Reading Time: 8 Minutes
If I had an app on my phone that was able to record every time I spoke critically about someone or made a judgment about their motives or behavior, I am sure the results would be interesting, surely sad, and possibly shocking.
Jesus, James and Paul speak with one voice on the subject of critical speech and the judging of other people.
James puts it like this, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4.11-12).
Today, we will consider two question: (1) What is James actually saying? (2) How can we start living according to his message?
What is James actually saying?
Does James forbid speaking a judgmental or critical word against another person? Is he commanding us to give up judging other people? To better understand James, let’s review two passages from the Book of James.
(1) James 1.26 – If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Jesus demonstrates through an illustration how we deceive ourselves, when we judge and criticize other people. He said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7.3-5).
Speaking of self-deception, an unbridled tongue makes our religion worthless. Our critical and judgmental spirit does not accomplish the righteous purposes of God (James 1.20). In fact, it usually does not accomplish anything good at all.
(2) James 3.8-10 – But no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
James says that an unbridled tongue reflects self-deception. Our blindness to this reality is never so obvious than when we praise God with one voice and curse someone made in God’s image with another. James is entirely correct, “this ought not to be so.”
Each of the passages I have highlighted provide more than enough information to illustrate a clear theme in James. I will now focus the majority of this article on a solution to the problem of how we use speech.
How can we start living by James’ message?
What choices can we make to begin living by James’ message about the use of our words?
(1) We can move from the language of complaint to the language of commitment.
The language that James discourages is that of complaint, criticism, and cursing. Ask people what they want and they often reply: “If only . . .”; “I just wish . . .”; “If this once . . .”; “Why can’t he (or we or she) . . .”
What is similar in these expressions is when we experience something we don’t like, we complain. It is second nature to gripe, complain, moan, and worse. Sometimes this language can be funny, entertaining and energizing. However, James, Jesus and Paul teach that is is self-deceptive, depressing and dangerous.
Negative and complaining talk doesn’t transform anything. It doesn’t go anywhere and becomes an end in itself.
Beneath the surface of complaining is a river of caring. If we listen to the complaints of people, we will discover real issues that need to be addressed.
As followers of Jesus and students of James, we do well to consider speech – ours and theirs. If we are not good listeners, we should be.
For followers of Jesus, our complaints, moans, gripes, curses and more can be turned to commitments.
An inspiring story of turning complaint into commitment is that of Donnie Mote and the people who have presented Second Chance music concerts. Coach Jake Taylor interviewed Donnie this week about their ministry on the Plaza last Sunday afternoon. Please take time to listen to the podcast. It will be one of the best 16 minutes you will spend this week. Listen here: https://bit.ly/2AINNf1
I read some Facebook posts from Donnie and Christian Fly. They were heartbroken and disturbed by the killing of George Floyd. They didn’t just stay in the complaint department, but moved from complaint to commitment for a positive outcome. I was moved to tears to see people from Maywood and a couple of urban churches bringing Jesus to the situation through prayer and worship.
(2) We can move from the language of blame to the language of personal responsibility.
The language of blame may sound like this:
— “I am like I am, because I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks and didn’t get enough vitamin C.” (an author from the 1800s)
— “When I grew up, we talked about what we would do when we would get to prison. When you grew up, you talked about what you would do when you got to college.” (a conversation with one of my friends)
— “I was abused as a child.” (multiple people who attend Maywood Baptist Church)
— “The system is rigged against people like me.” (conversation with a friend over coffee)
The language of blame is so easy to embrace, because there are legitimate hurts. The pain from child abuse may linger as a troubling factor for a person’s entire lifetime. However, with all gentleness I want to encourage you to move from blame to personal responsibility.
You didn’t get to choose the cards that were dealt to you in life, but you are responsible for how you play your hand today. The deceptive nature of blaming others is that it keeps you from playing well the cards that you do hold in your hand.
As you think about how you can move from blame to personal responsibility, please consider thinking like this.
You may say, “I have a story. It tells me about the hand that I have been dealt in life. I choose to not BE this story, even though I HAVE it.”
One man described his story to me like this. “My family has a cycle of child abuse, addiction and crime. That story ends with me. After me, no one in my family will ever have to live that story again.”
This man did not let blame define his life. Rather, he took responsibility for the remainder of his life and for the future generations of his family. He HAD a story, but he was determined to no longer BE the story of his family.
Here’s another way to look at blame. A woman said, “No one ever talks to each other in our shop; people talk about each other. There’s an incredible amount of behind-the-back gossip and running each other down. People have issues with other people, but the way we all handle it is that we talk about it with other people. We don’t go to the person we have the issue with.”
If the people in the story above were asked, “Is there anything you can do to make the situation better,” the answer may be nothing more than excuses about why nothing will ever change. Complaints, gripping, cursing and such could easily follow.
No one wants to work in an environment of hostility and blame. Someone, a follower of Jesus preferably, has to take responsibility. What if the friend of Jesus were to refuse to engage in gossip, complaining, and blaming? What if in the midst of a complaint by a co-worker, the Christian would say, “Hey, you’ve got a point there. Would you like me to go with you to (name of the offending party) so you can talk with him/her about your concerns?”
(I have adapted material from a book, “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work” by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey for this section.)
James was an agent of change. He knew that we can’t stay where we are and go where Jesus is at the same time. It takes courage and faith to go from complaint to commitment. Ask Donnie and is friends what kind of faith it takes to overcome fear.
It also takes a whole new way of thinking to go from blame to personal responsibility. The word, “repent,” refers to changing your mind that results in a change of behavior. If our study has revealed how you use blame to stay stuck in negative behavior, please take Jesus’ offer of change.
He knows your situation in life and wants to give you the ability to respond to it in the best way possible.
Dear God, please forgive the way I have used my words in a worthless manner. Please help me to change complaint into commitment. Also, please help me to take responsibility for my life.