TEXT: James 3:1-12

This week I saw a plaque that said, "God, keep one hand on my shoulder and keep the other hand over my mouth." I think there are many places (my office, my home) where we could stand to see that message a lot. What James has to say here in the third chapter is very true, practical teaching. This is lesson number one on how to be a good disciple. James says it very plainly in verse 2. "For all of us make many mistakes." No question there. "Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking, is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle." He's not saying anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect in speaking, but is perfect, period. Because if we can get hold of what comes out of our mouth, it will keep everything else we do in check. It's the same thing that psychologists have been telling us, that Jesus told us long ago -- what comes out of the mouth reflects what's in the heart, and it's what's in the heart that makes us do the things that we do. Sin begins first in our heart. We get the next indication of it as it comes out of our lips. Then finally, as we have felt it inside, as we have spoken it aloud, we create it.

Pay very close attention to the creation of the world as it's told in Genesis. Things happen because God speaks. God says, and it was so. Time and time again, the Word is spoken and it's created. Psychologists will tell you that is very true. When we say something in the world, it creates something. The more we talk about something, the more likely we are to carry it out, for good or for ill. I was not a great scientist in my school and college years, but I remember being really struck by a principle in physics. There is a principle of sound that says when a sound goes out, it never goes away. Which means that every word that is ever spoken is still there somewhere. In a very real way, you cannot ever take back what you have said. I think that explains a lot of the feelings that some of us get and that the world records, where there are sacred places or places that make people feel creepy. When I've been on battlefields, for instance, there's a very difficult feeling where so many horrible and agonizing words have been spoken, and where so much hatred has been expressed. On the flip side, in places where holy words have been spoken, in some cases for millenia, it makes that place special, because those words are still there. If somebody could develop a scientific instrument that could bring back all those words, imagine hearing everything that had ever been spoken here. We've developed enough things lately that we never thought we could, that it ought to make us think twice before we say something.

Our words create and they endure, and James tell us we have got to watch what we say. The very first step in Christian discipleship is being able to keep track of what comes out of our mouths, and to guide and shape that to make sure that the words are good and kind and loving. It's the most basic form of self-control. As James says, if we get that right we're likely to get everything else right as well. The basic rule for Christian speech happens to be the basic rule for all the rest of Christian action -- do it in love. If you can't do it in love, don't do it. Whether it's speech or action, love is the guiding principle that underlies every law in scripture, that underlies everything God wants from us. We need to think about that.

Now some of us think about that so much that we don't say anything. We don't speak when we need to speak. Not all language needs to avoid confrontation. There are times when we have issues that are troubling us that we need to find a way to address. And that, in fact, is the loving thing. To lovingly confront and deal with the conflicts we have creates love. It doesn't destroy it. It creates trust, and it's a way for us to learn that we can be loved for who we are. The trick is learning how to say it in a loving way, in a way that won't tear down the other person, in a way that can focus on the particular behavior rather than the personality of the person.

I can't tell you how important it is to be able to speak when we need to speak. It's more true of me that I will not say what I should say rather than let loose at you and tear you down. That's my personality type. Other personality types tend the other way. We both have our strengths and our weaknesses. My weakness is not confronting the things that I need to confront. I can tell you that my ten-year marriage to my husband was broken and fell apart because neither of us would say anything when we needed to. I can count on one hand the number of times that we yelled at each other or had any argument that I can remember. We were the envy of everybody. We did not fight. But we should have. We should have brought up many things that were troubling both of us, and worked it through. Because we didn't, because both of us were afraid to speak, afraid to cause that conflict, not knowing how to say what we needed to say, then we drifted apart. Small annoyances became resentments and became things that divided us. Yes there was an affair, but that was a symptom, not the real problem. The problem was that we could not speak to each other in a way that was real communication about our own needs and desires. We need to be able to do that. So that's the message for those of you who are like me, who tend to be quiet and not say what we need to say.

On the flip side, for those of you who say anything that comes into your mind the way it comes into your mind, there are sometimes some better ways to say things. We need to think about the way that we say it. The basic way that we speak to one another is grounded theologically back in Genesis. We think about what we say to each other, and we say things in love, because we are created in the image of God, and because we are people for whom Christ died, and so is everyone else. You can't find anyone who is not created in the image of God. That's the definition of a human being. They may not know it or acknowledge it, but our reason for treating every other human being on this planet with dignity and respect is the fact that they are created in the image of God, and that they are people for whom Christ died. Remember Jesus' words, "Even as you've done it unto the least of these, so you've done it unto me." Remember that whenever you speak, the person you are speaking to is Jesus. They may not be acting like Jesus, but the image of God is in there. If you can take just a minute to remember that that's who you're speaking to, it's much more likely to rearrange the words that you're going to say.

