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When I was in college over 40 years ago, I was part of a ministry in which we were strongly encouraged to memorize Scripture. One month I chose the 3rd chapter of James, which is a very well known admonition against negative or slanderous speech.
The second verse reads “we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” (ESV)
At the time, as a 20 year old dealing with the hopes, fears and mostly raging hormones of that age, I thought it was hyperbole on James’ part to make the tongue the greatest litmus test as to one’s level of self control. Forty years later, I believe James was not intending to exaggerate when he made that statement.
Most of us are aware that the law provides a remedy for negative speech against someone which is also false, the general catchall term being “defamation.” As a general rule, if you are sued for defamation you can defend yourself on the grounds that what you said was true (although the burden of proof is on the defendant in this case and there are even a few situations which truth is not a defense, such as material that is highly invasive of someone’s privacy.)
However, James was not concerned with legal niceties when he wrote this passage. He characterizes the tongue as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” and he essentially asks us to consider how we would dare to use our tongue to praise God on the one hand and to disseminate negative talk about people on the other. And I do not believe James would recognize it as a defense before God to say “I was just giving my opinion” or “this is just something you need to know as a concerned third party…”
Jesus laid down a specific formula for dealing with conflicts or offenses given by a brother or sister in the faith (i.e., go back first to the person who offended you), and everywhere else that the New Testament refers to negative speech, it condemns it. I have seen negative speech destroy friendships and ministries. I personally cringe to think of times I have run afoul of this passage (which are many) and I am recurrently saddened by seeing the results of other professing Christians do so as well.
Like any other good teacher, James closes by holding up a positive model for all of us to follow with our speech — “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
And as C.S. Lewis observed, when we see evil behavior we are not called upon to pretend that it is righteous, or try to excuse it in our minds; rather our duty as believers is to earnestly desire that the wrongdoer may somehow come to grace and forgiveness, and to direct our speech and conduct to that end.Read more
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