“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger…If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:19, 26)
Prepare yourselves for another medical illustration. Like other patients, I have known for years that I need knee replacement surgery; my doctor showed me old and recent x-rays of my knees. He explained the benefits of the operation and the changes I will experience, as well as what recovery will entail. I imagine that for most patients that will do, but not for me. Last night I watched a YouTube video on the surgery with the orthopedist explaining the procedure as he cut, sawed, and drilled. (Sorry for the spoiler, that’s as graphic as I’ll get.) It is an entirely different matter to see the work being done on someone’s knee. I definitely know how to pray now, and don’t recommend this for the squeamish.
We have been considering the importance and influence of our words for weeks. Now it is time to get to some specific, gruesome problems of the tongue. Of all the books of the Bible, James is the most direct about our issues with it. “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). Our diseased hearts and sin natures are the sources of our tongue-troubles. It is crucial for us to know the condition and desires of our hearts because whatever is in them will saunter (or run) out our mouths. We frequently think we have something more important and better to say than others. We don’t put a guard on our mouths, as if they’re just fine, but we know they’re not. Trying to control our speech by mere human effort and determination legalistically may help us temporarily, but without a change in our hearts’ inclinations or desires, our speech will eventually either revert back to old patterns or be hypocritical and shallow. In spite of knowing all this the voice we like the best is our own.
In the first chapter of James the apostle offers us a way to approach the use of our tongue if we want to be honest with ourselves. He writes, “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger”—listen quickly and talk slowly. Easier said than done, isn’t it? Have you ever practiced doing this? A good place to do so is in meetings and classrooms, where there are plenty of other people talking to give one a chance to think wisely before saying anything, choosing to listen to others instead. After practicing in these venues, it is easier to practice this advice in one-to-one conversations on the phone, rather than in person, which is probably the hardest time to guard our mouths. Social media is another good place to practice, we will rarely get in trouble by staying quiet, by not writing or reacting to something.
If you have a dog that likes to run away, and can’t find its way back home, would you leave the gate open all the time? And if you did leave the gate open, would you justify this to yourself, as if it makes sense, considering yourself an expert in pet management? Of course not! Yet, this is what we do with our tongues, giving them free reign, deceiving ourselves, and acting as if we are genuinely spiritual (humble, compassionate, merciful, and righteous). Shame on us.