Drew Williams, Pastoral Intern
My daughter, Emmy, is almost two years old. She is curious and brave and has the best belly laugh in the world. She loves being involved in whatever I’m doing, whether it is cooking or working on my laptop or laying in my hammock in the backyard…she NEEDS to be a part of it. She also loves making sure that Megan and I are involved with her. So, if she is playing on the carpet, and I’m sitting on the couch, she will come over and grab a handful of my shirt and drag me down to the carpet with her. Then she’ll go get her blanket and her pink, stuffed pig, Piggy, because they can’t miss out on the carpet party!
She’s also starting to get her words, which is both incredible and frustrating all at once. It’s incredible, because her voice is so little and pure and when she says, “Dadda,” all stress and angst melts out of my heart. But it’s also frustrating, because she doesn’t always know how to communicate what she wants. And when I don’t know what she’s asking for, she defaults to this squeal-cry sound that is like nails on a chalkboard and makes me want to retreat deep into myself to make the awful sound go away.
Sometimes, I wonder if she will ever learn more words because she’s found out how effective the squeal-cry is. Whenever she makes that sound, Megan and I immediately stop what we’re doing and jump into action in order to attend to her (just to make the sound stop). She knows what she’s doing.
Sometimes, when she is tired and irritable, and I’m tired and irritable, she’ll be getting frustrated at some toy or she’ll be standing in the kitchen with her hands reaching for the pantry and just making an awful noise, and I’m Not. In. The. Mood.
And I’ll say, “Emmy, do you need help? Just say Help Dadda!”
And she’ll stop, look at me, and say “Dadda.”
And all the stress and angst melts away.
Words have power.
When I was growing up, my brother and I were homeschooled in elementary school, and we were speaking with my grandmother on the phone, and she asked my brother what he had been learning. I think he was maybe 5 or so, and was learning to site-read shorter words.
He excitedly exclaimed, “Gramma, I’m learning my F-words!”
You could almost hear my grandmother’s mouth hit the floor, but before she could stammer some sort of confused response, my brother continued, “You know, like frog, fun, flower…”
Words have weight.
It was around the same time in my childhood that I had learned certain words carried more weight than others by way of repeating some choice words to my mother. I don’t know where I had heard them, but I knew they were strong words, and I used them strongly. That’s when I experienced the taste of soap.
Pastor Chris had shared his own experience with the taste of soap a few weeks ago when he preached on the beginning of James chapter 3, and let me tell you, it brought back my own memories in such vivid detail that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for quite some time.
And those memories came flooding back when I began to prepare for this week’s message, because we’re looking at the bookend of James’ section on the power of words and the taming of our tongues. But in this final section, James is going to help us realize that our words don’t only affect our relationships with each other, but also our relationship with God.
Let’s listen to this short teaching from James:
READ JAMES 4:11-12
11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister[d] or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
On its own, out of context, these two verses are both super simple and a little confusing. Sure, we say, slander isn’t a good thing. But then James says that slandering someone also involves judging them, and it is the same as slandering and judging the law.
The law? How do you slander the law?
Then James proclaims that the only one who has the power to sit over the law is the One who made it, God.
And we say, sure, sure, that makes sense. But then James ends with, “so who are you to judge your neighbor?”
And, again, taken out of context, this would be a strange set of statements to puzzle over, but we need to realize that this is James’ final bookend to the section that he started back in chapter 3.
So let’s walk it back to get the context.
James first introduces the pitfalls of speech in chapter 3 when he likens the tongue to a wild horse that is unable to be tamed (3:3). He uses other word pictures like how a tongue can adjust the entire direction of our lives like a rudder turns a huge ship (3:4). He also says that the tongue is like a small spark that can set a whole forest on fire (3:5-6).
If James were to use his gift with word pictures to help write children’s rhymes, he might say that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words are like the fires of hell that can corrupt the whole person.”
Rhyming is hard.
