For the month of February, my Sunday school class that I teach has been studying the book of James. It has been a challenging month as we have wrestled with many of the difficult teachings contained in this New Testament letter. James beings with his teaching on the testing of our faith that leads to perseverance. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). There are not many of us who welcomes this development of perseverance through trials. James tells us that we must believe and not doubt, “because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). James then writes: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). James continues his strongly worded message by saying, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, Do what it says” (James 1:22). Then James finishes off the first chapter by telling us that if we do not keep a tight rein on our tongue, then our religion is worthless (James 1:26). This study really got some emotions stirred up in us as we were forced to examine how we live out our daily lives in light of the principles that James presents to us.
And finally, that difficult lesson that I was dreading to teach: Controlling your speech or taming the tongue. If we are honest, most of us would admit that we do a poor job of taming our tongue. We often speak before we think and we repeatedly fail to listen to the person that we are talking to. Remember the words of James in 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” If we truly lived out this advice from James; to become good listeners who are slow to speak, and even slower to become angry, there would be more harmony and less confrontation in the world.
Our lesson was from James chapter 3, and this chapter begins with a strong admonition to those of us who teach. James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Thanks James! I am already struggling with teaching this lesson and now you go and make it even more difficult for me to teach. The early church had many false teachers who would distort the truth and James was warning the early church about these types of people. But his warning was to all teachers, because of the responsibility we have to those that we teach. It’s not enough to just teach the word, we must “do what it says.”
The week that I was to teach the lesson began like any other normal week, but as the week progressed I could feel myself becoming more stressed and the tension beginning to build. It was truly one of those “perfect storm” weeks where everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I thought that I had done a really good job of holding it all together and I patted myself on the back several times, admiring the perseverance that I had developed during the week. On Wednesday however, things began to unravel even more quickly and I soon found myself beginning to unravel as well.
Early Thursday morning, a coworker of mine made a mistake that he had made numerous times before. However, this time his mistake cost me several valuable minutes that I did not have to spare and I must admit that I did not respond in a Christian or James like manner. In fact, I used my tongue and my words to tear this man down. As soon as those words came out of my mouth, I regretted saying them but it was too late. The damage had already been done and I had spoken words that I could not take back. I thought, “Great! I have a Sunday school lesson to teach on controlling your speech and I have just failed miserably by saying some hurtful words.”
To be honest, I avoided my coworker that entire day. I knew that I had deeply hurt him and upset him and so I just kept my distance. After two restless nights, I decided that I needed to apologize to him for the way that I had conducted myself and for the unkind words that I had spoken. I reached out to him and tried to apologize but he was not really interested in anything that I had to say at that point. And for the remainder of that day and night, I just felt miserable. This was simply the worst feeling that I have experienced in recent memory. And to make matters worse, I had to teach a Sunday school lesson on controlling your speech! How could I do that without being a hypocrite? I recall thinking that God must be having a good laugh at the predicament that I had myself in.
Fast forward to Sunday morning and I notice that our attendance is a little lower this morning. Good, I thought, maybe I can somehow teach this lesson and just get this over with. Someone then remarked (jokingly of course) that our topic this week must have been too difficult for our absent class members to handle and I sank lower into my seat. “Great, I’m the teacher and this topic is too much for me to handle,” I recall thinking. When the moment came to share a time when you said something that you wished you could take back, no one spoke up with a real life example. Through the piercing silence, I could almost hear God saying to me, “Go ahead and tell the class what you did this week.” And so I did.
I gave them the ugly details of how I used words to tear someone down instead of building them up. They listened and someone asked me if I had apologized. I told them that I did and that my apology was not well received. I must say that it was a relief to confess my failure to “tame my tongue.” Nevertheless, I knew that I had to attempt to apologize again for the hurtful words that I had spoken.
I went back to my coworker and I asked him if we could talk privately for a moment. He agreed and we sat down in my office. Without making any excuses, I simply told him that I was sincerely sorry for what I said to him. I told him that it was not in my nature to tear other people down and that I hoped he could forgive me someday. He looked at me and said, “I have already forgiven you.” I won’t go into any further details except to say that at that moment a huge burden was lifted from me. While going back to this man a second time and asking for forgiveness was a difficult thing to do, it was most certainly the right thing to do.
I want to leave you with this one last passage from James. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:9). Forgive us God, when we curse instead of bless, all men and women, who are created in your image.