Theme: Evil Heart, Evil Tongue
This week’s lessons remind us that all who have received the grace of God in Jesus Christ therefore need to demonstrate that grace in our conversations.
Scripture: Colossians 4:6
A number of years ago I became fascinated with the writings of Neil Postman, a professor of communication arts at New York University and author of the best-selling critique of our television-saturated society, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. One of my friends on the West coast knew of this interest and sent me an article about Postman from Harper’s Magazine. Actually it was about two people: Postman, who criticizes television, and a woman named Camille Paglia, who is a defender of it. Ms. Paglia is also a professor of humanities at Philadelphia College of the Arts. The article was a polished transcript of a conversation between these two very fascinating people.
But here is the delightful thing. The magazine’s editors had arranged this conversation around a four-star dinner—served in the private Tasting Room of New York City’s Le Bemardin restaurant, whose chef is Gilbert Le Coze. The editors had invited them to come to the restaurant to eat and talk. So as we were being told what they said, we were also told what they were eating. There would be an argument by Paglia. Then, for example,
…baked sea urchin…
After this there would be a further exchange between the two popular authors, followed by:
…shrimp and basil beignets…
In the course of this lively conversation the two dining companions enjoyed seared scallops in truffle vinaigrette, roast monkfish on savoy cabbage, and at the end a carousel of caramel desserts. I was as fascinated with the dinner as with the conversation.
Which was exactly the point, of course. For the setting was a device the editors had for indicating that the conversation between Postman and Paglia was well-prepared, satisfying, and extremely tasty.
Which also makes it a good introduction to our text, a verse in which the Apostle Paul applies the need for grace to the speech or conversation of Christians, using a gastronomic image: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). In this verse the word translated “conversation” is the common Greek word logos, usually translated “word” in other passages. So the verse is talking about the importance of our words or speech, and it is telling us that our speech should be gracious and not insipid to the taste. It should be well-seasoned.
Gracious speech flows from a heart that has been established in the grace of God. Gracious speech does not flow naturally from a sinful heart. But that is what we are all born with, according to the Bible. Jeremiah described the unregenerate heart by saying, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9)? This is the state of every heart apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and a heart like this speaks harmful, deceitful words, because it is exactly that—harmful and deceitful.
As I began to research this subject I found two things: 1.) Not many contemporary writers have dealt with the importance of how we speak, whether graciously or not; and 2.) The Bible has a lot to say about human words and conversation. Do you know that the very first mention of “words” in the Bible is in Genesis 4, where the evil despot Lamech is said to have used “words” to boast about having killed another man? His words are in verse 23-24, which makes this the first recorded poem in human history:
Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.
And it doesn’t get better after that. In Psalm 55:20, 21, David speaks of the man who attacks his friends, saying of him, “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart.” Psalm 64 speaks of people “who sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows” (v. 3). Psalm 94:4 speaks of evil men’s “arrogant words,” and Psalm 109:3 of hateful words (“words of hatred”). The author of Proverbs says, “The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the speech of the upright rescues them” (12:6); and also, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (12:18).
It is the same in the New Testament. Peter is concerned about false teachers who harm their listeners by words: “They mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity” (2 Pet 2:18, 19). Jude reminds us of “all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against [God]” (v. 15).
This is a problem for Christians too, of course, though it should not be. James writes about it in the third chapter of his very practical letter, warning Christians that their tongues are unruly by nature and can be quite dangerous:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the
whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven
by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to
go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider
what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of
evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course
of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles
and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can
tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (vv. 3-8).
The picture James gives is not overdrawn. We can think easily of people who have stirred the world to great harm by their words. Hitler is a prime example, and there have been other similar demagogues throughout human history. Whole nations, and whole decades, have literally been set on fire by the tongue. And James is right in something else too: “No man can tame the tongue.” The tongue is incorrigible. But “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). God can tame it. That is where hope lies. For just as certain as it is that evil people have used their eloquence to do evil, so also have many Christians been given grace to control their tongues and use whatever eloquence God has given them to teach his Word and praise him both in spirit and in truth.
There will never be genuine tongue control until we possess a new or renewed heart. But that is just what has been given to us when we become Christians. Because of God’s renewing work within we are able to let our “conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” and “know how to answer everyone” wisely and well.
What does it mean to speak graciously? How do the Bible references from the lesson help you to answer this?
Why do you think that there seems to be less written on the importance of our speech?
Can the tongue be a problem for Christians? Explain.
Reflection: Read again James 3:3-8. In what ways does your own tongue sometimes match this description? Pray regularly this week for God to tame your tongue and instead cause it to utter words of blessing and grace.