The way you speak to or about other people has enormous power, either to build up or to tear down.
So what do YOUR words do?
“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Gal 5:15)
The verse occurs in the context of how we live together, and how we manage differences of opinion.
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather; serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. “
So we are called into a shared lifestyle. It is characterised by a new and generous freedom. Paul has explained that the Holy Spirit has levelled the playing field. There are no longer “insiders and outsiders.” There is no qualitative difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free, between men and women. There are no racial, class or gender distinctions anymore, “For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Paul was describing what he called “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:6).
Within this new Israel there is no legalism, no code of conduct, no Rules and Regulations. You’re free of that stuff. “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,” “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” All you have to do is love each other.
And if love is the keystone of the new edifice, then the new freedom cannot be used as a rationale for being un-loving. That would be a self-defeating paradox. How can you be unloving in the cause of being loving?
By way of an example, he considers the way we speak negatively to each other (or about each other), and points to what an old commentator called “the pernicious consequences of a contrary spirit.” For “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
The background of the word “sarcasm” lies in a Greek root that means “tearing at flesh.” It fits well here. For the allusion is to animals turning and tearing at one another without mercy. It’s a picture of relationships spoilt by criticism, gossip and spite.
He’s not referring (as in Acts 20) to wolves who come in from the outside to attack the flock, but to a situation where the sheep begin to act like wolves to one another! It’s abhorrent, unnatural, he says, and “you will be destroyed by each other.”
The specific controversy here related to the questions of law and circumcision, and connected thus to issues of justification and salvation. As with many such arguments, there was more heat than light; and the ensuing bitterness threatened to divide them into factions, into entrenched positions of suspicion.
Whilst we may no longer fight that particular battle, there is no shortage of issues upon which the People of God finds itself quarrelling. This letter alone serves as a Biblical indicator that such quarrels may from time to time arise. That’s not the point.
The point is, how do you deal with it?
James gives a powerful answer. It’s a question of how you use your tongue.
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3)
James is talking about the way we use our speech to bad-mouth each other. He dissects a curious piece of hypocrisy here: we bless God, and yet curse each other. And then he adds: “This should not be.” The point he is making is tucked away in the subordinate clause: these human beings whom we have chosen to dismiss “have been made in God’s likeness.” As have we. We all have God as “Our Father.” So we belong together.
I remember a masterly put-down by Jimmy Carr. He said: “I’m not being condescending. I’m too busy thinking about far more important things you wouldn’t understand.”
Such a great line from a very gifted comedian. But the comedy derives from its truthfulness. It’s how we all act, think and occasionally speak. We divide. We put down. We discriminate. We gossip and slander without batting an eyelid.
James challenges this head on: “People,” he says, “were made in the image of God:” so to slander one another is to slander God: to love what is good in man is to love it in God. Love is the only remedy for slander: no set of rules or restrictions can stop it; we may denounce, but we shall denounce in vain. The radical cure of it is love-“out of a pure heart and faith unfeigned,” to feel what is great in the human character; to recognize with delight all high, and generous, and beautiful actions; to find joy even in seeing the good qualities of your bitterest opponents, and to admire those qualities even in those with whom you have least sympathy, this is the only spirit which can heal slander and gossip. If we would bless God, we must first learn to bless man, who is made in the image of God.
James says something interesting here: he notes that this is natural. It is natural for fresh water to flow from a fresh spring, and for a fig tree to produce figs. Anything else is unnatural. My tongue is intended to bless! Imagine that!
Of course, words have immense power. If you don’t believe me, try saying the words “I think I have head lice” at a crowded party.
And by the same token, my words can create life, hope…even joy. It’s a totally natural healing process.
It’s what my tongue was created for.