I’ve admittedly got a pretty foggy memory about my childhood. My wife wonders what kind of trauma I experienced that wiped my mind clean of the kind of childhood memories that are so precious to her. I think I know the answer. Robitussin. I’m not sure how often I was forced to drink Robitussin, but it was enough. When a kid gets a cough, the kid gets a hearty dose of Robitussin. I’m not sure there is actually any medicinal value to the stuff. I think the taste actually scares the virus right out of the body. It’s the kind of medicine that, when forced to take it, you get better real quick – whether you actually feel better or not, simply because you don’t want to have to take any more swigs of the nasty red stuff. There’s no playing sick when Robitussin is on the table.

The way I feel about Robitussin is pretty much how I feel about the book of James tonight. The letter of James is revered for its practical insight and application to the everyday life lived for Jesus. But James isn’t pleasant for those sarcastic, witty (always a self-declaration), clever redeemed members of the Kingdom of God.

Several weeks ago I was teaching from James 3:1-12 about the tongue. In an honest moment of self-deprecation and transparency I told the students that I felt completely unqualified to teach this particular passage, primarily because I struggle so mightily to honor God with my tongue. Granted, in my defense, James makes it clear that we all struggle in this regard (“…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man…”; 3:2). And there is some solace in this fact, but the reality that we all struggle to honor God in the way that we speak does not ulimately absolve us of the responsibility to honor God with our mouths with greater consistency.

Just when you think you are out of the woods with James on this particular issue he brings it back to the surface in 4:11-12. Only a few words after James tells us that God opposes the proud, and the proud are those who show themselves above other people, and God exalts the humble, those who see themselves rightly in light of God’s holiness and their sinfulness, a perspective that keeps us from being self-righteous or superior when we size ourselves up against others, James again address our speech.

“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. 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.” James 4:11

Yes, when James speaks of “evil”, he is talking about slander, the kind of reputation miring comments made about others as we huddle in the dark corners of our houses of worship. A setting where those whose character and reputation we are verbally soiling have no opportunity or forum to defend themselves. But his statement is broader. He is also speaking about speech that runs others down. Speech motivated by envy, jealousy, cruelty, hatred, ridicule and humiliation. Speech intended to pad our internal resume and make us feel better about ourselves as our venom fills the veins of our victims and hurriedly rushes to the heart.

The reality about our culture is that many people (perhaps even you) believe that if the information being shared is true, then it isn’t slander. When it is true, we feel we have a moral obligation to share or reveal it. Or if we say what needs to be said face-to-face, then somehow it is okay. It may be true that truth needs to surface, but what many of us fail to do is appropriately deal with our own sin before becoming a truth-teller, and thus we violate the principles set forth by Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5.

James tells us that speaking evil against our brothers is a serious sin. It is serious for two reasons: 1) It violates the royal law (James 2:8) because it is a failure to love our brother as we love ourselves; 2) It is an act of mutiny against the rightful authority of God because we usurp God as judge.

Controlling the tongue is difficult for all; it seems impossible for some, particularly for those of us whose words are often tainted with sarcasm, often playful, sometimes hurtful, disguised as cleverness. And let’s be honest. Who are the recepients of our sarcastic barbs? Almost always people. Some people we love. Some people we only know from a distance. Always aimed at our critics. We rarely waste our sarcasm on inanimate objects. Yes, we may not often be guilty of slander, but the sarcastic are often guilty of running others down with their words.

James, thanks for the healthy dose of Robitussin today. God, help us, help me, speak in a way that adorns the Gospel. I need your grace – desperately. Amen.

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