We do amazing evil with our words. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” our folk wisdom tells us, and to hear the way people tell it, you’d think they’re mostly opposed, that the pen mostly seeks to resist the sword; but in truth, the pen is at its mightiest when it’s egging the sword on. It’s easier to exhort people to evil than to good; it’s easier to tear them down than to build them up; it’s easier to wound than to heal; it’s easier just to let our tongues flap in the breeze of our thoughts than it is to control them (thoughts or tongues, take your pick). Indeed, James 3 argues at some length that no one has ever yet succeeded in controlling the tongue, and I think the apostle is right; we can control it to some degree, but it always escapes us in the end.
Which means we need grace; we need to be forgiven for the evil that we do. It’s beyond our power to be good enough on our own. It also means that we need to show grace to others, even (and perhaps especially) when they show us none. Just as we struggle to control our tongues, and sometimes fail, so too others are going to fail sometimes, for we all stumble in many ways; that’s just life in a tomato can, as my old organist would say. We have been given grace, because we desperately need it; in return, we must show grace to others, because they also desperately need it, whether they acknowledge that need or not.
If someone says something they shouldn’t, it may be my responsibility to correct them, but if so I’m called to do so with love and grace; if I do so harshly and gracelessly, am I not as much at fault as they? Or if I upset or offend someone else, and they speak harshly to me, what is my responsibility to them? Because they spoke without grace, is it okay if I respond in kind—or do I need to show them grace anyway? Clearly, I need to control my tongue whether they’ve controlled theirs or not.
It’s not my place to decide whether they deserve grace—none of us deserves grace. Grace doesn’t come from what we deserve, it comes from the love of God; and it’s only as far as the love of God fills us and motivates us that we’ll be able to control our tongues and show his grace to others. Which means that the bottom line here isn’t “try harder,” it’s “submit yourself to God, draw close to him, and let him do in you what you can’t do in yourself.” The only way to live in grace is to live by grace.
(Partly adapted from “A Greater Judgment”)