Wisdom in Speech and Silence

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1
James 3:1-12

I wonder if you all would be willing to take part in an informal poll this morning. How many of you have ever left a conversation thinking, “I can’t believe I said that?” Or, “WHY did I SAY that?”  Or, “I really wish I hadn’t said that?”

Beloved, you are not alone if you regret things that you have said. It is for me a daily occurrence. You will find good company among others in this room.  You would also find plenty of company in the early Christian community. There is wisdom about how we should speak throughout the bible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the letters that were sent from city to city, instructing the followers of Jesus about how to live faithfully. It seems that reckless and harmful speech was a habitual problem.

The letter we hear from this morning is written by a person named James. In case you are curious, this James is not either of the two James who were among the original 12 disciples of Jesus. This James is known instead as the brother of Jesus, or the cousin of Jesus — there is debate on that point. Perhaps it is easier simply to say, he is another leader in the early church.

James’ letter is full of advice for his companions in faith.  Much of it echoes the teachings of Jesus found in the gospels, and a lot of it is helpful.  Occasionally, however, James comes across a little bit strong. Consider the opening to his letter: Kindred, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (1:2-4)

It may be true that hard experiences produce endurance, and that endurance produces maturity, and that endurance and maturity are worth having. Still, do we really need to consider our  trials as “nothing but joy,” especially when we are right in the middle of them?

James also uses strong language when he addresses the issue of speech. Our tongue, James writes, is small but powerful. It can be used for blessings, and to praise God.  It can also be used for curses, and it can be as destructive as fire. What’s more, it’s incredibly hard to control: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed … but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

“A restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Surely, whether we speak with our tongue, or write or type or sign with our hands, our communications are not so very bad, so very dangerous.  But I bet all of us can recall a time when we have caused pain, given offense, spread rumors, or expressed lies. It is a powerful tool, communication, and easily misused. 

As I mentioned, James is not the only biblical writer to hold forth on the importance of what we say. It’s what you might call a hot topic. At least two of the ten commandments deal directly with speech: Do not take the Lord’s name in vain, and do not bear false witness. God also tells Moses: You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:16) In Proverbs we read, “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint” (Pvb 17:27) The psalmist begs, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141) Jesus tells us: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11 And the letters of the early church are full of words about words: from Colossians (4:6): Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person; from Ephesians (4:15): Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ; from Romans (12:14):  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Words and speech come up so often in the bible, but there is little explicit instruction about how to communicate.  James paints a dire picture of the dangers of our tongue, but then merely says: “Kindred, this ought not to be so.”  Other scriptures mention speaking with truth, restraint, grace, and love. But… how?

In the Benedictine Rule, a monastic guideline for living, there is a whole section on restraint of speech. Here it is recommended that even good words should sometimes remain uncommunicated, “out of esteem for silence. For all the more reason, then” the rule continues, “should evil speech be curbed…Indeed, so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or constructive their talk.”

When in doubt, be silent; be still; be wordless. But when we cannot be wordless, scriptures argue, we should take our expressions much more seriously than we usually do. Words should not come easily from us. They should be examined, considered, offered as a gift, or provided as a necessity.

A year and a half ago leaders from this church worked with consultants to develop a Communication Covenant for our congregation.  This work was an attempt to translate God’s guidance and our collective wisdom into something concrete, for the use of our community.  In part it, the covenant reads:

With the help of God, we will:

  • Communicate directly with one another.
  • Use face to face contact whenever possible, especially for difficult conversations, recognizing the limits of less direct communication.
  • Listen with an open mind to others’ points of view, working to understand, whether or not we agree.
  • Ask questions to confirm and broaden our understanding.
  • Affirm the merit in others’ comments before raising any concerns.
  • Speak our own truths using the first person.
  • Seek out and hold up our common values and goals.
  • Take responsibility for our attitudes and behavior.
  • Remind each other of our commitment to honor this covenant.

Imagine if this was the way we truly carried out our communication, at church and beyond. What if every daily interaction, every social media exchange, even our national conversations took place in this way?  It would be very different.

Communicating with love may always be a struggle for each of us.  But we can avail ourselves of the warnings of the scriptures, and the work of this community, to help us do a little better. And scriptures also assure us that God is ready to help us with this daunting task.

God is ready, forgiving us our mistakes as we confess them. God is ready, encouraging us to try again. God is ready, modeling loving communication towards us. God is ready, waiting for us to open our hearts to her guidance. God is ready, offering us the beautiful gift of Wisdom – often personified in our scriptures: “she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets…”

Please pray with me. Holy God, you form us in your own image: capable of expression. Work in each of us, work with each of us, that our expressions may bless and not curse, empower and not oppress, welcome and not exclude, heal and not harm; that our capacity may be used each day for love: love towards you, love towards our neighbors, love towards ourselves. Amen.