Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Taming the Tongue
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, brothers [and sisters], because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers [and sisters], this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
As you might remember, I’m particularly interested in the way that Christian theology and contemporary science cast light on each other. And one aspect of the relationship between theology and science that especially caught my attention is what science and the Bible each have to say to us about the nature of human consciousness.
You might wonder what the Bible has to say about human consciousness, but maybe more than you’d think.
Let’s start with this: The Bible says we’re made in God’s “image and likeness.” Jesus says that God is a spirit, so being in his image isn’t about having two feet, two hands, etc. The Bible talks about God’s “strong arm and outstretched hand,” but those are just metaphors. So being made in God’s image probably means that we share some of the attributes of God we can see in the Bible. For instance, God is shown to be creative. He’s shown to hunger for loving relationships. He’s shown to be moral – to have a sense of right and wrong. God is shown to remember the past and plan for the future in the light of the past. He’s shown to have a sense of the feelings of others and to care about what we’re going through. And God is shown to be guided in his thoughts and decisions by an overall plan.
And when you read about what contemporary research says about human nature, those traits of God correspond very closely to the defining traits of human consciousness. In other words, what science is learning about human nature tends to confirm what the Bible tells us about what it means to be made in God’s image.
And of course, one of the most important traits we share with God is the capacity for communication. God communicates with us, and he has given us the ability to communicate with him, and with one another. In fact, our ability to communicate is unique to humankind. Other species can use simple sounds and movements to communicate with one another, but only humans have symbolic language.
And language is even more important to our human nature than we realize. People who study the human brain say that speech actually shapes us – speech influences the way we think and perceive the world. We sometimes use the phrase “thinking out loud” to describe the way we frame our own thoughts by expressing them verbally. But the neuroscientists say that phrase is more accurate than we know – we do a lot more thinking out loud than we realize. It seems that a lot of our outlook on the world arises out of things we say in our conversations with others. In other words, when we speak, we not only influence others, but also we influence ourselves.
That’s one of the biggest problems with the overheated rhetoric that has crept into our culture in the recent past. If we’re excited or fearful about something – like politics, for instance – then almost without thinking we say something like, “Conservatives are all racists!’ or “Liberals just hate America!” Even if in our calmer moments we know those things aren’t really true, according to neuroscientists, once we’ve said them, from that point forward a part of our minds believes them. The things we say actually have a way of shaping our thoughts and beliefs.
Sometimes this trait can be good and useful. There’s a method of teaching called ‘the Socratic method’ that helps people master complicated subjects by talking about them. It’s a very effective way to teach people subjects like law and philosophy – and even theology. But if we’re not careful, then ‘thinking out loud’ can also have negative consequences. If we allow ourselves to rant and rave about things that upset us – or about people who upset us – then our ranting and raving can plant ideas in our heads that disrupt our ability to love God and our neighbor.
In this passage from his letter, James is raising a very important point about the life of a follower of Jesus. We should be careful about what we say. Not only because our words can be very hurtful to others and can damage the unity of the church, but also because careless speech can actually cause harm to ourselves, imprinting things on our minds that shouldn’t be there.
The point isn’t just to be constantly talking “church-talk” and using religious-sounding language. The point is to let our speech be governed by the rule of love – love for God and for our neighbors. To guard against careless and negative talk.
From the time we were kids, people have been telling us that if we can’t say something good, we should say nothing at all. What they haven’t been telling us, maybe because it hasn’t been fully understood until recently, is that being careless in how we talk can actually do damage to ourselves, as well as to others. If we want to grow in the things of the faith and be shaped for Christ-like living, we should probably make it a point, not just to do what Jesus would do, but also to say what Jesus would say.
Let’s pray. Lord, we pray for the presence of your Spirit day by day to shape our hearts and minds, and to help us be thoughtful and Christ-like in the way we make use of the great gift of communication you have placed within us. Let all that we say be a blessing to others and to you. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 28 and 99; Habakkuk 3:1-18; And Luke 17:1-10. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)