“If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.” — James 1:26, CEB
Wow, James, way to be kinda harsh… Eh, that’s how he is. He has a point, though. How many of us have been or have known supposedly Bible-believing, faithful people who spewed the most venomous cruelty once the coast was clear? I have to say, in my time with certain holiness traditions of Christianity (Methodism and Assemblies of God), the most unholy moments were when it was perceived to be a safe space, wherein those who constantly extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion became the harshest judges in the room. This includes me, who had a lot to vent after a long day of ministering to and with other human beings.
It is this kind of behavior that put me off from the church while at university, and it honestly still bothers me. Now, like I said, I am guilty of this behavior as well. In some way, I think we all are. Watching our words is probably the hardest task to ask of a culture that so prizes instant, inflammatory, uncensored speech. I’m not just talking about swearing, but also gossip, our private hate speech, and the flat-out insensitive vitriol that we tend to release most when surrounded by those we trust, never mind the terrible witness this is to our character and beliefs.
Those of us who claim to believe in a higher power and way of living ought to know and do better, especially if we are claiming to follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus is very clear that our whether or not we practice our religion in the most secretive parts of our lives determines whether or not we are true followers (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18). When it comes to how we speak about each other, Jesus is even more clear in the previous chapter.
So how do we start to develop habits of watching how we represent ourselves (and our God) through words? James, luckily, never stops at criticism. He always includes some manner of advice on the topic, so let’s take a look!
James addresses temptation, anger, and speech all in chapter 1, and as we will see, all of these are related in our current problem. In verse 13, James informs us that “No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me!’… Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them.” Normally, this passage evokes images of adultery, greed, theft, or murder. It also, however, works very well for explaining our poor speaking habits. No outside force (including God) is to blame for the decisions we make to be cruel. Think about it. If we are angry enough to spew our careless words, it’s not because God or others made us do it; it’s because something that affects us and how we feel has entered the equation, and the feelings that we experience are then used as license to say and express whatever we want, however we want. It is an act of pure selfishness that we think we can mask with our righteous indignation or justifiable feelings.
While we can’t control the feelings that are provoked in us in any given situation, we are responsible for what we do with them. They can either yield something righteous, something helpful, or something utterly damaging and unhelpful. When we opt to justify ourselves in using hateful speech, we potentially render meaningless any of the outward devotion to the cause of righteousness that we might otherwise have to our credit (verse 26). This may sound harsh or unforgiving, but again, think about the people you know that were supposedly faithful and righteous and loving, yet that changed the moment doors closed and the crowds departed. It’s not an unfair judgment, it is just a truth.
Now, this article is not meant to inspire guilt or shame. It is, however, designed to make us all think about how we speak and act in the moments that no one of note is watching. Shame is useless when it comes to repentance, and guilt is only useful if we refuse to remain guilty, meaning we decide to start doing some things differently. The goal of this Scripture and of the Gospel in general is not to impart judgment, but to impart grace through the understanding that we are good, that others are good, and we are free to actually act like it. Even when others don’t seem so good, we are to show grace because of the grace we would like to be shown when we don’t seem so good (Golden Rule, anyone?)
A great, often cited Scripture to help us with this is found in verses 19 and 20. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” Indeed, we can’t always control how slowly we experience anger. Anger can be a healthy emotion. What we can do is develop the habits of listening, acknowledging our feelings, and processing our feelings all before we decide to speak and act, because it is when we let our anger dictate our speech that we end up saying, typing, or screaming some really messed up things that throw our relationship with God and others all out of whack.
This is a lifelong endeavor. It takes work and grace for others and for ourselves. It takes the willingness to apologize and mend relationships. It takes dedication to the constant practice of these habits, and faith in the hope that this practice will lead to a better world for us and for others.
Like I said, I have a big problem with this in my own life. I actually dislike these Scriptures because they are instantly convicting. However, I also see the grace in them that tells me that I am made and meant for more. Indeed, we all are. We don’t make these mistakes because we are bad. We make them because we are human, and we all have ways in which we can grow healthier and healthier in our love of God and others. So as we go out into the rest of our day, and the rest of our lives, let’s go forward resolved to make kindness and compassion our lifestyle, not just in the light of day, but also in the darkness of night when we think or know no one is watching. In doing so, we witness to the transforming power of love and grace, and we add just a little more light to our world.
Peace be with you!