Are You a Verbal Assassin?
January 25, 2018
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (v. 11).
What exactly does James have in mind?
When he says, “Do not speak evil,” he uses a Greek word that is a combination of two other words, one meaning “against” and the other meaning “to speak.” Our English phrase “put down” perfectly captures the meaning. It is sometimes translated as “slander” or “criticize.” Related words include “vilify,” “gossip,” and “belittle.” Sometimes we use the expression, “bad-mouth,” as in “Don’t bad-mouth your friends,” or “No one wants to hire a person who bad-mouths their former boss.”
Don’t bad-mouth your friends
He adds an important qualifier. We must not speak evil against “one another.” The Greek word translated “brother” means “one born from the same womb.” Because we share a common spiritual heritage, we owe it to our brothers and sisters in Christ to treat them with courtesy. James doesn’t mean to limit this only to Christians. It’s not as if he is saying, “Be kind to fellow believers, but it’s okay to bad-mouth everyone else.” That’s obviously wrong. But his words remind us that we owe a debt of love to those who share our faith in Jesus Christ.
We must not spread rumors.
We must assume the best, not the worst.
We must be silent if we cannot be kind.
We must not rejoice when fellow believers fall into sin.
We must not rejoice in exposing their weaknesses.
We must not share things that are better left unsaid.
We must not lie to prove our point.
We must not exaggerate the faults of others.
We must not tell the truth to injure others.
If we say we never do this, we are lying to ourselves.
If we say we never do this, we are lying to ourselves
We love to talk about other people, to evaluate them, to discuss what they say and do and how they dress and who they hang out with. We talk about how he treats her and how she treats him and how they raise their children and how much money they have (or don’t have) and why they got a divorce and why he can’t hold a job and why she got fired and how the pastor is losing his touch. On and on it goes.
“I Hate to Share This But . . .”
This has special application to life in the local church because we’re dealing with fallible people who make many mistakes. We won’t have to look very hard to find someone doing something that irritates us. This is especially true when controversy comes. How easy it is to impute bad motives to those who disagree with us. After all, we’re doing the Lord’s work (or so we think).
It happens like this. The whisperer pulls you into a room and says, “I hate to share this, but I must.” He is sorry to be the bearer of bad news about a mutual friend. After spreading his story, he begs you to keep it confidential. Meanwhile, he goes down the hall to share it with someone else.
Bad news outsells good news
Social media encourages critical comments because criticism draws attention. Do you want more likes on your Facebook post or more retweets? Make a catty comment, offer a clever retort, use foul language. Bad news outsells good news. Harsh words make headlines, a fact our politicians exploit to their benefit.
That’s our world.
Become a verbal assassin and watch your stock rise.
We can say it shouldn’t be this way, especially among Christians, and that would be true. But we are not exempt from the temptation to be unkind.
William Barclay points out that few sins are so thoroughly condemned in the Bible as gossip, slander, and evil speech. Romans 1:30 classifies the slanderers as next to the “haters of God.” Search the Bible from cover to cover. Not one good word is spoken about gossip, rumormongering, evil speech, critical comments, backbiting, and ugly talk.
Not. One. Good. Word
Not. One. Good. Word.
Few things are more enjoyable than a bit of gossip.
Few things are so completely condemned.
James goes on to give two reasons why it’s wrong to be a verbal assassin.
Reason # 1: You break God’s Law
“The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (v. 11).
The argument goes like this:
- You slander your brother.
- But God said to love your brother.
- You therefore act as if what God says doesn’t matter.
- You have “judged” the law by judging your brother.
Suppose you are in a hurry to get home after a busy day at work. While driving you come upon a “work zone” with a sign telling you the speed limit is 25 miles per hour. You look around, see no one in sight, and you cruise along at 55 miles per hour. That is a foolish and dangerous thing to do because there may be workers you have not seen. You might be stopped and given a ticket. But that’s not the point. By going 30 miles over the speed limit, you are “judging” that the law doesn’t apply to you. Because you are tired and in a hurry, you disregard the law and act as if it doesn’t matter. You are saying, “This law is stupid, and I don’t have to obey it.” That’s exactly what James is talking about.
