How do you engage in dialogue when your tongue is “set on fire by hell”?
The biblical letter of James says quite a bit about the power of speech, none of it good. With the tongue we bless and curse. In our speech is “a world of iniquity.” The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Worst of all, according to the passage, no one can tame it.
Hyperbole? To an extent—though anyone who has suffered from the destructive power of gossip, slander, or insult can attest to the truth of these words. The question is, once we know how destructive our speech can be, what do we do about it?
After 35 years of studying the Bible, I thought I had the answer nailed. Our job as people of faith was to vet our speech carefully, think before we speak, remain silent when in doubt. It’s hard to argue with that advice: we do want to be precise in our language, so that we communicate our insights clearly and accurately and discuss sensitive issues with care.
But this solution, if it is the only solution, has serious flaws. Most notably, it is too easy to slide from careful speech to an attitude of fear. Aware of the issues our speech can raise, we begin to fear that we can’t get our words right, or that people will misinterpret them, or that they will inflame sensitivities on certain issues. As we distrust our tongue, we distrust ourselves. We might choose to hide ourselves within the bounds of “nice speech,” the kind that doesn’t bring up “politics and religion.”
That may get us through difficult situations without taking flak. But it prevents us from sharing our uniqueness—that one-of-a-kind perspective that just might change someone’s mind or shed new light on a problem.
I think the author of James had something else in mind. Early in the passage, he or she asserts that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect” while freely admitting that “all of us make many mistakes.” In other words, it would be lovely if we could conquer our tongues—but it ain’t going to happen.
So what will work? The author waits till the end to offer this hint: “Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” Translated: “out of the mouth the heart speaks.” We can only say what we are.
The challenge, then, is to change who we are.
This is why I believe our preparation for dialogue must start long before we get to the dialogue table. We need time to change from the inside out: to reorient our heart to openness and compassion, our mindsets toward curiosity, our awareness to the fact that we don’t have all the answers. If we do that, we can approach others with an orientation toward dialogue—with a clear mind and an open heart.
Best of all, we don’t have to keep such a close watch on our speech. When we speak from a good heart, good words tend to come out.
Changing from the inside out is a long process, of course, and taking care with our language is a virtue. But inner transformation can liberate us to share freely, speak boldly, and listen intensely—to participate fully in dialogue and the potential it can bring our world. A powerful message from an ancient sage.