Scripture is clear that God holds us accountable for our words. They are not taken lightly, and this theme appears again and again throughout the Bible. The Psalms and Proverbs are full of the separation of the righteous from the foolish by the words that come from their mouths. And James writes (3:6) that the tongue “corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
A study of this noun that appears in the Bible more than 160 times, reveals that “tongue”—in Hebrew and in Greek—can refer both to the physical part of the body or more broadly to a person’s language. An important distinction in a time when so much of our casual communication takes place via writing (in text messages, emails, and social media posts).
James’ warning of the tongue’s corruption is clear and timely. So undisciplined is the tongue that the author speaks of attaining perfection if only a person could never be at fault in the words they use (James 3:2).
And yet, how frequently do I forget to hold my tongue or check my written words? It’s easy to forget. The world has an obsession with making itself heard, and technology gives us the means to feel like we can do so, without consequence. Tech companies have touted the ability to communicate with anyone around the world instantaneously, as if they’d ushered in a utopia of human connection and communication. Freedom of speech is lifted on high as a kind of absolute sanction: my prerogative, my privilege. And national leaders spend their time squabbling senselessly over the aptly-named Twitter, dredging up more or less continuous outrage in their wake.
Recently I discovered that the Expositor’s Bible Commentary makes the connection between James’ description of the tongue as corrupter of the whole body or person—inflammatory and punishable by hell—and Jesus’ uncomfortable words in Mark 9:43-48, which begins, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”
Though Jesus doesn’t use the tongue as one of his examples, we understand that we must silence the part of us that’s causing us to sin. Cut it out of our lives. This takes prayer and personal insight. A willingness to act. I felt convicted of this while reading this chapter of James, especially after I came across this note from the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament, which puts James’ words in terms I couldn’t help but fully grasp:
“Our speech, James makes clear, reveals the attitude of the heart. A “divided” heart will lead to inconsistent habits of speech, while the person with a wholehearted allegiance to the Lord will be marked by godliness in speech.”
God had revealed my own actions to me in James 3:10: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing…” What I was saying online didn’t match with what I was speaking elsewhere. It was angry, inflammatory speech (though it felt perfectly justified and exquisitely articulated at the time). I understood that I was sharpening my tongue like a sword and aiming my words like arrows (Psalm 64:3).
In this case, my solution manifested as an almost literal reading of Jesus’ words in Mark. No self-mutilation occurred, but I did actually and permanently delete the account I was using to dispense unwise words. The taming of my tongue required that I remove myself from a situation causing temptation; and that’s not to say that this cured me of the inclination, but it did limit it, giving me more time to use my tongue in the way described in Psalm 35:28, and affording me more mental space with which to meditate on God’s Word and to, gradually, be changed by it.
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