Blazing past subtlety, the Apostle James appears to have some strong feelings regarding the tongue and its teetering potential for either good or evil. In my experience, a person generally doesn’t speak so adamantly about such a particular topic unless they’ve encountered its burn firsthand. I think it’s safe to say James had likely experienced the heat of others’ poisonous speech against him; and perhaps he, himself, had also shamefully contributed toward some such cursing of others. While metaphorically imaginative, the Apostle’s words are pointedly convicting: Each of us possesses a small gift for which we can either use to praise and adore God and God’s good creation, or we can use it to condemn and damn God, others, and even ourselves. Though small in comparison to the rest of the body, the tongue should not be overlooked or disregarded as harmless—it burns with passion, able to bring down whole peoples, communities, and civilizations, and “this ought not to be so.”
Though we don’t hear these words from James very often, it’s a message which bears just as much (if not more) relevancy now than when they were first penned and sent out across the Roman Empire to various Christian communities nearly two millennia ago. Our current presidential race—for which the overwhelming majority of the country appears grossly dissatisfied—is enormously tainted by the poison of untamed tongues spouting off all kinds of falsities, prejudices, hate, and downright malarkey. And yet, we all know on a personal level the pain of the Apostle’s confronting message—you and I have each been on both sides. I have been burned and still bear many scars of others’ harmful words against me. Nevertheless, unfortunately I, too, am guilty of having contributed towards the iniquity of others by letting carelessness, fear, and anger take control of my mouth. The forest fires we hear of and see on the news—as horrible and deadly as they are—smolder in comparison to the devastation of our words as sinful people. Lives have been lost, families torn asunder, individuals ripped of their dignity, and Christ himself brought to tears by the shamefulness of our tongues—for which we are called daily to come before the cross of Jesus and confess, praying that the Spirit come and free us completely (our tongues included) from the sin and death that binds and enslaves us, that we might instead speak praise and thanksgiving in the new life and freedom we receive in the Crucified and Risen One. For the emotional casualties that fill my past, for the acres of God’s creation which my words have demolished, for the scars I have caused others by past words—I beg and seek for the forgiveness of Christ and those whom I have hurt, always praying for the Spirit to intercede and tame my mouth when and where necessary.
Yet, in spite of that member which can stain the whole body, God is always faithfully at work—lovingly confronting, taming, redirecting, transforming, and drawing us away from sin to live in and through Christ alone. For the last few days I’ve been reflecting on a recent experience I had, where God answered an unspoken prayer and the Spirit interceded in a moment of potential tongue-lashing in a manner that I didn’t fully realize until later. The other day, I was in a conversation (if you call it that) where the fuel for my rebuttal was being laid right before my eyes—I opposed nearly everything the other person was saying, and was ready to correct them immediately. After sitting through the barrage of comments flying at me, I went to open my mouth—and nothing came out. It felt strange, but suddenly the urge to respond was gone. Sad to say, but it wasn’t like me to resist in such a heated situation. As I pondered on the matter later that night, the only thing I could attribute it to was a work of the Holy Spirit. Thinking about it more and more, if we believe the Spirit fills us with the words to speak when we know not what to say, then is it not also possible for the same Spirit to remove the words from us which need not be said—when speaking would be less than uplifting and affirming? Don’t get me wrong, there’s been more than a few times when I wish God’s hand would have been placed over my mouth, but still stupidity spilled from my lips. Yet, as I think about it, perhaps there’s been other such instances when God evaporated the words before they could be uttered. While I believe most everything the other person was saying in that “conversation” was wrong, I believe even more fully that the Lord works in strange and marvelous ways. Perhaps, I was silenced to instead sit in the tension of what had been spoken—right or wrong—and not self-righteously jump to the conclusion of dismantling another’s thoughts and feelings so as to validate myself. Who knows. The reason for the Spirit’s timely presence and intercessory bitting of my tongue in that particular moment remains a mystery I may not come to understand for some time (if ever).
Beyond the reason, however, the situation has raised for me a new question. Many times we’ll hear and talk about how God is calling/using us as vessels to speak the Word of the Lord. I agree with and affirm that. But are there instances when God is actively binding our mouth/calling us to silence? Is this divine intervention of holding our tongue and extinguishing our words a means of God opening us to see and hear the Word of the Lord more clearly, or is it a means of preventing us from poisoning the Word—cursing the likeness of God in another? I’m reminded of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who is made temporarily mute by the angel of the Lord after it is announced that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son in her old age (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80). Only much later, after he scribbles out that the name of his newborn son should be John, is his tongue freed—and what follows? Neither explaining the situation nor complaining, Zechariah—filled with the Holy Spirit—immediately begins praising and thanking God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (1:68a). Is that perhaps the point? Does the Spirit swoop in and still our tongue in order to redirect us from hateful and hurtful speech to instead speak life-affirming words of praise, thanks, and adoration for the blessings which God bestows upon us? Did I simply need to be silenced the other night, to see more clearly the most important thing—God’s presence and work in my life? Who knows. Thankfully, my tongue was not bound but more than a few minutes.
As I (and hopefully we all) continue to ponder on the Apostle James’ words on the power and potential of the tongue, I pray that the Spirit binds my mouth when needed, silences my lips to see more clearly what (and who) is around me, and redirects my words to be aligned with the Word of God. May the words of my mouth set ablaze that which kindles love and care, not hate and destruction. Draw me to silence, oh Lord.