Words That Wound
Words, Speech, Gossip, Slander, Criticism
The story is told that Winston Churchill was attending an official ceremony in London once in his later years. Two men sitting behind him recognized him and began to whisper back and forth to each other. “They say Churchill’s quite senile now,” said the one. “Yes, they say he’s doing England more harm than good,” replied the other. “They say he should step aside and leave the running of this government to younger, more dynamic people,” continued the first man. Churchill turned around and in a loud voice added, “They also say he’s quite deaf!”
Like Winston Churchill, most of us have had the experience of being attacked with words. Most anyone who is in the public eye experiences this quite regularly. Teachers, coaches, board members, politicians, business owners, just about everyone has felt the sting of words meant to belittle or attack. This is often the case even within the church. It’s not uncommon for people to tell young pastors that they need to develop a “thick skin”. It has been said that the Christian church is the only army that shoots its own wounded. The world is a very painful place to live, but the church is often just as painful—sometimes even moreso.
We see this trend and think that it is simply a fact of life that cannot be avoided, that we must simply learn to deal with these harsh words. While that is true to some extent in the world, it should not be the case in the church. This morning, as we look at James 4:11–12, James again focuses on the impact of our words on others, and why we must seek to control our speech.
He starts by giving us the command, “Brothers, do not slander one another.” Now, if you have a version other than the NIV, you might notice that slander is translated differently in your Bible. There is some debate over the proper translation of these words. Let me read you how the New American Commentary explains this difficulty.
It is important that we understand the precise wording of this command as the Greek has it, because it actually forbids more than slander. Literally the command is, “Do not speak down on one another, brothers,” or “Do not speak against one another, brethren” (NASB). Slander is malicious speech that is untrue. But the command here forbids any speech (whether it is true or false) which runs down another.
So with this understanding of the text, I think there are probably three different ways in which we can “speak against” each other.
The first way that we speak against each other is slander. Slander is when we spread false statements about another person in order to bring them down. The Internet has made slander a greater problem than ever. We see it in terms of cyber-bullying, in gossip columns, and especially at election time. In the church, we slander each other when we imply that a person is weak in the faith (or has no faith at all) because of their beliefs (i.e. they disagree with our beliefs). We slander each other when we claim to know the motives behind another person’s actions, service, or absence from worship. We understand the serious nature of making up lies about another person, so you would think that slander would be absent from churches. Unfortunately, it seems that knowing that slander is wrong is not enough to keep us from doing it.
Gossip is the second way we can speak against each other. Gossip is a bit more difficult to define. I suppose you might say that gossip is passing on information about another person that will damage their character. Notice that gossip does not require the information we are passing on to be false—it simply requires that it be damaging.
There’s no denying the presence of gossip in the church. Gossip is enticing, we all want to “know the scoop.” We understand that passing along false information is bad, but the prevailing wisdom is that it’s not gossip if it’s true. That is a lie from the Devil.
Imagine you went to a party and saw another member of the church with a half-empty beer bottle in his hand. You say nothing to that person, but tell your friends what you saw. While it is true that the person may have had a bottle of beer in his hand, you don’t know why, and by passing that information along you are serving to tarnish his reputation by implying that the person is a drunkard. Or imagine that you see a church member out to lunch with a person they are not married to. You might immediately go and tell others what you saw, leaving them to jump to their own conclusions. What you are saying may be true, but in doing so you destroy the reputation of another by implying infidelity.
It is not simply enough for us to avoid spreading lies about another person. We need to seek to not “speak against” another person as well. The principle is quite simple, if the information we are passing on is going to damage or diminish someone else’s character, then it is probably sin.
Criticism is the third aspect of this command. Criticism is far more insidious than slander and gossip. Criticism is sharing a negative opinion (or we might call it a “concern”) about another person. Let me share with you what Kent Hughes writes on the subject.
…Some reject running down another behind his or her back, but believe it is OK if done face to face. These persons are driven by a “moral” compulsion to make others aware of their own faults. Fault-finding is, to them, a spiritual gift. I once knew a young man who, after reading the list of the seven gifts mentioned in Romans 12, decided he had the gift of prophecy. The prophets, he observed, were confrontational, acerbic, and sharp-tongued, just as he was, so he must have the gift!
Criticism is seen as an acceptable sin in the church today. We have emphasized the importance of being honest with each other and not talking about people behind their backs, so it makes sense that some would conclude that we should talk about people to their faces. The problem with that conclusion is that we are missing the point of the commandment. James’ point isn’t that we shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs, but that we are not to wound each other with our words.
Much of the criticism that we dole out is simply designed to make us feel better. It has nothing to do with God’s Word, and everything to do with our own preferences.
There is a story about a pastor who was greeting his parishioners one Sunday after church. One of the church members came up to him with scissors in hand and informed him that the length of the tassels on his robe was really a hindrance to her worship, so she asked if she could shorten them for him. Feeling as though he had little choice, he allowed her to cut his tassels to an “acceptable” length. After she finished, he asked if she felt better. She said she did. The pastor then informed her that there was something that was a hindrance to his worship and asked if she’d be willing to help him. She happily agreed. He asked her to stick out her tongue and hand him the scissors.
I talked to someone just this week who said, “I wouldn’t dare be honest with the people in my church about the struggles I face. I would share those things with my friends, but not the people at my church—I’m too afraid they’ll try to use my struggles against me.” The church should not cause such pain in people.
Of course, criticism doesn’t only happen in face to face encounters. Far more often criticism occurs behind people’s backs. Think about it. At some point during the last week, there is a good chance that you either heard or uttered the words, “Can you believe that…”
Can you believe she’s wearing that?
Can you believe he just said that?
