Thursday 12 July
This week at #Sligo18, Jonathan Rue is leading the morning Bible Teaching exploring lessons from the book of James. Jonathan is the Lead Pastor at Desert Vineyard - a multi-ethnic, multi-generational church in Southern California. Here, VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams brings you a summary of his message on Thursday morning:
Has anyone ever got a traffic ticket? If you come to the US you are going to have to obey the rules of the road. We have some pretty serious traffic cops in America and they will catch you doing wrong! I remember being stopped by an overly aggressive traffic cop when I was a teenager! I was traumatised.
Elton Simmons is a traffic cop in LA. He has been doing his job for 20 years and over that time, he made 25,000 stops. If you are a traffic cop, you are not making people’s day. It is important because it keeps the roads safe but when you are doing your job, you are making people angry and delivering bad news. Nobody is excited to see you. There are a lot of complaints that come in about traffic cops. One day, Elton’s supervisor said, “It seems like a long time since you had a complaint.” So the supervisor decided to check and he discovered that over 20 years, Elton had never had a complaint lodged against him. His supervisor was so shocked that he called the news media and the next day Elton was on the front page. NBC did a feature on him and they asked him, “How come you have never had a complaint?” He answered, “It is in the way I communicate with people. I always smile at people and say ‘hello’. And then I show them my speed gun with the speed on it. I never lecture people. I say, ‘I’m sorry.. it happens to all of us... here is your ticket.’”
We’re going to continue through James as he speaks to the diaspora. So many times, we as Christians have really, really good news to share with the world but, unlike Elton Simmons, the way in which we do so makes people feel judged and attacked. And James was speaking before the age of Facebook!
People speakin a way that is uncivil, disrespectful and downright mean. James explains how the dangerous and how powerful our mouths can be. He warns us about the power of our words.
James starts off speaking to the teachers but the rest of what he has to say is for everybody. He tells us that we all stumble in many ways, especially with our words! If anyone has full control of their mouths, they are “perfect”. If we all stumble, how do we deal with that? We often start with the big things (like an addiction, etc.). But James says, “If we could get control of our mouths, then we can keep our whole body in check.”
Our mouth is an incredibly important place to begin to work on. He goes on to say that our mouths are powerful (v3-6) and he gives us a range of images to show the destructive power of our words.
Most of us know this. You have probably experienced the power of words in your own life, for good and evil. I had an English teacher in High School that totally changed the course of my studies. Up to that point, I was more into maths and then I had this English Literature teacher. The way that she taught and the words she spoke into my life, made me decide to study literature at college.
When someone speaks something damaging to you, it can become etched into your memory and shape the course of your life! It took me four years to get through seminary. And after about five years pastoring, I was still struggling and wrestling through my calling. I sat down with a mentor and as I was airing some of my issues, he just looked at me and, out of the blue, he said, “Have you ever thought about doing something else?” It knocked the wind out of me. It was jarring and deflating.
I thought, “If this guy doesn’t even see pastoral calling in my life, then what am I doing?” That was an incredibly painful moment. That phrase is etched into my brain. I remember the room. I remember everything about that experience. God used that in powerful ways and I heard the words of Jesus speaking into my heart saying, “I have something for you.” It ended up bringing an incredible amount of freedom to my pastoral ministry (and I'm still pastoring). But it also highlighted for me the power of words.
The first two images James shares are related. He talks about bits in the mouths of horses - if you pull on the reigns you can turn the whole animal. There are things that we can say with our mouths that can affect the direction of our whole body. You could go into work on Monday and say something that could get your whole body fired! He also uses the image of a ship that is steered by a small rudder. It is amazing how tiny that rudder is and that it can turn the whole ship! Both of these images are reinforcing that something really small can impact something really big. The point of these metaphors is how our mouths don’t just affect other people... the words we speak and the way we communicate governs and directs our own lives.
Making a life decision in reaction to a conflict or in the heat of a moment is a bad idea. There are lots of great reasons to get married but a conflict with your parents is not one of them! So many people quit their job because they have a conflict with their boss and when they cool down they say, “What did I do?” There are things that can come out of our mouths that can re-direct the whole course of our life.
Then James switches metaphors to “wildfire”. In California, wildfires are no joke. 36,000 homes were destroyed last year. The national parks' service in the US estimate that 90% of wildfires are started by people! Somebody was cooking on a fire or lighting off fireworks, etc. Usually, it is not intentional. This is what James is talking about. A great forest is set on fire by a small spark. Our tongue doesn't just affect our own life but it affects the lives of other people.
You can light a match and blow it out. So often we think of our words to other people like that. We have a row with somebody and say some things we shouldn’t and we say, “I didn’t mean that.” We think we can just blow it out. James says, “No. Our words are like a wildfire.” That spark quickly catches on something else and soon that fire grows to a place where you can no longer put it out. The fire-fighters can battle this fire for weeks - even though it was started by a little spark. How many of us have used our words in a way where we have burned down relationships? We have sparked something in a conflict and said some things and it has taken on a life of its own and it has torched a relationship with a family member, friend or co-worker.
V6 James says it corrupts the whole body and sets the whole course of your life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell. What is he talking about there? James is reaching into the larger narrative of the Bible. At the beginning, God created Adam and Eve but they made a decision to turn away from God. It was not just one discreet bad choice but they opened the door for sin, like a sickness, to infect the whole human race.
Our mouths are not neutral. We are infected by the sickness of sin. Absolutely, we get forgiveness from the mercy of Jesus but we are still dealing with the brokenness that comes from our sinful human nature. If we are not careful, we can be walking around with a flamethrower. Our mouths are not only powerful but they are also difficult to control.
A daily challenge
This becomes the great challenge. To reinforce this, he goes to the world of animals and saying that all kinds of animals can be tamed but no one can tame the tongue!
It is a daily thing. We communicate every single day. We all speak a lot of words. There are these moments in our lives when we want to be all in with God. We are so moved that we say, “God I want to give you all of my life.” It is as if we are giving Him, €10,000. But here is the challenge. God sends us back to the bank and asks us to change that into 5 cent coins and all through the day, He asks us to give them back to Him one at a time... at every moment when we are using our words.
With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father and we curse... James here is not getting on his moralistic high horse and wagging his finger. He is saying that there is a reality that it ought to be impossible to at the same time praise God and then go home and be screaming at our spouse or yelling at people at work, being negative and destructive with our words.
Jesus said that it is the things that come out of the mouth that defiles people. What is in our heart does come out. This is why James is pushing us. If your mouth is cursing, that is revealing something about what is inside. He is not just saying we need to try to be better people. Something is broken and we need to pay attention to that!
If there is something real and good an right, how on earth can all of this other stuff flow out of our mouth. “Salt springs cannot produce fresh water.” James gives us no tips here. He just ends on that note.
But I don’t want to leave us there. So here are two things that I’ve found helpful!
Take responsibility for the fires that we have started - in a human relationships it is never just one sided. I’m not suggesting that is all your fault. But in a relationship that has experienced fire damage from words, take responsibility for your own part. Go to that person and apologise.
After your apologise, shut your mouth - everything else you say is going to undermine your apology (making excuses, etc.). Demonstrate something different through your actions.
One more thing has occurred to me and I wanted to share it because I think it would be helpful.
After a wildfire comes through and burns down a forest. It is incredible how quickly the new growth can spring up. God has the ability to bring new life to things that have been destroyed, damaged and charred.