Posted by: mikebackup | September 14, 2012

Controlling our big mouth

James 3:1-12 – New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

We continue today with further reflection on the teaching we find in the Book of James. Many of the images in this passage were already familiar within Jewish tradition, for example in Proverbs 16.27 it says ‘Scoundrels concoct evil, and their speech is a scorching fire’. If you’d like to explore this further at home look at Psalm 15.2-3, Proverbs 10.19, Ecclesiasticus (or Sirach) 27.4-7. The reason for this is because the connection between blessing God and blessing ‘those made in the likeness of God’ is part of the Jewish ethical tradition. In 2 Enoch 44.1 it says ‘He who treats with contempt the face of any person treats the face of the Lord with contempt’.

James continues this appeal for consistency of speech and action using everyday imagery to express afresh Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 12.33-37 and Luke 6.43-45.

Matthew 12:33-37

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Luke 6:43-45

A Tree and Its Fruit
43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

We are left in no doubt the seriousness of what is being said here, but to be the people God needs us to be, it’s helpful to have pointers along the way. The first is to keep control of our tongues and be known as listeners. So often when people are talking to us there is the temptation to talk back before we have really listened. It’s not that we’re trying to be unloving; it just turns out that way. It is very easy to think that when someone is sharing something difficult that responding quickly with our own experience of difficult times helps. What actually happens is that the focus of the conversation is taken away from the person that needs to share; it looks like you’re trying to compete with them. This is brilliantly explored in the following sketch by Monty Python. Comedy is at its most funny when it makes a sharp comment on a deep truth.

Empathy is a much misunderstood word because most people think it means something along these lines:

“I’m really worried about this hospital appointment and I don’t like needles”

“It will be fine I went last week and had no trouble at all, in fact I used to be the same but I’ve had so many they don’t bother me anymore”

That’s not empathy. We need to listen to the person and then use our knowledge and experience to inform our reflection and response without making reference to ourselves. So in the example I’ve just given it would be far better to say:

“I can see it’s very difficult for you, you’re very anxious, have you got anyone going with you?

Very much related to this is being in touch with the realities of those that are less fortunate than us. It’s very easy to become detached from reality and say hurtful things without realising. This is horrifically illustrated with the following quotes[1]:

“It’s so bad being homeless in winter. They should go somewhere warm like the Caribbean where they can eat fresh fish all day.”  —model/socialite Lady Victoria Hervey

I always lived very frugally. I flew around on a private jet. I had a boat. But I always lived very frugally.”  —billionaire financier and alleged Ponzi scheme operator Allen Stanford

“What was hard [during this recession] was giving up my live-in maid five days a week. My daughter said, do we really need somebody? So I cut back, and I just hired somebody for two days. And you know, it kind of  brought our family together.  We cook together more as a family.  Normally when the housekeeper was there cooking for us, my husband would be off with the paper and I would be on the phone with my friends and the kids were doing homework. I do have the woman make one extra dinner for us though, and one or two nights we do order in, and a lot of times we will go out.”   —Real Housewives of New York City star Ramona Singer

:“I have not been to my house in Bermuda for two or three years – and the same goes for my house in Portofino … How long do I have to keep leading this life of sacrifice?” —Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi

“[I’m] insulted by the offer of 10 million per year. I’ve got my family to feed.” —basketball player Latrell Sprewell

“It’s the summer season coming up, so my patients must have [plastic surgery] tuneups.  But instead of doing liposuction on seven areas, they’re doing three or four.  These decisions are so painful.”  —plastic surgeon Pamela Lipkin explaining the difficulties of the economic downturn

We practice empathy by listening to the news and imagining what it must be really like to be those people we hear about and that helps to keep us grounded in the reality of the difficulties people face.

Listening and empathising properly is essential, especially when the technology in most peoples’ pockets threatens to unleash something potentially very damaging. Let me read an extract from a recent article:

‘Chances are, at some point today or tomorrow you’ll think of something terrible. It might happen when you’re standing on a subway platform waiting for a train and suddenly a little voice in your head is telling you to jump. It might pop up in the office midway through a meeting with your clients or colleagues unaware you’re imagining stabbing them in the eyes with a sharpie. You might be in the supermarket seized by the notion of putting something extremely unexpected in the bagging area. Or it might happen at home, during dinner, when the sudden urge to say something unspeakable to your partner puts you right off your spuds.

You’re not alone. Edgar Allan Poe named it ‘The Imp of the Perverse’ the thought that ‘chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror’ It’s perfectly normal, and it seems we’ve all got it. According to psychology professor Dan Wegner, ‘knowing the worst that could happen is essential for control.’ If we didn’t know what could go wrong, we wouldn’t know how to avoid it – so our subconscious minds come up with worst-case scenarios and our conscious minds ensure we don’t let them occur. Our conscious minds, then, are essential watchmen, keeping an eye on us to make sure that we don’t do anything too perilously silly.’[2]

The problem today is that in an emotional moment we can share something that a huge number of people then read on facebook or twitter and are shocked or hurt by. We are all increasingly public people and that brings dangers which are only counteracted with careful control of our tongue whether it is said our loud or written down.

For those thinking ‘I haven’t got any of this new technology so that doesn’t affect me’ you’re wrong. Friends, family, neighbours do and they may say something in this rash way and you get to hear about it. You may be outraged, shocked or deeply hurt and have to say something back. But here we are back full circle. We need to keep control of our tongue, listen, empathise and respond carefully.

As I heard in a film I saw last week, with our tongue we must make the choice between what is right and what is easy.


We pray for all who bear the responsibility of working with words:
for lawyers and journalists, novelists and poets:
give them wisdom,
for wisdom reaches mightily
from one end of the earth to the other,
and orders all things well.

We pray for all who are victims of words ill-used:
for those bullied by rumours, those belittled by ridicule,
those befuddled by complex instructions
or the words of unsympathetic officials:
give them wisdom,
for wisdom reaches mightily
from one end of the earth to the other,
and orders all things well.

Lord, make us sensitive to your wisdom as we exercise
whatever responsibilities are given to us, give us wisdom:
for wisdom reaches mightily
from one end of the earth to the other,
and orders all things well.

Sometimes, Lord, I think I know it all;
all lessons learned, complete self-control.
Then something happens, and I lose it;
my tongue runs away with me.
Words of anger and vitriol pour from my mouth;
my tongue lashes out like a viper.
Change me from within, O God,
so that good things trip from my tongue.

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