The Sacred Scriptures contain truth and wisdom from God. These truths are eternal and ever relevant— and practical. When you live in accordance with the Word of God everything in your life is ordered. This doesn’t mean you will be free of struggles and suffering. However, you will experience an otherworldly joy and peace more often than when you don’t follow the Word of God.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is the Letter of Saint James. Despite being a short epistle (five chapters) it’s rich in wisdom and practical advice. Chapter 3 is especially relevant for my battle against sin. Saint James details out the importance of how your words can guide your spiritual life. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is false. Words matter. How you phrase something helps or hurts people. The Apostle gives a few tangible examples in chapter three of his epistle showing how speech helps or hinders the spiritual life.
Bridle the Tongue
How many times this past week have you said something you regretted? Emotions get high in stressful situations. This year (it still feels like 2020 right?) has tossed enough curveballs at us to last ten lifetimes. Pandemic. Social unrest. Inflation. And other unimaginable situations hit you. Even something simple as workplace conflict with a coworker can set your tongue shooting verbal fireworks.
Saint James writes, “If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also (James 3:2). The word bridle refers to headgear placed on a horse (including reins and a mouth-bit) to help restrain the animal from running too fast—knocking a rider off. It helps allow the rider to communicate with the horse. Synonyms include check, curb, tame, rule, or govern. The saint tells his readers the perfect man can govern his whole body when he keeps his words in check.
Words are manifestations of thoughts. In my life, I tend to lash out verbally at my family or at work when I internalize negative thoughts. Short-staffing issues at work has drained everyone in my workplace. Add increased demands and it is a potential emotional powder keg. How am I going to control my negative feelings amid a stressful situation? How can you prevent your tongue from steering you off the path of holiness?
Rudder of the Mouth
Saint James calls the tongue rudder of the mouth. Boats were a common mode of travel in ancient times. The rudder is the part of a ship that steers—gives direction for the boat’s journey. So too, your words can guide how your daily travels with go. During the stressful storms (of a Monday or frantic weekend shift) how do you react? How do you show your frustrations?
While words (thoughts externalized) steer your attitude and have a big impact on your day don’t lose hope if you begin the day “sailing” away from your destination. The Holy Spirit is always present to help redirect you on the holy path. If you’ve ever sailed on a boat, you know how the impact airstreams are and how you need to adjust your sails. God sometimes allows you to suffer setbacks for you to realize you aren’t always in control. You need help. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak—it’s a strength and sign of humility.
Words are Fire (of Love or Hate)
The third image Saint James compares the tongue to is fire. Fire is often associated with being a destructive force. I remember teachers and my parents cautioning me against playing with flames. Stop. Drop. And roll. “Only you can prevent forest fires.” These words are imprinted into my memory forever. I stayed away from fire out of love and obedience to my teachers and parents. Saint James writes, “The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna (James 3:6). Words have the power to set tempers ablaze. You don’t have to search far on the Internet to know how true this is.
But there’s another aspect of fire you might not immediately realize—healing. The Catholic Church’s doctrine of purgatory compares the process of being purged from impurities as painful. Saint John Vianney wrote, “The fire of Purgatory is the same fire as the fire of Hell; the difference between them is that the fire of Purgatory is not everlasting.” What a thought-provoking quote! To tie-up this point (before I fall into a theological rabbit-hole), fire is in one sense destructive, but in another a means to purify. God’s love is all-encompassing and fervent it sometimes it feels painful.
From Apostle to Doctor of the Church (A Brief Aside)
Saint Catherine of Siena often referred to the Holy Trinity’s love as a fire. Writing to Brother Matteo di Francesco Tolomei of the Order of the Preachers, Catherine offers words of encouragement that hope is founded in the love of God, “kindled by the fire of divine charity.” In another letter, to religious sisters, she longed for the passing of their suffering in saying,
Dearest mother and daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood: with desire to see you so clothed in the flames of divine charity that you may bear all pain and torment, hunger and thirst, persecution and injury, derision, outrage and insult, and everything else, with true patience; learning from the Lamb suffering and slain, who ran with such burning love to the shameful death of the Cross (emphasis mine).
Going back to Saint James’ letter, the apostle wanted to remind his fellow Christians how important words can harm or help in the spiritual life. Amid stressful situations you may have to bridle your tongue against harsh language. The mouth is a rudder of the body and sins like gossip, anger, calumny, and lying can steer you off course. Finally, his imagery of the tongue being akin to a fire ablaze in a forest teaches how words can build up (or tear down) your relationship with God and others.