We might think about what we're going to say if we're entering into a confrontation. We might think, "I have to talk to this person. How am I going to say it?" That's really good, to think it through ahead of time. I encourage you to do that. But often we don't think about the rest of our speech too much. We just go about our business and say what we say to family and friends, the people that we live and work with every day, and we're not really conscious of what we're saying. I encourage you, as you go through your day, to listen to yourself. Listen to what you say, not just in the difficult times, but in the run-of-the-mill times.

Most of you know that a couple of weeks ago my very dear cousin Lola passed away very suddenly at 42 years old. As I worked through that and prepared the eulogy for her funeral, I realized that I was so grateful that I had taken time to tell Lola when we were together how much I loved her, and how much I thought she did a wonderful job in raising her daughter (my goddaughter). So often we come to that point in life, and there are things we've never said. Not because we didn't feel them, but just because we never made our tongue open up and say the things that mattered to the people who mattered most.

So I encourage you to look at the things you say. How much of it is criticism? How much of it is loving? How do those weigh out in the balance? If you put them on a scale, do the loving words weigh heavier than the critical ones? I have found in my life that the best way to do self-reflection, to learn what I need to work on in my life, is to listen to the way that I talk to and about other people. I have found it to be absolutely true that when I start to hear myself say, "I really can't stand people who...," whatever follows that "who" is me. I'm not talking about things you just don't like. You know that feeling of things that really get your goat.

I remember realizing the day that I was judgmental. I had condemned that in other people for I don't know how long. I was cleaning up after church in the church that I attended in Atlanta, picking up things in the pews. I found myself judging someone who was judgmental in the church, and suddenly realized, "Oh God, Anne that's you! Look at the way you're judging everyone else." It's like the people who are tolerant of anything but intolerance. The little children's taunt, when somebody calls somebody else a name, they come back with, "It takes one to know one." That's true. I was right. They were judgmental. And the reason I was so good at recognizing it is that is was me. I've found that to be true over and over. And not just about the negative qualities. When you hear someone who is always seeing the good in other people, they're reflecting the good in themselves. The things that you always spot very quickly in other people are the things that are truest about yourself. I encourage you, if you want to know about yourself, which is a scary prospect, listen to what you say, especially about other people. Then shine the mirror back at yourself and say, "Where is this in my life?" Then make that an issue of prayer for God to help you get that out if it needs to get out. Or be grateful if what you recognize is the kindness and the humility and the love of others. It works both ways.

The most difficult thing for people is speech when we're in some kind of conflict. Because we couldn't go through all of these things, there's a blue insert in your bulletin that says "communication traps."


Try to avoid the following traps when you are working through a conflict:

1. Condemning. Separate the people from the problem.

  • Instead of saying: "You're a poor excuse for a human being."
  • Say instead: "I am not able to feel close to you when you are drunk."

2. Discrediting. Acknowledge the other person's feelings and concerns as valid.

  • Instead of saying: "The things you worry about are dumb."
  • Say instead: "I know you are worried about our financial future. I have another concern as well."

3. Exaggeration. Try to avoid absolute words like "always" or "never" or extreme phrases.

  • Instead of saying: "You never do anything to help me."
  • Say instead: "I know you do things to help, but I need help in other areas to really feel supported."
  • Instead of saying: "This is the worst thing I can imagine."
  • Say instead: "This is a major concern to me."

4. Threats. If you make a threat, the other person will become defensive. You might get your way, but it will do great harm to the relationship.

  • Instead of saying: "You either clean up your room or move out."
  • Say instead: "We seem to be stuck on this issue of cleaning your room. How can I make it easier for you?"

5. Blaming and inflicting guilt. Same warnings as for threats. You can win the battle and lose the war.

  • Instead of saying: "How could you come home so late, when you know how I worry about you."
  • Say instead: "I get very worried when I don't know where you are. Do you think we could find a way to help me worry less?"

6. Generalizations. Be specific about what you would like the other person to do. The problem may seem obvious to you, but it often is not to the other person.