“God’s law doesn’t apply to me
Every foolish remark, every critical comment, every unkind tweet is a way of proclaiming, “I can say what I want because God’s law doesn’t apply to me.”
Verbal assassins attack because they think they can get away with it. But James offers a second reason to take this warning seriously.
Reason # 2: You Usurp God’s authority
“There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (v. 12).
Note the reason James gives: “There is only one lawgiver.” In theory we all agree to this. We understand there is one God who reigns supreme because he created all things. The One who made the universe makes the rules that govern the universe.
His sovereignty is unrivaled.
His authority is unquestioned.
His will is unchanging.
His record is unblemished.
His steps are untraceable.
His wisdom is unparalleled.
His power is unending.
His words are unprecedented.
His kingdom is unstoppable.
No one can veto God’s will
Because he is God, he does what he pleases, and no one can persuade him to change his mind. When he sets the stars in their courses, no one can alter their path through the skies. When he makes a declaration, no one can veto his plans.
James wants us to think about God in superlative terms. The bigger our God, the more we will appreciate what he says and does.
He alone gives life.
He alone takes life.
He alone can save.
He alone can destroy.
When you criticize, you are saying, “I know better than God does.” The judging here is the kind condemned by Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5. It’s sinful judging that virtually puts us in the place of God. We can judge words and deeds, but we can’t judge the heart. We can know what a person does; we can’t know with certainty why he did it. Only God can peer into the hidden recesses of the heart to judge motives with unerring accuracy.
Only God can judge the heart
Sometimes I hear Christians being very careless about passing judgment on certain politicians they don’t like. We live in angry times. It feels like the national blood pressure has gone up 100 points in the last few years. It’s easy to listen to a leader you don’t like and quickly declare that “so-and-so can’t possibly be a Christian.” To be clear about it, it is perfectly possible to claim to be a Christian and yet not know the Lord. But that warning is not given so we will judge politicians we don’t like. The warning is given so we will judge ourselves.
Make sure you know the Lord.
Let God take care of that politician.
It’s not my job to determine who goes to heaven.
That’s God’s job.
I’m in sales, not administration.
General Douglas MacArthur
Recently I’ve been reading American Caesar, William Manchester’s majestic biography of General Douglas MacArthur. Manchester quotes from MacArthur’s speech in September 1945 at the surrender of the Japanese forces on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Buried in that speech are these prophetic words regarding the future of war in an atomic age:
We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.
Those words seem as true today as they were 73 years ago. Alas, warfare has not ceased, and Armageddon is still at our door. I was struck by the phrase I underlined: “The problem basically is theological.” What causes hatred between nations? Why do we brag and strut and threaten to rain destruction on each other? Why do the nations rage? For that matter, why do marriages break up, why do families fall apart, and why do churches split? Why can’t we all get along? The problem is basically theological. That’s precisely the point James is making. We attack each other because we have abandoned God. We hate each other because we do not respect the Ten Commandments. We speak evil against each other because we think we know better than God.
The First Temptation
Should that surprise us? After all, what was the first temptation? The serpent whispered to Eve, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). No wonder she ate the fruit. No wonder Adam ate it too. We all want to be like God. We all want to run our own little corner of the universe. When you decide to play God, you can say anything you want, you can treat people like dirt, you can attack their motives, you can make absurd accusations, you can write anything you like on Facebook, you can stir up a tweetstorm, and you can post anonymous criticism.
I’m in sales, not administration
Why not? When you are God, no one can tell you what to do. That’s the whole point of this passage.
It’s amazing how all roads lead back to the same question: Who’s going to be God today? If you’re going to be God, the rest of us better take cover because you can blow your top and justify anything you say. You can spew venom and destroy your friends, drag down your pastor, blow up your favorite ministry, and leave a trail of bitter tears in your wake. But that’s not all. If you are going to be God, you can do whatever you want and walk away laughing because you have justified yourself in your own mind. You answer to no one.
