In the midst of all James’ calls to practical discipleship in action, he comes back repeatedly to the call to speak carefully. The longest passage is in 3:1-12. The image of the tongue as a small thing with big power strikes a chord. Whether for good or evil, words can have a great and lasting impact – often far beyond the range of those who hear them spoken at first.
On the grand scale, we can look back to Churchill’s ‘we will fight them on the beaches…’ speech, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ to see how the right words spoken at the right time can inspire a nation or a movement to work for something vast. Or we can look to the Nuremberg rallies for the opposite – how words that hook into popular resentment and prejudice can unite a people to accept evil that seems impossible to comprehend.
They matter, too, on the small scale. The image of a forest set ablaze by a small fire rings true to anyone who has been the victim of slander or gossip. Even if the person who first speaks tries to call back their words, they can quickly spread out of reach; all the more widely and quickly in the online world. Especially in a media culture where truth sometimes seems to be less important than interest, words matter and cannot be unsaid once they have been heard or read.
Even on a small scale, words matter. A word of genuine, sincere and apt encouragement or (harder to do!) of positive and specific challenge can live with someone for many years and help them to grow in life. A harsh or snide word can sap a moment or an achievement of much of its joy, and hurt for years. In close relationships, consistent words of encouragement or of criticism can have a huge effect; and those who speak aren’t always aware of how their words are being heard.
At the smallest scale of all, our words matter to our selves. They help to form our identity. Almost in passing, James says,
Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by Earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (5:12)
If people don’t believe you unless you make extravagant declarations, then perhaps you need to look at your reputation for integrity. Imagine (unless you already are!) being the kind of person of whom people know that ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is enough, without ‘I promise’ or ‘I swear’. It takes self-control not to commit to things you can’t deliver, and not to speak with more confidence than you can back up about what you know. It takes self-knowledge and self-discipline.
I’m working on it.