“Taming Your Tweet” James 3:1-12 9/16/2018
Ever said something you regretted? Of course you have. We’ve all done it. Ever had the opportunity to immediately take it back? Not likely, unless, of course, you said it on Twitter.
Twitter is a social media platform that allows people to dump their thoughts on the world in 280 characters or less. It used to be 140 characters, but last year the platform expanded that capacity because, well, people wanted to have more opportunity to speak their minds and, sometimes, put their digital feet in their mouths. On Twitter, we get excited if someone follows us. In real life, we get really scared and run away.
Even those who don’t have a Twitter account know about it these days because the president of the United States is a dedicated, some might say “addicted” user. Whereas previous presidents often got their messages out via a speech or a press conference, these days we are more likely to hear instantly whatever is on the mind of the leader of the free world. I’ll let you decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The instant nature of Twitter allows someone to run at the mouth (or keyboard) immediately in response to something they’ve read, seen or experienced. Sometimes that means that one’s fingers engage faster than one’s brain. The result is often a major blunder or indiscretion that is very public. If you’re quick enough, however, you can immediately delete the tweet and pull back your verbal misstep.
This happened when the U.S. Department of Education posted a tweet in which a word was misspelled. This is not good. We’re talking about the U.S. Department of Education! The tweet was deleted, and then reposted as follows: “Post updated — our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo.”
Numerous politicians, athletes, famous people, as well as everyday people have had to delete their fair share of tweets. Efforts to delete a dumb tweet notwithstanding, we are often prone to saying things without thinking first, whether online or in person.
Today’s reading from James addresses this human tendency to let loose talk run rampant, even in the pre-Twitter world of the first century.
James wrote his epistle to Jewish Christians in a tense situation.
- Economic problems in the Roman world.
- In-fighting among different factions of the Jewish faith community.
- And the growing revolutionary resistance of the Zealots in Judea had put everyone on edge.
In just a few years after James wrote these words, a powder keg of violence would be lit when the Zealots revolted against Rome in A.D. 66. It was a disaster, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
James’ concern is to help his brothers and sisters in this challenging time to live with integrity and represent Jesus Christ in a world that seemed to be going off the rails. It’s little wonder, then, that one of James’ primary concerns is the use of words.
In a volatile environment, the wrong word can be the match that lights the fuse of violence, strife and misunderstanding. James says, “The tongue is a fire that is set on fire by hell” (v. 6). Unlike a tweet that can be deleted, thus potentially limiting the damage, the wrong word said in the wrong situation can create an uncontrollable blaze that will consume a community and cause permanent harm.
James begins this section by warning teachers, who are really masters of words, about the potential for their words to cause problems that lead to error. Teachers were held in high esteem because they could read and write.
James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (v. 1). Teachers who use bad grammar, misspell words and give false information reveal their incompetence and inattention to detail. Teachers are held, understandably, to a higher standard. We expect tweets coming from the U.S. Department of Education to be grammatically pristine.
Of course, mistakes happen. All of us make them, & James acknowledges that (v. 2). Ideally, however, we should aspire to speaking and teaching with precision. When our words are sound, the whole “body” comes into line, just like a horse is controlled by a bit and bridle, and like a ship is controlled by a rudder as James points out (vv. 3-4).
On the other hand, if these small controlling mechanisms are used incorrectly, they can lead the whole community to a destructive destination (v. 5). James may be referring to rumors when he says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire” (v. 5).
A misplaced word by the “tongue” can incite an individual or a whole “body” of people to violence, despair or fear. It can bring forth “a world of iniquity” that sets on fire the very “cycle of nature” — the kind of stuff that is sparked by “hell” itself (v. 6).
When our speech is out of control, it has the potential to upset the entire created order. James refers back to the creation story in verses 7 and 8 when he reminds his readers that God gave humanity dominion over all the animals of the earth, and all of them have been “tamed” (not meaning “domesticated” but put in subjection to humanity).
