• March 2005

    • My Dear Friends,

      One of the principal marks of a Christian, is a controlled tongue. What we speak and how we speak reveals the sanctified or unsanctified nature of our hearts - “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

      It is quite remarkable to notice how often the New Testament highlights the significance of the tongue. Nowhere is this more prominent than in the Letter of James. The Apostle reminds us that “a great forest is set on fire by a small spark”, and that the “tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (and ) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:5-6:8). These are deeply sobering words. It hardly needs me to tell you how many relational and congregational animosities and catastrophes have been caused by thoughtless, heartless, self-willed, ill-judged words.

      What James is particularly concerned to impress on us is the utter incongruity of praising God and cursing men (who have been made in God’s likeness) with the same tongue. “My brothers, this should not be.” Indeed, James goes further: “Can fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” The answer is an emphatic “No!” To gossip about a fellow Christian, to malign his/her character, to seek to belittle them in public, to bring attention to their sins (“love covers a multitude of sins”), is to behave like a pagan, not a Christian.

      It is deeply challenging to read in Proverbs (where else?) that one of the distinguishing marks of the righteous is the way they use their tongues: “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life...The lips of the righteous nourish many... The lips of the righteous know what is fitting.” This last characteristic of the righteous tongue is especially important for believers to take to heart. It tells us that our speech as children of God should be “measured.” It is only too easy to stray into verbal excess, to go over the top, to exaggerate. Christian speech is measured speech. It is thoughtful, not hasty. Once the word is out, like toothpaste out of the tuble, it is impossible to recall. But there is something more: Christian speech is “appropriate speech.” Many things are best not said. Circumstances, people’s personal or family situations, may well shout out to us (if we had ears to hear!) to hold our tongue. Some people embarrass easily and we need always to be asking ourselves, “Is this necessary? Will it be kind? Will it be helpful?” Silence can be golden. However, when we must speak, it is absolutely imperative that we learn the grace of appropriate speech.

      “Appropriate speech” is, at heart, speech that seeks to build up, not tear down. It is in the context of warning us against the potential destructive capacities of the tongue, that James expounds to us “the wisdom that comes from heaven.” That wisdom, in contrast with the wisdom of the flesh, is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” These are the spiritual graces that are to style and shape the content that flows from our lips. This is not an apologia for insipid or anodyne speech. Christians are called to reprove and rebuke one another. But it is an imbedded fact of nature, as well as a gospel grace, that reproofs and rebukes are best received when they have been preceded by warm, generous encouragements - “faithful are the wounds of a friend!”

      “The lips of the righteous know what is fitting.” On the contrary, “a chattering fool comes to ruin.” Quantity is never a substitute for quality. Measured, thoughtful, appropriate speech is a sweet grace. Perhaps a few who read this might be thinking: Paul’s speech in Galatians 1:6-10 was not very measured! True - but it was appropriate! Here were men who were denying the sole saving sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ, who were denying that we are justified by grace alone, in and through Christ alone. To all such the Church has always said, “Anathema.” That also is what the Bible calls “fitting” speech.

      Yours as ever in Christ

      Ian Hamilton