  • Instead of saying: "You have just got to shape up to keep this job."
  • Say instead: "Your last report was not accurate in these areas. I need better accuracy next time."

7. Positioning. Try to get beyond a given position (e.g. "I want that window shut.") to the real concern you have (e.g. "I'm cold.") Positions are inflexible, but the underlying concern may have several possible solutions.

Especially if you're looking for a way to try to say things better when you're in conflict with someone, this is a way to help. When I do conflict workshops we go through these things point by point. There are two principles here that I want to highlight.

First, just about every correction of the traps listed is taking something that is directed at the other person, and making it a more reflective statement. "I statements" we call them -- taking a blaming statement ("you do this") and making it something that has to do with you ("when you do this, I feel this"). When you put the other person on the defensive you don't get anywhere. But when you come at it from a need that you have, the loving nature of the other person can be opened up to help with the situation. Turning around a statement from "you" to "I" won't make everything wonderful overnight. But the more you can incorporate that kind of language into the way that you talk to others, the easier it will be to get through to them.

The other principle that really helps in a conflict is #7. The trap is called "positioning" and I want to help you see the difference between "position" and "interest." When we stick to our positions, they are typically very inflexible. When you can get underneath the formal position to what your interests really are, what it is you really want, then there might be a multitude of options. A very simple example is two people sitting in a room, and the window is open. One person wants the window open, the other person wants the window closed. Those are two positions, and you can't ever reconcile those two positions. The window cannot be open and closed at the same time. David and I used to get up in the middle of the night, all night long in the winter time, and go to the thermostat. I would turn it up and I'd go back to bed. When I'd go back to sleep he'd sneak downstairs and he would turn it down. But if the two people sitting in the room with the open window would get beyond the positions to their interests, and the person who wants in closed says, "I'm cold," what they want to be is warmer. That opens up some more options. Maybe someone has a jacket. Maybe the two people could switch places so that the one who wants to be cooler can be closer to the window, and the one who's close to the window can avoid the draft. There are a number of different possibilities that open up when you can get below the formal position that you have to the real interests.

I did a huge church mediation in Atlanta. This entire church was divided over memorial money that had been given for a young man who liked to work with the children. Everyone agreed that what they needed to have was a playground. The two positions that had developed were, because the church had limited space, the playground could be next to the church in the memorial garden, or it could be across the street behind the youth minister's parsonage. Those were the two positions. They were entrenched and people were at war. The mothers were saying, "You hate our children. You want us to walk across a road, back to a place behind a house where no one can see. It will not be safe for our children. You value this memorial garden more than you value our living children." The people with the memorial garden had given these things in memory of people they loved dearly, people who had built the church and restored it. You can imagine the kind of thing that was going on. We ended up having 40 people in the church come out to mediate this conflict. When we could get beyond the two positions to say, "What we really want is a place for the kids to play," then some little timid soul said quietly in the corner, "We have a lot of indoor space. Maybe we could build an indoor playground." The whole thing was solved, and that's what they did. After they could get behind the positions that had gotten them there, and said, "What is the real interest that we have in common here?" then it was able to be solved.

That one also gave a good example of speaking. The chair of the board at that church was the most contentious man I think I have ever met in my life. We were about 45 minutes into the mediation and people were saying how they felt, and one woman who had several children who were hyper and were very difficult for her to handle, was telling about what a struggle it was with the children, wanting a place for them to be able to play, and how someone in the church had actually come to her and said, "Why don't you go away? Your children are too much of a disruption. They're not welcome here." She was sharing that hurt, and my dear, blessed, chairman of the board looked at her and said, "No one ever told you that." What he was thinking was that he was aghast that someone in the congregation could actually have said that. If he had said, "I am horrified that someone in this congregation actually told you that," we wouldn't have gone backwards half an hour. That's what he was feeling, and if he had thought about it for a minute and made it an "I" statement, we could have gone forward. But what he did was essentially tell her she was lying. It took me about another half hour to calm the place down and get us back to where we were. So think about the things that you say and the way that you say them.

The most important thing is that you say what you say with love in your heart. Remember that who you're talking to is someone made in the image of God, and a person for whom Christ died. They may be driving you crazy, but say that to yourself again and again until you can speak as if you were speaking to Jesus. Then, nine times out of ten, whatever you say is going to be all right.


(c) 2000, Anne Robertson

Return to Annerobertson.com