When you were young, and someone insulted you or made fun of you, did your parents tell you to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? You’ve all heard that? You know, most pieces of folk wisdom, I can see where they came from, but I have no idea why that one showed up; whoever came up with that one must have been someone who never heard a negative word in their life—or who was too thick-skinned and thick-skulled to notice. Honestly, that’s the dumbest famous saying that ever got famous; to borrow a line from Mark Twain, it’s “the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved.” Granted the harm that sticks and stones can do, it’s generally a lot easier to heal the body than it is to heal the spirit, if only because we can see what we’re working with; and often, it’s a lot easier to wound the spirit than it is to wound the body. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but only words can break me—and they can, make no mistake about it.
This is a truth I know well from my own family. Several years ago now I flew home from Colorado for my Nana’s funeral, my maternal grandmother. She was a great woman, someone who accomplished a great deal through a long and fruitful career in ministry, and I loved her very much. She was also self-righteous, extremely strong-willed, and a naturally dominant person who expected to run the show, and thought she deserved to; and she had a barbed tongue, which she wielded quite carelessly. She would say things and move on without a second thought, leaving them embedded in the souls of others to rankle and fester. Nana is gone, but the barbs she left in her children and grandchildren, and no doubt others as well, still remain. She never got me—nothing she ever said to me stuck in that way—but I’m unusual in that respect. Just to give you one example, she would say, “The first child is expected, the second is understandable, the third, you should have your head examined.” My mother was her third child; you can imagine how that made her feel.
Now, Nana was a blunt sort, and practical to a fault—and being practical can be a fault, if you carry it too far, which a lot of people do; they’re the sort of people who tell you, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and think they’re being helpful. There’s a wiser sort of practicality, though, that recognizes and understands the damage words can do; this is what we see in James. If there’s anyone who never fails in their speech, he says, that one is a perfect person, because if you can control your tongue, you can control your whole body—but no one can do it. No one can tame the tongue, no one can keep it bridled and checked. We can steer great ships, taming wind and wave to our purposes. We can tame wild animals; maybe not every species, but go see Ringling Brothers the next time they come around. Watch kids riding elephants, watch the guy dominate a cageful of tigers—he makes them bunny-hop on their hind legs, for crying out loud!—and you’ll realize that James isn’t that far off. We can train bears to ride unicycles, we can train predators to sit at our feet and eat table scraps, we can turn swift, powerful animals into beasts of burden—and yet we cannot tame our tongues. Whatever else we might be able to control, we can’t control that—which is to say, really, we can’t control ourselves, and our baser impulses.
Now, some of you out there may be saying to yourselves, “That’s not true—I can”; and certainly some people are better at this than others. But before you sprain your shoulder patting yourself on the back, take another look at yourself: can you really say that? Can you really tell me that you’ve never said anything hurtful to another person? Intentional or unintentional, it doesn’t matter. Can you really say that you’ve never told a lie? Indeed, the people who are best at controlling their speech are often the best liars, because they’re the best at being convincing. Can you really say that you’ve never complained about someone behind their back, or shared a bit of gossip, or undermined someone you didn’t like? Can you really say that you have never used your words to bring someone else down, or to advance your own goals at someone else’s expense? Because if you’ve ever done any of these things, then it is true of you, too, that your tongue has helped to set the world around you aflame with the fire of Hell.
Now, obviously, James has a very pessimistic view of this whole matter—the tongue is a restless evil, a poisoned arrow, a small fire that can set the whole forest ablaze; but though we might find his picture bleak, it’s hard to argue with. Yes, we also say many good things, and yes, we do much good with our words; but as James says, with our tongues we bless God, and with the same tongues we curse those he made in his likeness, and that should not be. For all the good we may do, we can undo many good words with one ill one. Winston Churchill famously said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has finished putting on its pants; or to go back to Twain again, “the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal.” We might also say that for many people, self-confidence is a fragile flower, but self-doubt is a weed; sow a few seeds of the latter in the garden of their soul, and they may take years to recover. It is far easier for us to speak evil powerfully than it is to speak good powerfully, just as it’s easier to roll a boulder down a mountainside than up it; this is why Shakespeare could write in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
This is also why James begins this section by saying, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers”; his reason is blunt and to the point: “we who teach will be judged more strictly.” For those of us called to teach the church—really, for any of us called to a position of leadership, because we all lead by our words as well as our actions, and there is always a teaching component to what God calls us to do—the power of our words is amplified, both for good and for evil; as leaders in the church, everything we say takes on extra weight and force, and often not in the ways that we intend. And since there is great peril in the tongue—and since all of us make many mistakes—this is a perilous place to be, and puts us in line to receive a more severe judgment, indeed.