He finishes with the observation that praising God and cursing people with the same mouth is a big red flag (3:9-12). If we’re pretending to be a certain way on the outside, but speak in a different way, our speech reveals who we really are inside. James’ main point in this earlier section is that followers of Jesus should have integrity in their speech, and speak in such a way that mirrors the love of God and devotion to Christ we are trying to grow in through the Holy Spirit’s help.
That leads James to speak about integrity of actions by comparing the “wisdom” of the world with God’s wisdom (3:13-17), and then speak about submitting to God instead of fighting with each other (4:1-10).
And that brings us to our passage today.
James circles back to talk about words because he wants us to know that EVEN SMALL WORDS HAVE BIG IMPACT.
And so, after imploring us not to follow the wisdom of the world, and not to fight and argue with each other, he says, “Don’t even slander one another.”
I don’t know about you, but I remember learning about slander and it’s relative, libel, in school. Slander describes when you make a spoken statement that damages a person’s reputation, while libel is when you write or publish something damaging to someone.
The Greek that is used here is the word katalaleo, which is a compound of the word kata, which can mean “attack or against,” and laleo, which is the word for “speak.” It simply means speech that attacks, or speaking evil against…
I remember being told in school how awful that is, and that we shouldn’t be engaging in that type of speech or writing.
But today, we’re surrounded by damaging language. News, social media, and emails are all FULL of words that are written to purposely damage the reputations of people. Some people make a sport of “trash talking” others. Sometimes, it’s even subtle and hidden in the gossip of “well-minded” people saying “I heard that so-and-so is doing such-and-such and so we need to be praying for them.”
James is telling us not to engage in this sort of speech because he knows how dangerous it is. It’s insidious because it makes us feel powerful. It allows us to demean and lower someone else, and thereby feel like we have been elevated. It makes us feel like we “scored” a point against someone, inching us closer to be a “winner” while they are a “loser.”
We see it on the playground, with kids “dissing” each other, and we also see it in Presidential debates.
Speaking against others in a way that attacks their personhood and reputation is everywhere in our world, and James says, “Don’t be like that.”
And his reason for this is interesting: “Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it.”
“Speak against” in the NIV is simply a different way of translating the word for “slander,” but James is using the same word katalaleo again, but this time with a small addition, “judge.”
He’s saying that criticising someone involves standing over them in judgment, and he says that is the same as criticising and standing in judgment over the Law. If you’re standing over the Law, that must mean you’re not “under” the law. So James says judging the law precludes you from keeping it, since you “must be” sitting in judgment over it.
And then he drops the other shoe: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”
James is essentially saying, “Ummm, the only one over the Law is God. Do you think you’re God?”
Judging someone else is usurping God’s role. It’s placing us on the throne to make decisions and assign value to others.
But someone might ask, “Wait, are you saying that we’re not allowed to ever say anything negative? What about when we’re calling out something that’s actually wrong?”
That’s a very important point, made especially pertinent when we use words like “judge” to stand for all sorts of things in the English language.
Judging is not the same as discerning. To judge is to condemn, to damn, and therefore to take a role that is reserved only for God. This is different from calling out injustice, or practicing discernment on someone’s character. What James is calling out is when we speak evil against someone and condemn them in our heart. When we judge another person, we put ourselves in the position of God and violate not only the love of God, but also the love of our neighbor. This is the core of James’ entreaty to us because it is the core teaching of his brother, Jesus.
Jesus knew the power of words. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “We all know it’s bad to murder someone, right?” (Matt 5:21-26)
But I say to you, anyone who holds anger in their heart against someone is doing the same thing. Anyone who uses a word of contempt like “Raca” or calls someone a fool has just treated them as if they are worthless. As if they are worth less. They have just devalued them. They have just “murdered” their identity as a fellow image bearer of God.
James is picking up on this teaching of Jesus and drives it home when he says that not only do our words of attack set us up as “over” other people, that actually unseats God from his place over us and therefore violates our relationship with God, since we’re no longer in submission to Him.
