Words from hell?

Perhaps you know the feeling. You’re perplexed because what seemed like a small matter has been blown way out of proportion — at least from your point of view. You think to yourself, “All I said was…,” and wonder why the other person took it the way they did. You may even begin to blame the other person for being oversensitive, for always looking to find fault. And that thought makes you want to defend yourself or just walk away, shaking your head.

It’s true that people can be sensitive and overreact. But that doesn’t create a special class of human beings; to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all built that way. Negative, hurtful experiences train our brains to be wary and defensive, especially when the hurt is repeated or extreme. You may be sensitive in one area because of your history, while I’m sensitive in another. And while we may be perplexed at why someone else is sensitive in a particular way, hopefully, we can begin to recognize that the reaction itself represents our common humanity.

As we’ve seen, James wants us to realize that our words matter. Even the seemingly little things we say can have an outsized impact, like a tiny spark that ignites the emotional tinder that surrounds us:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of life, and is itself set on fire by hell. James 3:5-6, NRSVUE

But James is not writing from a psychological point of view; his vision is primarily a spiritual one. Notice his language: iniquity, stain, hell. That last word is actually Gehenna, referring to the Valley of Hinnom, which lay to the southwest of ancient Jerusalem. Jeremiah 7:30-34 suggests that the valley was the site of Judah’s horrific practice of sacrificing their children by fire to Molech (cf. also 2 Kings 23:10), making both the place and the people detestable to God (Jer 19:1-9). Not surprisingly, then, the name came to represent the place where the wicked would meet their final punishment.

We call it hell.

Again, James contrasts the seeming insignificance of the tongue with its true, oversized spiritual significance. It’s a small fire that can burn down an entire forest. It’s a small part of the body that can nevertheless stain the whole body, making it impure. It represents an entire world of sin and iniquity. And carrying through with his initial metaphor of fire, James says that the tongue can set our entire life ablaze, a fire originally kindled by the very flames of hell.

And we don’t take our words seriously?

I don’t know to what extent James is intentionally writing theology here. I am certain that he would not have wanted believers to blithely say, “Well, the devil made me say it!” Beyond that, we can only speculate what James might have believed about hell. There should be no question, however, that he wanted his readers to recognize how their words could serve wicked purposes, with consequences that could get out of control.

We need to get beyond thinking of sin as limited to intentional wrongdoing. Remember that James was trying to correct real behaviors he’d seen in the church. It’s not as if there were believers who woke up saying to themselves, “I’m going to go to church today and humiliate a poor person.” Rather, the hurtful behavior came as an unintended consequence of the values and priorities believers embodied. And in James’ view, this meant that they had not yet been fully transformed by the commandment to truly love one’s neighbor.

We also need to get beyond thinking of sin in individualistic terms. That’s not to say that individuals aren’t guilty of sin or shouldn’t be held accountable. Far from it. But we all have a tendency — yes, a sinful tendency! — to want to point the finger of blame at “bad” people to feel a bit more justified in ourselves. It is always spiritually dangerous to stand in judgment of others, because it tends to blind us to our own sinful motives, our own contribution to any problematic situation.

Recognizing these things should make us want to get better at reining in our tongues. As we’ll see, though, James seems a little skeptical about the possibility.