Disruption, Discouragement, and Distractions: The Power of the Tongue

Scriptures: James 3:1-12; Ephesians 4:25-5:2

As we continue our series “On Being the Church,” let me remind you a little about what has gone before. We started with the understanding that the church is an organism, like a body with many parts ,and a family.

It is built on relationships as much as correct doctrine, and needs investment of time, energy, and care to flourish. Without that, the church ultimately dies.

We then spent a couple of weeks looking at edifying, or building up, the community of faith and temple of God, through encouragement and education.

Of course, all of these things rest on something we take as a given, but which needs to be addressed, and that thing is communication. Communication of ideas, feelings, needs, and desires are all critical to good relationships. Discernment and deciphering of other people’s communications is important for making wise choices in building one another up.

Communication is also involved in much of the history of conflicts in the world. Bad communications, missed communications, and mistakes in communication are all at the root of much pain and misery in human history, and that includes the church.

One of the biggest challenges the church faces in being the church is open truthful constructive and understandable communication.

Sometimes that can be very difficult, if the two talking have different backgrounds. I know I came from a family which uses very dry humor, and in which sarcasm is a legitimate form of humor.

This means that sometimes the offhand comment meant as humor can be taken the wrong way, if I’m not careful. Especially if I say it with a straight face, which is part of dry humor.

My grandfather was a master of that. He said so many things and you couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, and I’d have to turn to my dad and say [shows a puzzled face].

A large part of the problem is that all communication should or needs to be given with the receiver and the subject in mind. It isn’t just what you think that is important. It is also important to try to realize the impact your thoughts or actions will have on the person listening, or the person being talked about.

I am as guilty of this is anyone. It is part of why I always say that Peter is my favorite disciple. He knew the taste of shoe-leather well. James recognizes this challenge, in his infamous chapter here, about the tongue.

I’m going to read a couple of those verses from that passage again. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put bits into the horse’s mouth so they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 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.”

James goes on to speak of how every creature on earth can be tamed, but the tongue cannot be tamed. Everyone thinks of sexual sin, or sins of the appetite, as the toughest of all sins to control and which can do the most damage.

But the tongue can destroy an entire organization if not bridled. And if mistakes with it are not brought to attention and taken care of quickly, then the group is doomed.

I believe there are two kinds of errors or issues with the tongue. Both kinds of errors are shown multiple times throughout the Scriptures, and their effects.

The first is what I call the unintentional impact. Something said thoughtlessly or impulsively. Peter, as noted before, is a prime example of this. There were many times where his mouth seem to be running ahead of his brain, and he would say things that got him into trouble – usually with Jesus himself.

This is the kind of error that is frequently made in the church because of differences in age or culture or background. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I’m sure that you folks could bring to my attention any number of comments that showed a complete lack of understanding of agriculture or small towns or other such things that the folk in this area take for granted.

I do know one thing that took me a long time to understand was, when I was driving and I would be driving towards somebody, and I didn’t know them, and their hands would be on the steering wheel, and all of a sudden they give me the finger.

And I couldn’t figure out what it meant. Apparently that’s the way you all say hello when you’re driving a car [holds up index finger and waggles it].

You know, you give the finger to somebody else on the East Coast and you’re likely to get in trouble. It doesn’t matter which finger you give.

These are the kind of errors that should be corrected gently and in love, taking it as an opportunity to teach and share knowledge that will build the body up ultimately, as greater levels of understanding or achieved. But we’ll have more on that later.

The other kind of error is intentional. The words may not be spoken with intent to hurt – though it frequently is – but they are knowingly misleading or imprecise. Now before people get their backs all up, I’m not talking about people blatantly lying.

It can be much more subtle than that. Let me give a couple of examples. The first is a sin of the first degree called gossip. It may even be true information, but it is the kind of information that either should be shared without permission or shared at all.

Often it is vague or third-hand. It is usually incomplete. I’d like you to listen to this song, “Rumormill.” [Click here for the YouTube video.]

I’ve heard it said that a rumor is the only thing that fact travels faster than lint. It is endemic in small towns and churches, where everyone knows everyone else, and frequently what their business is. A rumor, or gossip, can often come from repeating a comment made by someone that was offhand or not meant to be taken seriously by the speaker, and when it is repeated, it is colored by the understandings of the hearer.

Has everyone here played the game Telephone? Wasn’t there a game show that they had on, that actually use that, where an adult would say something to a child, and the child would say something to an adult, and I don’t remember how many times they had to go through it, and then they would show what was at the beginning, and then they would show what was at the end, and it was always amusing on how it had morphed.

As things get passed from person to person to person, they get distorted misheard, misunderstood, and misquoted. It is our imperfect nature at play.

And in communications with others in real life, lets face it, we are all too often thinking about what we are going to say, and only listening to the other person with half our attention. That leads to not catching something in its full context, and when we repeat it without that context, then new negative impressions can be made and feelings hurt.

The other kind of intentional error is usually done for manipulation. Something is left vague or unspoken. How many of you have ever heard of the “whopper” and I don’t mean candy or a burger?

It’s an art form in the hills of West Virginia where my dad grew up. Everything that you say is absolutely true, but because of what you leave out, or the order of things, it leaves a false impression with the hearer. Is it a lie? Well, not in the strictest dictionary sense of the word, but it is certainly intended to deceive.

I have shared before, with many of you, the biggest whopper I ever told, and how when I read dedicated myself, I made the intentional decision not to do it anymore.

