“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – James 1:26-27
“The tongue like a sharp knife, kills without drawing blood.” – Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha
“The one who knows does not speak. The one who speaks does not know.” – Lao Tzu
“Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.” – Pubilius Syrus
“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” – Ambrose Bierce
This is a difficult passage for me. I mean, let’s face it, I’m a talker. I am not the type of talker who always has something to say. In fact in most social gatherings I am the one sitting in the corner not saying anything at all. But when subjects like religion or herbal medicine or music come up, I don’t know when to shut up. And usually the things I have to say are things that I have a very difficult time applying to my own life. “Quit eating fried food and eat lots of garlic and your blood pressure will come down,” I say as I eat another french fry and take my blood pressure medicine. And I write a blog, and I’m working towards a career as a minister. I’m still not sure how that came to be, but I am sure that God still giggles when He thinks of it. Socially phobic Andy is going to talk to people as a career!
So, let’s take a look at what James actually teaches us here. He says that if we don’t keep a tight reign on our tongue then our religion is worthless, and we’re just lying to ourselves. That is pretty strong language. It’s pretty strong language from one of the early ministers and writers in the Church. So, what can we take from this? When is it okay to talk at all? I think we need to look at the second half of this passage in order to learn that. He teaches us that the religion that God is interested is the one that compels us to help widows and orphans, and to avoid pollution by the world. In other words, God wants us to be men and women of action. We can’t be all talk and no walk. That is worthless religion in which we lie to ourselves. We are to be ministers, not preachers. Preaching is one aspect of ministry, but not the main aspect. Preaching alone is words separated from action. Ministry is caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the immigrant. We are called to teach all nations, not preach to all nations. Teaching means we do so that others can learn how to do.
Maybe it is just my own perspective, but the pendulum seems to be swinging a new direction in the Church. In many ways it is a good and right way for things to go. In a sense any pendulum swing is a correction, but one that will eventually go too far. The direction I see the church going is towards the preaching of radical grace. This is, of course, good and right. It is God’s grace alone that saves us. Our works, our righteousness, are filthy rags. The best of our best is a rotting corpse. In the past the Church’s focus has been on works righteousness. A tree is known by its fruit. We are required to do the work of God. The outward evidence of our inward conversion is our works. This is also true, but can be taken too far when separated from the knowledge of our need for grace. The by-grace-alone salvation from God is one side of a coin. Our works that flow from God’s love and the understanding that “there but for the grace of God go I” are the other side of the coin. If we somehow split those two sides of the coin apart, then all we are left with is two worthless clanging bits of tin.
So, with all that in mind, what James is warning of here is spouting off at the mouth and not having the works to back it up. God wants the works. Your works will never be sufficient to save you, but He wants your conversion to result in real life changing action. Otherwise what’s the point? If salvation is simply the comfort of being forgiven myself, and it doesn’t flow into forgiving and serving others, then it is just a psychological method to help us not feel guilty. It is simple, and comforting to go to church once a week, and talk about how grateful you are for God’s grace. Sing some songs praising Him, and then go back to a self absorbed life. Sometimes even our worship is self-centered, “I don’t like such and such song/style/etc…I don’t feel anything.” Since when is worship about the worshiper and not the worshiped? Even if we spend our entire week talking to friends and co-workers about how beautiful and life changing our faith is, if they don’t see it in action, then they have the right to assume that we are fake. We can wear our Christian t-shirts, put bumper stickers and fish on our cars, even carry picket signs and megaphones, but if we aren’t doing then we are blowing hot air.
On the other hand, when we help those less fortunate than us, when we avoid getting wrapped up in gossip, when we repent directly for the wrongs we’ve done to others, when we steer clear of things we know are harmful, then we don’t have to say a word. Jesus Himself teaches us to, “let your life shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). When I was in college I was an atheist. At least I thought I was. Somewhere inside I knew I wasn’t, but I was able to yell enough angry nonsense to drown out that still small voice inside saying, “Ummm…yeah, you can keep yelling, but I’m still right here.” There were several people who yelled right back at me. There were people who were so unsure of their belief, that they needed to violently challenge anyone who disagreed with them. There were people who talked without walking. Then there were people like J.J. and Chris. Neither were perfect. They had their faults like anyone. They were sinners saved by grace. And they knew it. They never yelled at me. They never really even tried to witness to me. They lived lives in which I could see a difference. They had been changed, and I could see it. As I look back over my life, it is people like that who have made the difference in my life and my faith.
There is a rap group called the Geto Boys. I don’t suggest them. They are pretty raw. They are from an earlier time in my life. But this verse always reminds me of a line in one of their songs. I actually can’t repeat the line verbatim in good conscience. But I will paraphrase it. They much more colorfully say, “Real gangstas don’t flex muscles because real gangstas know they have them.” In other words, we don’t have to rattle on and on about our beliefs or how good we are, or how great God’s grace is, or how we need to be doing good deeds. It’s fine to talk about it, but you had better be doing it as well. The old saying says that God gave us one mouth and two ears because we are supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. I’ll go farther, God also gave us two hands, two arms, two legs, two feet, two eyes, and one mouth. We need to be working, hugging, walking, standing, seeing, listening, and doing at least twice as much as we are talking. Oscar Wilde cynically says, “The only thing to do with advice is to pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.” Let’s do the opposite of this. Let’s quit dolling out advice, and start living it. This is James’ challenge to us. Let’s pray for God to strengthen us to be up to the challenge.
P.S. – After posting this, I received a “quote of the day” e-mail. I touched briefly on the difference between a preacher and a minister. This is the quote that came in my e-mail this morning:
“The pastoral charge [does not] consist merely in administering the sacraments, chanting the canonical hours, celebrating masses–though even these are not properly done by hirelings–; it consists also in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, covering the naked, receiving guests, visiting the sick and those in prison. By the doing of these things is the people to be instructed in the holy duties of an active life.” – Robert Grosseteste (c.1170-1253), Bp., in a letter