And doing that is a form of idolatry, because we are idolizing our own sovereignty over someone else, even if it is just by slandering them and devaluing them in our heart. And this is the easiest way to go against Jesus’ Greatest Command of loving God and loving our neighbor, because instead of standing next to our neighbor in love, we’re assuming the position of God and standing in judgment over our neighbor.
And you might be thinking this is all getting a little heady and blown out of proportion, but isn’t that what we do in our hearts when we cut others down with our words? We destroy them in our hearts. We demote them and use our words to determine that they are less-than.
James says that is idolatry. That is a way to undermine our worship of God and pull our hearts away from Him.
No matter how much we say we love God and want to worship him with our lives, the way we speak and act towards other people is a much louder witness to the world about what we truly believe. Rather than proclaiming that everyone is made in the image of God and therefore has value (3:9), we proclaim that we are gods who determine the value of others based on how we feel towards them.
James wants us to remember that WORDS HAVE WEIGHT.
Our words can build up and encourage others, or they can destroy and tear down.
Slander discourages each other and dishonors God. But Godly speech encourages one another and honors God.
And the good news is what James says just a few verses before this, “God gives us more grace.” (4:6)
We don’t have to tear others down in order to feel better about ourselves, because God already looks at us and says, “You’re valuable. I made you and I love you.” (Ps 139:13-16)
We don’t need to defend ourselves or our side by dismissing or destroying others with our words because God is our ultimate defense and has already defeated the true enemy, death (Heb 2:14)
And we don’t need to assert our superiority by devaluing others because God has already raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. (Eph 2:6-7)
Instead, we get to use our words to bring life. We get to use our words to encourage and build up. We get to use our words to heal and unite. Because God gives us grace and comes near to us and lifts us up. (4:6, 8, 10)
You know, I have to be honest: this message has been convicting to me. As soon as I read this passage the first time, I knew that God was speaking a word over me. And the Holy Spirit hasn’t stopped calling me to repentance. Because, on the outside, I know how to say nice words and proclaim the good news we have in Jesus, and tell a couple cute stories about my daughter. But people who know me well, who are with me when my well-curated guard is down…they know I can be vicious with my words.
I get annoyed easily at people. I get frustrated. I get “sick of it,” and I respond by derisively cutting people down with my words.
And the Holy Spirit has been continually reminding me this past week that I have never met anyone who wasn’t made in the image of God. Have you ever thought about that? Everyone you have ever met carries God’s likeness. They’re all his kids! Who am I to try and cut them down and pretend they’re less valuable than me?
Maybe the Holy Spirit is convicting you as well. Maybe you’re feeling that tug in your heart to reconsider not only your speech, but also the condition of your heart towards others.
What are some ways that we can turn back to God and take some steps towards him in this area?
Well, first, just remember that WORDS HAVE WEIGHT…SO WAIT. James encourages us to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. (1:19) Slowing down and taking time to listen, to receive, is first a great way to show hospitality to others (1 Pe 4:9), but it also allows us time to connect our hearts with the image of God in that person and consider our words before we respond.
Maybe you were like me and grew up hearing the phrase, “If you don’t have something nice to say…don’t say anything.”
Another way to think about it is, IF IT DOESN’T BUILD UP…SHUT UP.
But again, James is pointing us beyond merely the words we use, and Jesus’ entire teaching was on looking deeper into our hearts, so we can’t just clean up the outside and think that is the transformation that God wants to bring in our lives as witnesses of his flourishing kingdom life.
For that, we need him to work in us. We need to pray. Pray for compassion. Pray for God to give you empathy and compassion towards those people that are so difficult to see eye-to-eye with. Pray for God to change your heart so that you can see them as fellow image bearers of God, worthy of your love.
We don’t have to lower ourselves to the lowest common denominator of divisive angst that we see in the world around us. Instead, because of Jesus, who prayed that his followers would be known by their love and unity, and who has taken away our sin and given us his righteous life as our own, we get to learn how to speak words that heal, fight injustice, encourage, and bring restoration as God works his mission through us.
That’s good news!