I can’t remember ever being able to bend down and touch my toes. I’ve never been physically flexible. And yet, if I’m honest, I have to admit I have spent a lot of my time with my foot in my mouth.
I talk a lot. And I don’t even say everything that I think of to say. I keep a lot of it to myself. But too many times, like Lightning McQueen at the end of a race or Michael Jordan going up for a dunk, my tongue is taking the lead. It’s the tiny rudder steering the large ship of my life (Jam. 3:4).
That puts me on dangerous ground, since, as James says, “The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jam. 3:6-8).
In a lot of ways, you could say a pastor’s job is to talk. I have to talk to a lot of people about a lot of things, and then once a week I get up in front of the church and monologue for a while, filling up the minutes with word after word after word.
Surely, with all of that talking, I am bound to say something bad…occasionally. After all, if I could control my tongue, then I would be perfect (Jam. 3:2). But I don’t have a choice. My calling and my job are to preach and teach. I must talk.
So of course, since I have to talk so much, since it’s all for ministry, God will cut me some slack, right? If I slip up now and again, it’s not that big of a deal, right?
Unfortunately for me, James says, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment” (Jam. 3:1). Pastors will not be cut more slack. They will be held to a higher standard than others.
As Jesus says, “I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36). Teachers even more so.
Then, should I just throw in the towel and quit? How can I tame the untamable tongue?
Both James and Jesus emphasize that what we say is the overflow of the fountain in our souls – the fruit of the heart-tree (Matt. 12:33-35; Jam. 3:11-12). If we want what comes out to be sweet, then we need to fill up our hearts and minds with what is good and excellent (Phil. 4:8).
Furthermore, I tend to think in terms of what I want to say or what I think ought to be said. But Paul instructs us to think about what others need to hear – what would bring them grace in that moment (Eph. 4:29). If I can turn my attention away from all the thoughts racing through my mind, and instead pay attention to the needs of others, I will inevitably spend less time with my foot in my mouth.
Randall Curtis serves as the Rhode Island regional coordinator for the Baptist Convention of New England.