A true story, one told by a pastor, Rick Eshbaugh, about a personal experience. One evening, he was alone with his kids, while his wife was out crafting porcelain dolls at a doll-making class. While he chatted with a neighbor on his front porch, the telephone rang. Eshbaugh’s son, Craig, then five years old, answered. “I was proud to hear Craig answer the phone promptly and politely,” he says. “[But] My pride [turned into embarrassment] as I heard my son’s response to the caller’s request to speak to my wife: ‘No [Craig said], my mom’s not here. She’s out making a baby. But my dad is here if you want to talk to him.’”
Over the past several weeks, we’ve been delving into the New Testament book of James to consider what happens once we've confessed that Jesus Christ is our Lord. How do we live our faith in Christ? Particularly, how do we live our faith in Christ as part of the eternal family of which you and I are a part, the Church?
So far, we’ve seen James address several problems that he’s observed among first-century Christians. The first was the way Christians were ignoring the practical needs of those who lived among them, particularly widows and orphans. Two weeks ago, after we’d considered James’ words, I was proud to see you all get involved in Clermont’s CASA for Kids, an organization that helps children sent to foster homes. Your response was incredible!
The next issue that James addressed, which we looked at last week, was the problem of how wealthy Christians treated those of lesser means. In my message based on James, chapter 2, I asked you to prayerfully consider making a generous offering to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal during our Thanksgiving Eve service this year and to designate an add-on to your regular offerings in 2007, equivalent to the cost of two Big Macs per month per household, for the Hunger Appeal.
Today, James moves onto another practical issue for Christians and the Church: How we use the gift of communication and speech. Or, how we use our tongues, as James would put it. James was appalled at how Christians could use their mouths to praise God in worship one moment, pray to God for blessings the next, and then use those same mouths to run down other people who, just like us, are made in the image of God and for whom, also just like us, Jesus died and rose.
James wasn’t concerned with the innocent mistakes made by people like little Craig Eshbaugh when he told a caller that his mom was making babies.
Nor was he talking about the things we say that emanate from innocent ignorance.
(Although I suspect that James would agree with the maxim, "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.")
No, James is talking about the use we make of speech that rips people down, that passes on gossip, that lifts us up at the expense of others, that hurts the fellowship of the Church in which Jesus commands us to love one another as He has loved us, speech that dishonors God.
James minces no words about the destruction wrought by our words or where their destructive power comes from.
And he says that without total surrender to Jesus Christ, the use of our speech will always be more reflective of hell than of heaven. Listen to some of what James says, this time in the translation of Eugene Peterson in The Message:
We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. [I certainly can identify with that!] If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.It’s a story I’ve told you before and chances are that as long as you and I both live and are around each other, you’ll hear me tell it again: In Medieval times, a woman visited a monk. He was a man admired for giving holy, sensible advice. The woman realized, she said, that she had become a terrible gossip, the purveyor of hurtful words. What should she do? The monk told her to go through the village and bag all the goose feathers she could find. Then, she should lay a feather at the doorstep of every person about whom she had gossiped. After that, she should return to the monk.
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can't tame a tongue—it's never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can't go on.
The woman dutifully did what the monk directed her to do and returned to him. The monk said, "That's wonderful. Now go back to each of those doorsteps and collect the goose feathers you left behind. Then, come back here." When the woman returned for yet another visit to the monk, she reported that all the feathers had been blown away by the wind.
"That’s the point, of course," the monk told her. "We can be forgiven the sin of gossiping about others. If you repent for it, God surely will forgive you. Those you have violated may do the same. But no matter whether you are forgiven or not, the damage will have been done. Gossip spreads as though carried aloft by the wind and you can't bring it back."
When I look at my life, I find that almost every problem I’ve ever experienced has been caused by my intemperate speech, words used that denigrated or damaged others, words that told half-truths, words that conveyed hurtful speculation about the character or motives of others. I’ve repented for those things. But I realize that the damage done, like a bell that can’t be unrung, can never be reversed.
In his explanation of God’s Eighth Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.” Not only are we not to lie about others, we’re to put the most positive spin on their actions and motives that we can. If we love the God Who loved us all the way to the cross, we’ll take the call to the right use of our words seriously.
But how do we do that? A few thoughts from one recovering misuser of speech to another.
First: We surrender our brains and our mouths to God, along with the rest of us. A good prayer to offer each day might be the one in Psalm 119:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”
Second: Before we open our mouths to share something critical of another, we should ask ourselves, “Does this help anything?” In a passage we explored earlier this summer, the apostle Paul says, “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)
Third: We ask ourselves another question: Would we say these words to Jesus Christ? In a very real way, whether our words build others up or tear them down, Christ hears every one of them. As Jesus once said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Jesus has said that when we encounter others, we really meet Him. Do we think that Jesus wants to hear our gossip?
Finally, a word to all of you who, like me, have already scattered too many goose feathers to the wind. It can be appropriate for you to apologize to the people who have been hurt by your intemperate words. Although I must say, I don't feel fanatical about this. In my former parish, a woman told me that just the week before, she'd gotten a call from a man she'd dated forty years earlier. He wanted to apologize for something she had long forgotten from that period.
But what’s most appropriate when we misuse the gift of speech to run others down is to ask God for His forgiveness and for the power to keep our tongues under His control in the future.
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold,” Proverbs 22:1 says. Those of us who are saved in the Name of Jesus Christ choose each day whether we will honor Christ’s Name or not by deciding whether we’ll care about the names, the reputations, of others as though they bore our names and reputations.
May we live in such dependence on Christ that we choose Christ’s way by letting Him control our mouths along with the rest of our lives.
[The story of Craig Eshbaugh is from Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.]