Today, in a world ablaze, I say to myself, to other Christians, and to all people of good will: “Please, please do not say everything you think.” Our minds and memories are full of evil, selfish, petty, and blasphemous thoughts. Who is without sin? Who will deny it? When I was young I thought Jesus’ teaching against swearing applied only to certain words or perhaps to the act of placing yourself under a curse. Don’t use God’s name except in reverence, don’t say “Jesus Christ!” or “Damn!” But I did not notice verse 37, which I have emphasized below:
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).
Verse 37 condemns and warns against speaking a single word designed to wound or express anything other than respect, love, and truth or do anything other than good. We think many hateful, prejudiced, selfish thoughts. Don’t say them! Once you do, they will escape your control and take on a life of their own; and they will eventually turn on you.
When I was a teen I loved the Book of James. Perhaps it was because I felt such a need for wisdom. Life is so complicated and living in human society presents so many difficulties. James’ extensive instructions about the use of speech grabbed my attention. I have since that time tried (and often failed!) to put into practice James 1:19-20:
19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19-20).
James nails it. Anger makes its first external appearance in speech! James urges us to listen, get the whole story, allow reason, wisdom, and common sense experience teach us what to say, if anything at all. Don’t speak when angry. Better yet, learn where anger comes from and deal with the root problem. As I said in a previous post, anger is a reaction to insult. But Jesus told us to bless those who curse us. How can we do this? It can be done only if we refuse to be insulted, because we are clear that our dignity depends on God’s love and not the momentary thoughts of other human beings.
I heard many sermons on James 3:1-12, which is one of the most extensive discussions of the dangers of speech in the New Testament. And those preachers were right to preach often on this text. The power of words is deceptive. They are so easy to utter! But they can unleash hell, war, and murder:
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).
Oh, how we love to express our opinions, prejudices, and fancies…especially on religion and politics! We love the sound of our own voices! For the moment we feel as wise as our words boast. The tongue is so close to the brain and takes so little energy to operate. It works almost automatically. James warns us that teaching is a serious act. Teachers will be judged with stricter judgment. We don’t get off the hook by claiming that we are not “official” teachers. In any act of teaching in any context from a casual conversation to a blog post to a Facebook comment we should take seriously our responsibility to tell the truth and do something good. The tongue is so difficult to control that James uses self-control in speech as the gold standard measurement of maturity. Learn to discipline your speech and you will have learned to control every other impulse and passion.
A fire! A fire sparked by hell’s flames! That is what James calls uncontrolled speech. Thought is an internal act while speech is an external act. Speech is the gateway through which the demons within escape into the world to spread their poison. Oh, how sweet it is to let the poison out! Keep the gate shut! Let reason and wisdom, the twin guards, do their work.
In a culture where we can speak to the whole world through the media at our finger tips, allow me to say it again: “Please, please don’t say everything you think!” Don’t say it yourself, and don’t “like” or “share” any words you would not say yourself. Liking or sharing or forwarding anything that violates Jesus’ and James’ teaching is just the same as saying it yourself. We are not less guilt of a crime because we get someone else to do it for us. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”. Bless and do not curse!