In my last post I stressed the importance of words, the worth of words, and in this sequel I have felt led to focus on the power that words have – the power to hurt or to heal, the power to encourage or discourage, the power to build up or tear down, the power to make others sad or glad, the power to keep the peace or to create discord, the power to speak the truth or the power to lie, the power to speak the truth in love or the power to simply clobber people with the truth, the power to return anger for anger or to practice the biblical principle of blessing ( i.e. to be a blessing, for then you will also “inherit a blessing” – I Peter 3:9). Therefore, the Apostle James gives his brothers and sisters in Christ this wise counsel: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). “Quick to listen,” for listening is loving. “Slow to speak,” for our words can do terrible harm. “Slow to anger,” “…so that nothing may hinder your prayers” (I Peter 3:7).
“THEREFORE“ (James uses this transitional word again and again; so does the Apostle Paul, and other New Testament authors, so whenever you find “THEREFORE” in their letters, find out what it’s there-for! One good example is seen in the first verse of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12: “I appeal to you THEREFORE brothers and sisters (i.e. in Christ, and in the Body of Christ), by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (also translated “your reasonable service”). Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing if your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God is – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (RSV). In the original manuscripts there were no chapter or verse numberings, and this verse is actually the connecting verse to what Paul had been saying in the first eleven chapters, which are known today as the “doctrinal section” of Romans. Chapter 12 begins the “practical section” of this letter, the most theological of all the letters Paul wrote, but also the letter in which Paul is asking his readers: “If you are in agreement with what I have been saying, if you really believe this Gospel, if you truly think I have told you the truth about “justification,” life “in the flesh” and “life in the Spirit,” and true “righteousness” – if you want your own life to be pleasing to God, if you want to be more like Jesus, then what do you intend to do about it?”
This is why I have capitalized the word “THEREFORE,” for it is used so frequently in the epistles of the New Testament to connect theology with the practical dimensions of Christian discipleship (i.e. being “followers”of Jesus,” loving as He loved, living as He lived, seeing others through His eyes, bestowing honor on others in a ministry of affirmation and encouragement, seeking to be a blessing to others by being “doers” of the Gospel and “not hearers only,” which includes the way we speak as followers of Jesus, being “slow to speak” but “quick to listen” – praying for the Spirit to guard our mouth, to control our tongue (James 1:13-16, 2:1, 3:8-10, 4:1-5 and 7-11, 5:6-11). I hope you will discover for yourself through meditation on these scriptures that Christianity is so much more than a system of theology (i.e. doctrine). Doctrine without deeds is dead! Words without works is worthless! JESUS HIMSELF TEACHES US THAT FAITH WITHOUT WORKS CANNOT SAVE (Matthew 25:31-46), as well as Paul (Galatians 5:6).
The teachings of Jesus are designed for practical use: Romans 2:1-3, 6:12-13, 12:1-2; I Corinthians 10:12-14, 15:58; II Corinthians 4:1-7; Galatians 3:23-28; Ephesians 4:1-6, 4:25-32, 6:12-18; and Philippians 2:12-15. The Apostle Paul tells us that if we take the Gospel of Jesus Christ seriously we “…must get rid of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language (Colossians 3:8). We must recognize the relationship between what we say we believe and how we behave, how we think and how we treat others, for our thought life is reflected in our relationships, in our daily living. Once again, this is why Paul gives this exhortation: “THEREFORE, brothers and sisters, I appeal to you…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds“ (Romans 12:1-2). There is nothing wrong with our minds, except we fill our minds with the wrong thoughts, the thoughts of this world: critical thoughts, judgmental thoughts, angry thoughts, vengeful thoughts, jealous thoughts, covetous thoughts, etc. Our minds were not made to think the thoughts of this world; they were created to think the thoughts of God!
How we think will be seen in how we relate to others, in how we respond to others. Call to remembrance all those “one another” passages from the New Testament that I shared in previous blog posts. For example such as “honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). That is certainly not how our self-centered and competitive culture has encouraged us to respond, especially when we feel we were “passed over” in the workplace when someone else was promoted, or another employee in our department was chosen to receive special recognition. Furthermore, as members of the Body of Christ, when others are elected to office, or are presented with some kind of “life achievement” award for their faithful service, we should most certainly rejoice! To be even more specific, as followers of Jesus, we should seek and strive to make other believers “look and sound good.” Our Lord is our “super model”, for He always humbled Himself, affirming others, serving others rather than seeking to be served, encouraging others, for-giving others, restoring others, honoring others above Himself, even stooping to wash the dirty feet of His disciples. He drove home the meaning of that acted-out-parable on servanthood by telling them, “The greatest among you shall be the servant of all. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:5-12).
Although the Apostle Paul was not one of the original “twelve” disciples, although he never heard Jesus teach, he had learned this lesson well. He had heard Peter and John quote Jesus, and had witnessed their servant spirit. He had applied this principle of”self-denial” in his own ministry, and in his letters encouraged those first Christians in the apostolic age to “…have the same attitude (i.e. “the same mind”) as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). That is what every Christian should pray for: the attitude of Jesus, the mind of Christ. Is there anything we need more? Is there anything this world needs more? What a difference that would make in how we treat others. Think how that would change how we act and react. Stop reading for a moment and reflect on how that would change our manner of speaking………………..
The Apostle James uses very strong language, “If any among you (i.e. in the Body of Christ) think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). “We put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, to guide their whole bodies…look at ships, for although they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, they are guided by a very small rudder to wherever the will of the pilot directs…So also the tongue is a small member (i.e. of the human body), yet it boasts of great exploits….How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! The tongue is a fire…it is set ablaze by the fires of hell! It is full of deadly poison…with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:3-10). “THEREFORE, submit yourselves to God....resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you...purify your hearts (your thoughts and feelings) you double-minded” (James 4:7-8).
As followers of Jesus we need to be “single-minded” – we should have a singleness of purpose, one sustaining passion, to become more and more like Jesus. We should pray every day, “Less of self, Lord, and more of You,” looking forward to that day when we can honestly pray, “None of self, and all of you, Lord.” This has been our faith set to music for generations: “More like the Master I would ever be, more self-denial, more humility” – “Take Thou our minds, O God, we humbly pray; give us the mind of Christ, each passing day” – the challenge we face every day is to live the poetry we sing!
Therefore, let us make the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our own prayer:
LORD make me an instrument of Your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love –
Where there is injury, pardon –
Where there is doubt, faith –
Where there is despair, hope –
Where there is darkness, light –
Where there is sadness, joy.
O DIVINE MASTER, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console –
To be understood, as to understand –
To be loved, as to love.
It is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned –
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.