You can see the truth of this in the ways leaders are judged by the church; our mistakes reverberate in countless ways (some harmless, some not so much), and the judgments come apace. Take me, for example; if I misstate myself from the pulpit, or if I phrase something carelessly, I’ll usually have someone come up to me afterward and ask about it—because it matters, every word matters. Those are usually fairly minor points, easily clarified; but still, they need to be clarified. Similarly, things that other elders say carry extra weight, and can have an effect beyond what is intended; one ill-considered or thoughtless word, one small lie, one place where anger escapes us when it shouldn’t, can have devastating effects. And beyond that, there are times when it seems like people are looking for reasons to judge their leaders; sometimes, in fact, people are. In those cases, every time we open our mouths, it gives them an opportunity.
As real an issue as this is, however, it isn’t James’ main concern. He isn’t primarily focused on how people will judge those who step up to teach, but rather on how God will judge us, on the fact that God necessarily holds us to a higher standard. We saw the reason for this in 1 Timothy as we considered the damage the false teachers did to the church in Ephesus. When those whom the church has entrusted as leaders and committed to follow say things which are not from God, the church is weakened and turned aside from the purposes God has for us. When we preach or teach that which is not true, when we communicate a vision for the church which is not in line with God’s will, when we insist on getting our own way, when we shout down those who disagree with us, then the church is harmed—and God will hold us accountable for that harm.
There is much less room for error on the part of preachers and teachers and other leaders in the church than there is on the part of others in the congregation, because when we fail to control our tongues, when we fail to say only that which is true and honorable and just and pure, our failure has much greater consequences; it doesn’t only harm us, it harms the whole body. This is one of the things we need to understand before stepping up to take on the responsibility of church leadership; as leaders, because of this, we will be held to a higher standard, and judged accordingly.
Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m talking about this. Partly, of course, it’s because James talks about it; but more than that, do I think our congregation has a leadership problem? Do I think we’re particularly bad at controlling our tongues? No, I don’t. Actually, for a congregation our size, I think we’re remarkably blessed in the quality of the leaders we have. We have a very small group, and I worry about overworking them, but they’re an excellent group of people—and just as importantly, they work well together, and in a godly spirit.
No, I say this for two reasons. The first might seem counterintuitive: I say this because we’re coming to the end of the year, and it’s time for the nominating committee to start looking for people to serve as elders and deacons. Is this my idea of a recruiting pitch then: “become a leader in the church so you can be judged more strictly”? No—although I would note, if the standard of God’s judgment is higher, so too are the blessings, because just as leaders have the ability to do greater harm, so to we have the ability to do greater good. If God has given you a vision for what this congregation can be, then this is a role you need to step up and step into, because it means he’s calling you to lead; and if he is, then yes, you’ll make mistakes along the way—all of us do—but God will use even your mistakes to accomplish his purposes. It’s a noble task, and an honorable calling, and I trust that there are folks sitting out there right now whom God is prodding to step into leadership. I just want to make sure that you take that step with your eyes open, understanding that God takes those responsibilities very seriously.
Second, I want to say a closing word about grace. To each of us, James tells us how impossible it is for us to control our tongues—and so it is; it’s only by the power of the Spirit of God at work in us that our tongues begin to come under control. To those of us called to lead, he says, this is an especially grave danger, because leadership gives our careless tongues even more opportunity to do harm. Implicitly, too, though, he reminds all of us that this is just as true for others as for ourselves—that 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; and just as we need the grace of God when we do fail, so too do others need his grace—which means they need us to show them grace.
If you say something you shouldn’t, it may be my responsibility to correct you, but it’s my responsibility to do so with love and grace; if I do so harshly and gracelessly, am I not as much at fault as you? Yes, I am. Or if something I do upsets you, and you speak harshly to me, what is my responsibility to you? Because you spoke without grace, is it okay if I respond in kind—or do I need to show you grace anyway? Yes, I need to show you grace anyway; I need to control my tongue whether you’ve controlled yours or not. It’s not my place to decide whether you 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.