisfied with mere animal preoccupations. For the first time consciousness becomes a creator, and constructing a world of meaning becomes its new and everlasting fascination.

Words, then, are not mere signals to elicit behavioral responses; they are building blocks in the cultural cosmos of human meaning. Not only that, words can also serve to break apart and bring to collapse the cultural assumptions and judgments that enforce a particular worldview over rival perspectives and belief systems. At the more personal level, we are each familiar with the power in words to build up or tear down the largely emotional architecture of human relations.

With a single word the confidence of a young toddler can be devastated for years. With mere words we can alternately inspire hope and break trust, praise and blame, forgive and condemn. And it’s all in the power of this little organ, the tongue, and how we control it.

JAMES 1:17-27

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

One way of undermining community is to focus our critical energies on others, exposing their shortcomings and condemning their sins. Of course, as members in community we need to be morally vigilant and address injustice where it occurs, but when we only look outward in our vigilance we can quickly become saboteurs of the very thing towards which our evolution is aimed.

So James advises the Christian to examine the soul and moral life of him- or herself. It’s been said that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason: so “be quick to listen and slow to speak,” the apostle enjoins. And don’t just memorize and spout off doctrines, but seek to live out the truth they represent.

The tongue is a viper, so the proverb goes. Elsewhere in this same letter, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: though small and seemingly of minor significance, the tongue can steer the vessel of one’s life into all kinds of peril. So important is the tongue in the author’s estimation that anyone who believes and recites the confessions in church but cannot control their speech during the week is perpetuating a worthless religion.

We’ve all heard the maxim that “talk is cheap,” and surely that is true. But what comes forth from the mouth, as Jesus says, was first formed in the heart, which means that while talk may be cheap, it’s still a dependable witness to the soul’s general health.