Danger! Danger! Tongue Ahead

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 11, 2018, based on James 3:1-12.

With evocative and memorable imagery, James 3 highlights the power of our words, both positively and negatively. Our words can create or destroy. They can build up or tear down. They can help or harm. The things we say, and how we say them, matter. This is especially true for anyone in a position of influence—including, but not limited to, the “teachers” James mentions.

For me, the most remarkable statement in this passage comes toward the end of it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). This statement is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it affirms the truth that all humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Sin has not altered this fact, nor is this a special status only for Christians who are intentionally being conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). All humans, including those we consider “the least” or “our enemies,” have been made in God’s image.

Second, this statement affirms the truth that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with others. How we treat other people is the real litmus test of the authenticity and depth of our relationship with God. This is emphasized in various ways throughout the New Testament, most bluntly in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” This truth goes back to Jesus, who linked “love of God” with “love of neighbors,” love of “strangers,” and even “love of enemies” (Matt 22:36-40; 25:34-40; 5:43-48).

Third, this statement affirms that this second truth extends not just to our actions but also to our speech, both how we talk to other people and how we talk about them. Gossiping about others, spreading unfounded rumors. Slandering others, sowing known lies. Harassing others, throwing cruel, demeaning words their way. Bullying others, verbally intimidating them. Anathematizing others, cursing them beyond the pale. How many times do we passive aggressively smile to people’s face but then cut them down behind their back?

James’ teaching here has particular relevance in our digital age, in the realm of social media. Safe behind our computers or smart phones, we say things to and about people that we would never say to their face, or never say off line at all. Yet behind that icon on the screen is an actual eikōn of God, a human person created in God’s very “image.” If we wouldn’t speak of God in that tone, with those words of “cursing,” how can we speak of another person in that way?

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Our Thoughts and Words Matter

us2016Nobody said U.S. politics were dull.

Like most of the world, I watched the recent U.S. presidential race alternating between fascination, amusement, and horror. Sometimes all three at the same time.

It’s the kind of election that will be analyzed from every angle for years to come. I’ve been sorting through my own thinking on “what this all means,” and one of the things that I keep coming back to is this: our thoughts and words matter.

Even more pointedly: As Christians, called to love both neighbour and enemy, it’s not enough that we act in loving ways. We must also think and speak in loving ways.

I’ve often reflected that, if I were set upon by bandits and left for dead by the side of the road, there’s no one I’d rather have find my nearly lifeless body than an Evangelical Christian. Say what you will about Evangelicals, but pretty much every red-blooded Evangelical I know of would stop and help someone in such desperate need, even at great cost to themselves. Evangelicals make great Good Samaritans.

However, I have heard some of those same people speak demeaning, even downright cruel words about others. I have seen some of those good Evangelical Christians manipulate and deceive and aggressively coerce in order to achieve what they believe to be good ends. I have witnessed their haughty looks, their patronizing gazes, their holier-than-thou disdain, their puffed-up egos run amok.

I have been on the receiving end of this. I know whereof I speak.

I know also that this is not merely an “Evangelical Christian” problem. It is a profoundly human problem.

I’ve heard politically correct liberals speak horrendously about conservatives behind closed doors. I’ve seen poverty-advocating progressives walk right by a homeless beggar on the street with not even a flicker of emotion.

The disjunction between outward action and underlying attitude can be found among all of us in one way or another. I’ve seen this problem all too often in myself, across the whole spectrum of ways. We’ve all got a problem, and it’s a deep-seated, far-reaching human problem: a “sin” problem, to use the Christian lingo.

But what has struck me most profoundly over the past few months of observing U.S. politics is this particular disjunction: we don’t seem to get that our outward actions are rooted in our underlying attitudes and fuelled by our shared speech.

We men might never walk up to a woman we don’t know and “grab her by the p*ssy”—but we tell blonde jokes behind closed doors, or we mansplain in our work meetings, or we smirk the words “PMS” to our buddy with a roll of the eyes.

We white people might never lay a finger on a non-white person—but we chuckle at the “drunk Indian” or “lazy Mexican” comment, or we  brush off the brouhaha over “Redskins” for a team name, or we think to ourselves that African Americans or Indigenous people just need to “get over it already.”

We straight folks might never assault the LGBTQ folks among us—but we perpetuate lies about some universal “gay lifestyle,” or we speak about bisexuality as if it’s a fake illness, or we’re not really sure we can trust the lesbian math teacher with our children all day.

We Christians might never bomb the nearest Mosque—but we assume the hijab-wearing woman is living in suppressed silence, or we choose the seat at the airport furthest from the Arabic-speaking men, or we forward the latest “Muslims are Taking Over Canada!!!” email to our family.

I’m not talking about those random thoughts that pop into our head from time to time. I’m talking about those attitudes that we allow to settle into our brains and dwell in our souls. We harbor these fearful, demeaning attitudes toward others, we speak fearful, demeaning words about others, and then we are all shocked when people actually act out of fear in cruelty and violence toward others.

But these things are connected. Our thoughts, our words, our actions—they are all of a piece.

Maybe we’re right about ourselves, that we would never physically harm others. But when we nurture harmful attitudes about others in our hearts and minds, when we encourage hurtful speech about others even in private, these thoughts and words will inevitably bear fruit in action—either ours or someone else’s.

This is what’s behind some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings. “Adultery” is not just about sexual intercourse, Jesus declares, and “murder” is not just about the act of killing someone: these outward acts are rooted in our thoughts and anticipated in our words (Matt 5:21-30). In other words, Jesus asserts, “Evil things come from within, from the human heart,” and this is what truly defiles us before God and others (Mark 7:20-23).

Image result for seed sproutingTo borrow another favourite metaphor of Jesus—and some direct teaching from the Apostle Paul—“we reap what we sow” (Gal 6:7-8). Our thoughts are like seeds that root themselves deep in the soil of our hearts, and they will shoot up in the words that we speak and bear fruit in the actions of our lives.

If we think otherwise, we are deceiving ourselves. We are mocking God; but God will not be mocked.

When we nurture harmful thoughts, even in the deep places of our heart, or speak harmful words, even behind closed doors, we sow seeds of harm that will bear the fruit of harm. This is true for us as individuals, as families and churches, and as a society.

But if we can instead develop settled attitudes toward others that are based on truth and love, and speak words that build up and don’t tear down, then we can sow seeds that will bear the fruit of goodness and truth and beauty in our lives and in the world.

Let’s stop pretending that our inner thoughts and private words don’t matter. They do.

For the love of God—with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves—let’s dig deep within ourselves and scrape out our stony hearts in repentance. After all, God has promised a heart of flesh ready and waiting for us, beating with the love of Christ.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.