Can you believe they pay him to do that?
Can you believe they just bought that?
Can you believe he didn’t know that?
Can you believe he thinks that?
Can you believe she supports that candidate?
These statements are all critical. And these kinds of statements are very common in our society and in our community. In a small community like this, most of us know what’s going on with others. Instead of using that information as an opportunity to offer help in meaningful ways, we use it to criticize, to pass judgment, and to tear others down.
Criticism is a dangerous habit to get into and one that is, in our minds, easy to overlook. We know gossip and slander are wrong, but we seem to think that criticism is ok. It’s not.
James gave us the command not to tear down others with our words but now he seeks to explain why doing so is such a problem for Christians. In the second half of verse 11, James gives us the first reason that we should not speak against our brothers.
Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. (James 4:11, NIV)
James says that anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law. In other words, when we judge others we are breaking the very law we claim to enforce. How are we breaking the law? According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and strength, and the second is to love our neighbor as ourself. So, if we are to love our neighbors then engaging in slander, gossip, or criticism is not keeping the law. When we have a judgmental spirit that tears down others, we are essentially claiming that there are some parts of God’s law that don’t apply to us.
The second reason that James tells us this behavior is wrong and dangerous is found in verse 12,
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12, NIV)
James’ point here is very similar to his first point. Not only do we set ourselves above the law itself, but in essence, we are setting ourselves above the one who gave the law. We are playing God. This is a serious offense. In our country, it would be the equivalent of treason.
C.S. Lewis said that the sins of the flesh (like sexual immorality) aren’t nearly as serious as spiritual sins such as this. He said that when we take pleasure in putting people in the wrong, bossing others around, patronizing people, backbiting, and gaining power, we are setting ourselves up against God. He concludes,
That is why a cold, self-righteous prig, who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it’s better to be neither.
When we seek to set aside God’s law, we are demonstrating a rebellious nature, a challenge to God’s authority; and when we challenge God, we are in great danger.
Of course, this raises an interesting question. Does this mean that we should never correct someone? That seems to be a common theme in today’s society. As a matter of fact, the one verse that most people (Christian or not) know is Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” Their argument is that we have no right to point out sinful behavior.
That isn’t at all what James is saying, and it certainly wasn’t what Jesus was saying. Throughout his letter James tells his readers that they are engaging in sinful behaviors and need to change. What a hypocrite he would be if he suddenly now said that we were not supposed to correct people in sin! The same is true of Jesus. Just a few verses later in Matthew 7, Jesus tells us that we can judge a true prophet from a false prophet by his fruit—in other words, we should judge everything according to God’s Word.
James is not saying that we should not seek to correct others when they are in sin, but that we should not determine for ourselves what sin is. When we are correcting others with scripture we are not setting ourselves up over the law, we are acknowledging the law’s authority. Most of the “correction” that we seek to give others is not scriptural in nature—in fact, it is often our opinion. That is sin.
James is also telling us that when we seek to correct others in sin, the goal needs to be to restore people, not to damage them. The Bible refers to this process as rebuke. There are certainly times when we need to rebuke others, but the goal is not to “put them in their place” or to expose them as hypocrites; the goal of rebuke is to lovingly point out an area of sin and seek to help the person change. There isn’t a judgmental spirit or an air of superiority, simply a desire to help. Rebuke is not something that we should take lightly; Jesus said that before we point out the speck that is in our brother’s eye, we need to remove the plank from our own eye. In other words, we need to examine ourselves long before we seek to examine others.
So, what should we take away from this passage? Obviously, we need to work at ridding ourselves of slander, gossip, and criticism. These things are destructive to the people around us, but they are also indicative of a rebellious spirit that usurps God’s place as the one and only Judge. So I think we have to start by looking at our attitudes.
Often there is an attitude of pride that lies behind our judgmental speech. Though we would never admit it, our words show that we think more highly of ourselves than the person we’re talking about. We are acting as though they don’t deserve the same respect that we would demand for ourselves. The way to combat pride is to spend time with God. The more we understand God’s character, the more we will understand how much our character is lacking. When we begin to see ourselves as God sees us, we will see others as He sees them too.
In the verses that preceded this passage, James told us that we should recognize our sin and seek to eradicate it and live godly lives. We need to see our own faults and ask for God’s help in overcoming them. We spend a great deal of energy looking for the faults in other people. What if we devoted that same energy to identifying and correcting the faults that we ourselves posses? I’m not saying that you should try to make yourself feel bad about who you are. What I am saying is that we need to recognize our own sin for what it is. If we spent our time working on correcting our own faults, we’d have far less time to fix everyone else’s.
Ultimately, I think the best way for us to stand guard against these kinds of behaviors is to learn the difference between our opinion and God’s commands. We need to take James’ advice from chapter 1 and be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. The slow to speak portion of the command doesn’t just mean that we should think about what we are going to say—that’s certainly important, but even more important is that we think about why we are saying it. What is the motivation for what you are about to say? Are you about to pass judgment on another person because you don’t like what they are doing, or are you seeking to correct and restore them because God doesn’t like what they are doing? Are you judging someone’s motives (which of course you can’t possibly know)? Are you seeking to elevate yourself? Are you trying to appear “spiritual”? These are the questions that we need to ask before we speak; and once we’ve answered them, we may find that we should keep quiet.
For the last two weeks we’ve been looking at James’ instruction to submit ourselves to God’s authority. The way we speak to one another is a good test of how well we have submitted to God. You have probably been on the receiving end of someone else’s judgmental speech in the last week. You know the pain it can cause. So let me challenge you to work at reversing the trend this week. You can’t keep yourself from being attacked, but you can keep yourself from doing it to other people.