Most Christians are aware of the vivid language and warnings regarding the tongue—or speech—in James 3:1-12. Earlier in the epistle we read, “let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Thus, like its Old Testament counterpart Proverbs, the book of James exhorts us to live wisely. And, unsurprisingly, much wisdom is needed when it comes to what we say. This is true not only because our words can seriously wound others, but because the misuse of speech also radically deforms the speaker. Particularly when it comes to lying.
An unbridled tongue is just as dangerous for the speaker as it is for those it lashes out against.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:5-6). Being aware of the disproportionate destruction a careless comment might wreak should make us slow to speak. This is wisdom (Proverbs 29:20). But nestled in James 3:1-12 is a claim that has never made a whole lot of sense to me. In James 3:6 we are told that the tongue sets the course for one’s entire life. In other words, an unbridled tongue is just as dangerous for the speaker as it is for those it lashes out against.
“The Tongue Is A Restless Evil”
Few of us need much convincing that speech is easily weaponised to harm others. We regularly practise this in our own ways. Thus we regrettably speak out of both sides of our mouth, as a good friend of mine likes to say. Or, as James puts it: “With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:9-10). “Cursing” here is not a reference to some dark sorcery or magic. Nor is it merely cussing (see Matthew 5:22). Rather it includes the vast range of ways we use our speech to hurt others, from verbal bullying to gossip and slander.
We easily weaponise our speech to harm others.
Indeed, “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” that appears almost frighteningly autonomous as we deal damage with our words (James 3:8). But why does James say that speech charts the course of our lives? To put the above question another way: how is our speech self-destructive? Why does James warn us that the misuse of our tongues does not only result in hurting others but also harms the speaker? To quote James 3:6, “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
While preparing for a sermon on James 3:1-12 recently, I was bewildered by this idea. And scratching through my notes in Zotero I came across an answer from an unlikely source: Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. Explaining his 8th rule, Tell The Truth—Or, At Least, Don’t Lie, Peterson helpfully illustrates James’ point, showing how damaging speech is also self harming.
There Are No ‘Small Lies’
Using lying as an analogy, Peterson argues that when we lie we seek to steer reality rather than confront the truth. Now, none of us are strangers to lying—from white lies or half truths to bold faced deceit, we are all merchants of pretence. Our attempts to control situations by being dishonest sometimes fail. But on other occasions they ‘succeed.’ Thus Peterson writes, “First, a little lie; then, several little lies to prop it up. After that, distorted thinking to avoid the shame that those lies produce…After that comes the arrogance and sense of superiority that inevitably accompanies the production of successful lies.” More succinctly, “Pride falls in love with its creations, and tries to make them absolute.”
We cannot lie indefinitely without becoming liars. What we do determines who we become.
Peterson’s argument is worthy of some consideration and a little development. Firstly, all of us know how easy it is to reach for a new lie when covering up an old one. It’s certainly less painful than admitting to lying in the first place. Thus lying has a snowball effect. But, secondly, we cannot lie indefinitely without becoming liars. As I’ve argued elsewhere, what we do determines who we become. Habitual lying deforms us, contrast with the spiritually formative power of truth telling (Ephesians 4:24-25). Thirdly, then, lying always involves a portion and increasing measures of pride.
When we lie it is because we have decided our own contrivances will reap better results than the truth—than God’s reality. And successful deceit begets smug self-conceit. Worse still, when lies accomplish our designs we arrogantly start to believe that we ought to control reality rather than submit to the truth within.
Damaging Speech Is Also Self-Harming
You may disagree with some of what I’ve quoted from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life above. But the case he makes for truth telling over against lying is compelling. Furthermore, it isn’t hard to see how his point extends to the variety of ways we misuse speech. As we read in James 3:6, “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life.” This isn’t only true of deceit. It applies to the various ways we fail to bridle our tongues.
It’s never merely a harsh word. It’s a step towards becoming a dictatorial bully.
Therefore it’s never merely a harsh word; it’s a step towards becoming a dictatorial bully. Flattery is more than the occasional strategic compliment; it sets us on the course towards being disingenuous and self seeking. We cannot excuse gossip as ‘confessing each other’s sins,’ when it betrays confidence or is designed to tarnish someone else’s reputation—or both. I could go on. But I feel like the point is made. Therefore, “let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak” (James 1:19).