That’s what’s at stake in this passage.
Who’s going to be God today?
Who will be God today? If God is God, then there will be no room for bitter words because you respect the Lord. You will hold your tongue because you believe vengeance belongs to the Lord. You will be careful with your words because you know the Lord hears everything you say. You will pause before posting that snarky comment because you don’t want to judge someone unfairly.
Excuses We Make
We struggle with the sin of evil speaking because it doesn’t seem like a great sin to us. It’s so easy to excuse our unkind words:
“I was tired.” (We’re all tired.)
“It was her fault.” (Then let the Lord deal with her.)
“What I said was the truth.” (But you said it harshly.)
“They had it coming.” (Who appointed you as the Lord’s avenger?)
“This needed to be said.” (Maybe it did, but why say it in anger?)
“I’m doing God’s work.” (Are you sure about that?)
Truth must be spoken
Let’s be clear. Truth must be spoken. Rebuke must be given. Crimes must be punished. Sinful behavior must be confronted. Troublemakers must be dealt with. The wolf in sheep’s clothing must be exposed. Jesus used extremely strong language when he confronted the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Sometimes we will have to say things others don’t want to hear. Even when we speak with thoughtfulness, our words may seem harsh. This passage isn’t telling us to keep silent in the face of evil, but we must not return “evil for evil” in the way we speak, or we have descended to the level of those we criticize.
In the biography of D. L. Moody written by his son, the story is told of a church seeking a pastor that asked Mr. Moody’s opinion of a certain candidate. Moody paused, went to the window, looked out in deep thought, then turned and said, “He has too much of the tomahawk in him.” Later events, his son remarked, were to prove that judgment accurate.
The Log and the Speck
It’s hard to find the right balance between grace and truth. We all tend to fall off the fence on one side or the other. But that’s why we need the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:5,
“Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (HCSB).
It’s easy to see a speck in your brother’s eye, and much harder to see a log in your own. When we deal with the faults of others, our greatest need is for clear vision. First, we must see clearly. And we cannot do so until we have removed the impediment from our own eyes.
It’s hard to see the log in your own eye
To simply gaze on the sins of others is vain and empty and wrong. It turns us into judgmental Pharisees who are quick to condemn. But once we are cleansed and humbled by the Lord, then we are ready to remove the speck from a brother’s eye. He will be glad for us to do it because he knows we are not there to condemn but to help.
If we are hasty with our words, we can cause more harm than good. There is a difference between someone who loves you and wants to help you and someone who puts you under a microscope only to find fault with all you do. I have found that those most critical of others tend to have the most sins in their lives. Those closest to God tend to be the most charitable. They are the quickest to forgive, quickest to restore, and the quickest to help someone who is struggling with sin.
If we stand back and think about this passage, it should lead us to a simple conclusion: We must be careful and cautious when we speak.
Think before you speak!
Pray before you speak!
Pause before you speak!
Pray before you speak!
Don’t be a verbal assassin. Say nothing about others that you would not want them to say about you. Say nothing about others that you would not say in their presence. Most of all, say nothing about others that you would not say if Jesus were standing by your side.
It’s easy to think a message like this doesn’t apply to us. Or we think it applies to us a little, but we know someone who needs this a lot more than we do. Perhaps it would be helpful if you gave this message to your spouse or to a close friend and asked them, “How much of this applies to me?” That’s risky, but it’s also the path to new spiritual growth.
“How much of this applies to me?”
We will never control our tongue on our own. We need Jesus to help us. We need the Lord living in us and through us. He alone can tame the tongue and replace the smell of brimstone with the fragrance of heaven.
Over a century ago, Kate Wilkinson wrote a hymn that sums up the application of this text. After meditating on Philippians 2:5, which exhorts us to “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus,” she penned a few verses that became the beloved hymn May the Mind of Christ My Savior. It’s the only hymn we have from her pen, but it’s a fine one. We will let her first verse serve as the final prayer of this sermon:
May the mind of Christ, my Savior,
Live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling
All I do and say.