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4 Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. the tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell. 7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
James saw the bad effect of certain types of speech as directly opposite to the saving effect of the Spirit-inspired speech on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2). “There are two kinds of fire: one is the fire that is from above, namely the Holy Spirit that purifies and illuminates (Acts 2:2, 3); the other fire comes from below, namely from the devil, and it sets human passions on fire.” * “Hell” was literally “Gehenna,” Jerusalem’s ever-burning garbage dump.
Lord Jesus, sometimes those who disagree with me bug me so much that I wonder “where they came from.” Remind me that they, like me, ultimately came from your creative heart, and help me to see them (and treat them) as you do. Amen.
Growing up in my home, word usage was something we had to take very seriously. We had what my little brothers called “X-words.” These were the words that were punishable offenses–words such as “stupid” or “shut-up.” It didn’t stop there; it was to the point that when my brothers lost during a video game, they had to say they “fainted” instead of died because no one should talk about dying so casually in our home. We also couldn’t call anyone a fool because in Psalms 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” We needn’t speak that over anyone by calling them a “fool” in our house! It was common to hear one of us say, “Ooooh, you said an x-word,” if someone mistakenly let one slip. We resorted to making up words to use instead which ended up making us laugh versus staying angry. Words mattered in our home. Now as adults we can look back and giggle about the innocence we had as kids.
I don’t have any biological children of my own, but I’ve worked with students in ministry for half of my life and one thing I taught my students over the years is, “We don’t say bad words, we only say, ‘bad words’.” So if a particular student (or adult volunteer) were having a rough day on a service trip, not a single swear word or curse was to be uttered. But you did often hear someone muttering, “bad words, bad words!” if the swing of a hammer caught the edge of their thumb!
What I realize in hindsight is that when my parents were cultivating a home free of cursing and speaking ill of each other, they also created a culture that was full of laughter—after all, it was super difficult to stay angry when you had to be creative about what you said and how you said it. There were lots of made-up words where the intent of calling someone out on their bad behavior was there, but it removed the insult and replaced it with a word that kinda made you giggle. Having to say, “bad words” instead of an actual bad word does much of the same. It can make the person next to you giggle, which then might make you giggle—and then after a minute you might realize the situation isn’t quite as bad as it seems.
Situations between adults are often much more serious than the average squabble between siblings but taking a beat to think through what to say, how to say it, and why it needs to be said, is still an extremely important part of communication.
At an early age, I learned that words have power. I learned that it takes far more intelligence and creativity to speak your mind without tearing someone down than it does to express your displeasure with a string of expletives. I also learned that, where appropriate, a moment to chuckle at word choice can help everyone in the situation move forward on a more positive note.
So, whether you have to make up a word or phrase to keep your mouth clean, make the extra effort to control your tongue. Assess the situation and see if trying to bring laughter might give the conversation space to breathe before tackling the tough stuff.
James 3:10 says, “Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
Let’s bring the blessing of laughter when we can, my friends!
* I-Jin Loh and Howard A. Hatton, comment on James 3:6 in A Handbook on the Letter from James. New York: United Bible Societies, p. 112.
** Wright, N. T., Early Christian Letters for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 21). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
*** Wright, N. T., Early Christian Letters for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 21-22). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.