It is undeniable, no matter the popular sentiment, that our words mean something to those who hear them. The postmodern philosophy and worldview would have us believe words have no meaning, that it is up to the one reading/hearing them to determine the meaning for themselves. However, a day in the reality of the world teaches very quickly our words do have consequences, and they have meaning to those who hear them. Do our words matter? Does what we say on Facebook, Twitter, in an email, at work, in a moment of frustration, or in a difficult season reveal something about us? So much of the time, when it comes to our speech, we spend more time being concerned about the opinions of others, rather than being mindful of God. The root question in all this is not so much do our words matter, as it is how would God have me speak?
James 3:2-12– For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (3) If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. (4) Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. (5) So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (6) And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (7) For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, (8) but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (9) With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (10) From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (11) Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? (12) Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
In this passage, James moves from a description of dangers of our tongue in verses 2-8, to a rebuke in verses 9-12, pointing out the dichotomy of the way things are and the way they should be. Notice first, if anyone does not stumble in what he says he is a perfect man (verse 2). This verse illuminates for us that all men fall short in what they say. It sets up the rest of James‘ exhortation in that we see that no one can claim the tongue is not a problem they themselves also have. We see further that the tongue is a world of unrighteousness, setting on fire the entire course of life (verse 6), and no human being can tame the tongue (verse 8). The verses explain the danger in being flippant with our speech. James clearly affirms that the whole of our life can be affected and damaged by what we say. We need to look no further than the media today for examples of this. How many times have prominent figures within our culture had to regrettably apologize for a slip of the tongue that was caught unknowingly on a nearby microphone? These verses mean even more for the Christian who can destroy their witness of Christ without being diligent to control their speech. We must continually weigh our words before we speak, less we be discredited in the advance of the Gospel. James ends the passage by pointing out the specific sin in speech he is referring too, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Also, in verse 11, “Does spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” These verses bring into light the main point of the passage in that we should not be “two-faced” with our speech. There is no congruence between singing a praise song one minute and demeaning someone made in the image of God the next. This does not mean we never confront someone by calling them out of their error in a loving way or that we do not deal with wolves who have crept in to the body in a Biblical way. However, it does mean that malicious gossip has no place in the life of a believer. We are all saved by God setting his love and grace on us. We have no other boast. Think of it this way, with the same tool(our mouths) God brings the good news of the Gospel to sinners in need of repentance and faith, yet with the same mouth we also demean the very people God would have us extend the Gospel message to. In the words of James, “things ought not to be so.”
Speaking in a derisive way about unbelievers and/or fellow believers in Christ really shows a deep seated pride within us. We believe in some manner that we know the way things should be, and the way people should act. We forget that we were once slaves to sin (Romans 6:15-18), and God saving us was not through our effort but by His mercy(Ephesians 2:4-5). We have to take the time to see that constant complaining and grumbling only damages the testimony God would build in us(Philippians 2:14). If our brother or sister needs correction, we need to assure we are doing it in a way that encourages repentance rather than defensiveness, and face to face instead of behind their back. If we are talking about people who are not Christians, let us not surprised when their actions show that they are lost and extend love to them by sharing their need for repentance and belief in the gospel.
In conclusion it is obvious from the testimony of Scripture that God does care about what we say and there will be no distinguishing between the means: email, Facebook, a phone call, or a face to face discussion. We have to begin with acknowledging this is a problem. We must pursue holiness in speech with the same grace driven effort we seek to destroy other sin. We as Christians have to be mindful of this as we, through the blood of Jesus, strive to bring everything under submission to God, for he will judge every careless word and for them we will give an account(Matthew 12:33-37).