But no human has been able to tame the “tongue” because it’s like trying to tame a venomous snake with a forked tongue. Out of the same mouth we can praise God one minute and, in the very next, curse another fellow human being made in the image of God (v. 9).
Like mindless reptiles, we tend to be driven by the reptilian part of our brain, also known as the Amygdala. The Amygdala is about the size of your thumb and sits at the base of the backside of the brain. This part of the brain does not think or feel. It only reacts and is driven by fight or flight syndrome. Thus we often speak (or tweet) without thinking about the implications of our words on others because we are reacting to what is said without taking time to think and reason
James says, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (v. 10). Instead, James says, we need to pay attention to the source of our words — to consider our internal thought processes from which our words spring forth. If a spring is full of fresh water, it won’t be pumping out nasty, undrinkable liquid (v. 11). A fig tree doesn’t produce olives, nor does a grapevine produce figs; and you can’t automatically get fresh water from salt water (v. 12).
Everything follows after its kind, James implies, and our words are the product of what’s going on inside of us. Rather than allowing our tongues and tweets to be controlled by a reptilian brain, the wise and understanding person leads a life in which actions and words emerge from a well of “gentleness born of wisdom” (v. 13) — the kind of wisdom that comes “from above” (v. 17).
So, how do we prime the pump for that kind of wisdom? How can we learn to “tame” our tongues to speak in ways that edify instead of sparking dissension and destruction?
Well, as James implies, it begins with considering how we think before we speak. That’s an especially important skill in a world where Twitter storms and nasty rhetoric seem to be the norm.
As Christians, we need to uphold a different way of speaking that is controlled and that emerges from the deep well of God’s wisdom. In other words, we need to engage the brain and the Spirit of God before we engage the tongue.
A recent book by Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs offers great advice for how to repair the connection between the brain and the tongue. When someone posts an outrageous tweet, we’re prone to wonder, “What were they thinking?” Chances are; they weren’t. Dr. Jacobs suggests that we all need to relearn how to think before we engage the process of how to speak.
In his book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Jacobs seems to be building on James’ advice when he offers his “Thinking Person’s Checklist” of good things to remember before we engage our tongues. While Jacobs lists 12 ideas for better thinking, we might summarize those ideas by boiling them down to three main categories.
First, be slow. In a world of instant messaging, Twitter and sound bites, it’s tempting to react quickly when confronted with an idea or a provocation. The reptilian brain wants to immediately fight or flee (or, in the case of Twitter, retweet or bang out a 280-character response).
But Jacobs suggests that when we’re tempted to respond quickly we should, instead, give it five minutes. Take a walk, make dinner, do some deep breathing — whatever it takes to get your body involved. When our bodies are moving, our brains tend to have time to process.
Forgo the need for an instant response to that nasty email or “idiotic” tweet. Consider not responding at all. Good and wise thinkers focus on thinking and responding about the right things, not about every thing. As James says earlier in the letter: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (1:19).
Second, be teachable. Jacobs suggests that we can all learn from others, even from those with whom we disagree. The key is found in choosing good conversation partners.
There are plenty of “trolls” out there, particularly on social media, who simply want to stir the pot. But as the old saying goes: “Don’t wrestle with pigs. You only end up getting dirty while the pig enjoys it.” Avoid those who fire off ideas like missiles and, instead, seek out the best and fairest-minded of people with whom you disagree.
Assume the best of people. You may believe they are wrong, but that doesn’t mean you get to categorize them as evil. After all, remember, you are often wrong, too (v. 2).
Building caricatures of others and their ideas is a poor use of our intellectual capital. Value learning over debating. Listen and learn in order to understand.
Finally, be honest. When you do speak, state what you think and believe with conviction but draw from the well of God’s wisdom and love. As James says, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (v. 17). When we speak out of that wisdom, “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (v. 18).
This is helpful wisdom and advice in an age where good thinking and speaking are in short supply. Words matter, so let us think and speak clearly, whether it’s with our mouths or with our keyboards!
@Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, September, 2018
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-16-18” name of the sermon.