Some of scripture is, frankly, difficult to understand. We have to wrestle with writers who composed in a vastly different time of the world and in different cultures. Clearly, in many cases, they are addressing issues that we do not know about and therefore we do not have much context for the words. We want to take the scripture seriously, but we have some impediments to doing so.

That is not true for all portions of scripture, however. Some of the stories and illustrations are timeless and we have no doubt about what is being said. As happens in many cases, we understand exactly what we are supposed to do; we just do not want to do it.

One such section of scripture occurs in the third chapter of the book of James. This chapter is largely devoted to comments on the power and influence of our speech. “The tongue is a fire” is an image that does not require much imagination from us. James explains how our speech can bless God or curse humans; the same mouth is used for both.

Most of us recognize easily this potentially negative power of our speech. We have been on the sending and receiving end of it; but this is not the most frequent illustration of negative speech. I suggest that more commonly we find ourselves in unhelpful speech rather than blatantly harsh and demeaning speech. That is, what we say may not be obviously derogatory or hurtful to others, but clearly does not have the effect of building up, encouraging, or comforting others. Furthermore, our speech is not necessarily only to others; you and I do a fair amount of talking to ourselves—self-talk. 

A speaker I recently heard illustrated this unhelpful self-talk with the word “busy.”  This seems like a simple little word, but I suspect that each of us uses it unnecessarily many times each day. What are we trying to say with “I’m so busy?” There is a bit of pride in saying that. The statement indicates that I do not have the time or energy to add yet another activity or concern to my life. Missing from the statement is that I have made conscious decisions to accept my current activities and concerns and, therefore, I cannot accept any more from you. This may make perfect sense to us because we think this way so much, but I wonder if this is the way God wants us to live. This speaker suggested that she was attempting to ban the word “busy” from her vocabulary; I am with her on that.

There is another set of two words that should be in that category. “At least.” To say “at least” minimizes some concern of another person. “I’m sorry you had a miscarriage, but, at least, you have some other children.” “I’m sorry that you fell, but, at least, you didn’t break any bones.” “I’m sorry, student, that you got a B on that test, but, at least, you didn’t get a C or a D.” Our language is full of thoughts and comments such as these. We may be trying to be comforting, but this is an unhelpful and often painful way to express it. We can, and should, be more careful with our words.

James’ letter and description of the power of language is one of the clearest teachings of basic Christianity. How we treat others with our words reveals much about our level of love for others.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain. 

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