It was a time when I had gone down to South America. We lived in one hundred year old house up in Tennessee, in college. My housemate and I went down to Colombia – he was from there – and we came back. And the door that we went through, which was not the front door – like so many of us, we go in through the back door or a side door – had been sticking, and we had been asking the landlady to fix it for over a year.

And I was full of jet lag. And we got home from the airport. And we had to drive from Atlanta, so we had a three and a half hour drive, and we were tired. And I turned the key in the lock, and then I just went like this [pantomimes pushing] and pushed against it, and it didn’t go. Well, I pushed even harder, and hit it pretty solid, and all of a sudden there was this splintering sound, and the door was opened.

Realizing that this was a problem, we called our landlady. And this is what I told her. I said, “Judy, we just got back from South America. We’re calling you to let you know a couple of things. First of all, of course you can turn the water and the electric back on.” (We were gone for like five weeks.)

I said, “But secondly, the door is broken open.” And she said, “Oh no.” And I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Is everything there at the house? Did anything get stolen?” And I said, “Well, we really haven’t had time to check yet, but I’m pretty sure that everything is here.” And she said, “Well, I’ll make sure it gets fixed tomorrow.”

Now, again, did I lie? Not exactly. But I certainly didn’t tell her that I broke open the door. She probably would make me pay to fix it. Even though we had asked for it to be fixed many times before.

I’m sure that you can think of your own examples as well. As James said, both of these errors can lead to a wildfire overtaking a family or a church.

The original words are often rooted in conflict, where emotion colors one’s perception of what is said. When repeated and spread, it ignites new people and causes sides to be taken. There will be more on that next week when we briefly look at conflict in the church, and how it is usually handled, and how we should handle it.

So how should we avoid this problem? By never saying anything? I’m sure that there are some of you strong silent type that would go [does a “thumbs up” gesture] to that.

I think that would be kind of difficult, since I don’t think any of us are telepathic, though that would be really cool. Or on second thought, maybe not so much. Knowing what people are actually thinking could be both very depressing and very dangerous.

Whatever the case, we cannot say nothing. Communication is essential to all relationships, and the church is founded on relationships, first and foremost with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then with each other, as through the Spirit we try to live out the same kind of love that He showed us.

I think the answer on how to avoid this problem is shown to us, in part, in the passage from Ephesians. Paul, so often seen as at odds with James, is on the same page with James when it comes to speaking. He gives several interesting instructions. He says to be truthful because we’re one body. To lie is to hurt the body, even if you think it’s for a good cause.

He says to be angry but do not sin. In this he repeats words similar to God, when God spoke to Cain. Anger is natural, and anger can be a good thing much like pain. But our words spoken in anger are often the most hurtful of all. Because that is usually our intent then, to make the other person hurt emotionally, like we do at the moment.

So my first suggestion is to try your best not to speak when angry. Bridling your tongue is incredibly important in these moments. By the way, this does not mean burying your feelings or not speaking of a problem at all. That just leads to poisoned relationships and bitterness inside that can explode at the worst time possible.

When someone hurts us with their tongue or by what they do, we need to take a step back. We need to forgive, which we will get into another sermon down the road. And then when we speak of the issue, we need to choose our words carefully.

When we hear someone else speaking, and we know someone has been hurt, and we want to defend them, the same thing applies. In our passion to defend those that we love, we may say things that are hurtful in their own right. And we need to choose our words carefully.

Paul continues the advice in this passage by telling us how to choose the words we say. He wasn’t just going to leave us hanging with the general thing about don’t say things wrong.

He says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

There’s that word again. Edification. So we are to speak that which is constructive or will build the person up. It may be criticism, but it must be spoken with intent and in a manner to ultimately bring positive results with the body.

Note, that doesn’t mean them doing what you want. It means that thinking of the whole, you give aid to someone who is currently hurting other people by their words and actions and their witness.

Our words are to be wholesome. Now this doesn’t mean using words like “Golly gee whiz” from Leave It to Beaver. You guys understand what I’m talking about, right? My wife read that in my notes and she said she didn’t understand it, didn’t have a clue. I guess I was born in the wrong generation.

It means that the words are not a curse, intended to hurt or inspired by anger, jealousy, or other negative emotions. Your words shouldn’t slander the person or be spoken in malice. And complaining often falls into this category. If there’s a problem in the relationship, then there is a pattern in Matthew 18:15-20 for dealing with it.

When we complain to others within the church, and especially outside the church, about someone in specific, we begin that game of Telephone that will ultimately lead others to have a negative image, not just of the person talked about but also the entire church, and even the entire Body of Christ.

Who wants to come to a church where they know that one member is talking dirt about another member? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t find that particularly attractive, because I might be next. We hurt the universal witness to Christ and His love, when we speak in an unwholesome and/or complaining manner. So we need to think about what we say and consider our words carefully.

In summary then, we want to control as much as possible our tongues at all times. We do this for the good of our personal relationships, the good of the church as a whole, and the good of our witness to Christ.

We need to minimize the disruptions, discouragements, and distractions to the church that might come through miscommunication. We want to think about what we say, and always try to choose to build up one another.

When we inevitably get angry or hurt, we need to not sin by speaking out of that anger or hurt in a manner that is meant to hurt back.

Now we won’t be perfect, for after all, we are human. But we will be the kind of positive, encouraging, welcoming place everyone always wants this to be. And that culture of love and kindness will do more to draw others back, once they have been brought the first time by you, then anything else we might do.

God will get the glory, and we can praise Him with all our worship and service, giving thanks to God for the great things He has done and is doing even today.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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