No, today’s post is not about the fiery passions you can stir up in the bedroom by putting your tongue to work on your spouse, though Lord knows that with some of my subject matter, that wouldn’t have been a bad guess. No, we’re going to talk about a little sentiment in the Book of James in the New Testament about the power—and danger—of our words. A lot of people might argue that “It’s just words” or “Words can’t hurt you” or some shit like that, but we know better in our hearts, even if we won’t admit it with our voices.
Of course there is the obvious example of shouting “Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater and the fear and injury—and perhaps even deaths by trampling—that words like that could cause. But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. One of the reasons we talk crap about other people and gossip and spread tales, for example, isn’t just to entertain ourselves. Of course that’s often part of it, but often the ultimate aim is to hurt the person, either by them eventually hearing from someone else what’s been said or by harming their reputation with other people. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong tone at the wrong time can start freakin’ wars, you know, whether wars between individuals or between nations. Saying hurtful things to someone you love can wound them emotionally—possibly in ways that you can never fix—and can wreck relationships.
Anyway, the best known part (I think) about what James wrote about our tongues was that “the tongue is a fire.” Here’s the more complete passage, though:
Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (James chapter 3, verses 3-12)
I’ve railed on about the Word of Faith movement a few times around here—yes, there is a point to this sudden shift in direction, trust me—and you can click here for my most prominent bit of ranting on that subject. The reason I bring this up is that the Word of Faith folks don’t have it all wrong; it’s just that they’ve twisted it up and corrupted God’s meaning as they play to their audiences and chase the tithes, offerings and book deals with their horrible and misleading message. What the Word of Faith folks will tell you is to “name it and claim it.” That is, through faith in Jesus and by the power of God, all you have to do is pray for something, say it’s yours and believe it, and it will come to pass. You broke? Well, you can be rich if you just pray that you’ll be so and have full and complete faith in that. You have cancer? You can be cured instantly if you just believe that the cancer has no power over you.
Mind you, I’m not saying that such miracles cannot occur because they can. But God doesn’t just answer every prayer exactly as a person wants it just because they demand it on faith. God isn’t an ATM in the sky giving us goodies on demand because we’re the faithful.
But what the Word of Faith people are tapping into has a core of truth. Our words hold power. It is possible through faith to bring things about simply by saying it should be so. I’m not talking magic here and I don’t mean that it always happens, but Jesus told us that with faith the size of a mustard seed, a person could tell a mountain to move out of the way. Problem is, none of us on this planet have enough faith to tap the power of God directly like that. We are wracked by too many doubts. Jesus walked on water; we don’t. But it is possible to put things into motion by speaking them.
Also, there is a “power of positive thinking” thing here too (or power of negative thinking). If we always say we are going to be losers, we will tend to be losers. If we get up, stay in our pajamas and don’t shower or go out because we feel shitty, we will probably continue to feel shitty, whereas a shower and some decent clothes might actually improve our attitude. On the other hand, if we say things like “I deserve to be happy” or “I can be a success” we cannot necessarily bring those things about immediately, but we put ourselves on the right path to do so.
Word have power for good or ill. We can seriously hurt people with our words. Or we can lift them up. We can help them see the wonder and power of knowing Christ with the right words. Or we can turn them away from Jesus by saying things that make us look like arrogant, self-righteous assholes. You get the message. At least, I hope you do. Written words have power too, and I’m hoping these ones are getting through.
Look at what James said above. The human tongue is an amazing thing, able to do good or evil with equal ease (though frankly, I think it’s easier to do evil with it; good stuff always takes more work and often isn’t as viscerally satisfying, which is why we humans have mucked up this planet something fierce). Most things in nature aren’t able to do two things that are so diametrically opposed to one another.
So when we say things, we have to be careful. Because when you get right down to it, a slip of the tongue can be as harmful as slipping a knife in between someone’s ribs.