I slammed down the phone with a bang and let out a long suffering sigh.
“That was the longest call of my life!” I exclaimed in anger. “Next time he calls, could somebody else answer and tell him I’m not here? What does he think I do all day?”
Lately, one of my clients had taken to calling me multiple times each day to “talk through” one of his projects. These one-sided conversations often had zero results—except for wasting my time.
My co-worker laughed at my sour expression and said, “Nice announcer voice!”
“What?” I asked.
“Your ‘phone voice’, it sounds like a radio host!” She mimicked my very polite and upbeat receptionist line: “Good morning! This is Karen. Yes, thank you for calling!”
She meant it as a joke, but her words stung. Was that really how I sounded? How could I sound so nice while I was on the phone, and so nasty after I hung up?
James explores this hypocrisy here in verses 9-12. Sometimes our mouths are fountains of “fresh water”—from which authentic, loving, life-giving words spring forth—and sometimes they spew “salt water”—venomous, prideful speech. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” he observes.
But this dual nature is fundamentally wrong. The same spring cannot produce both fresh and salty water. Neither should our tongues produce both loving and venomous words. Perhaps what James was suggesting was that a tongue which utters curses indicates a heart that is not truly displaying the love of Christ at all.
As Christians, we are called to love not just our friends but our enemies—to show them true love and kindness, not just on-the-phone professional niceness. And one of the first indicators of our real attitude towards people is how we speak of them and to them.
James reminds us that when we curse others through our angry speech, empty flattery, or sarcastic comments, we are attacking someone made in God’s image and likeness (v. 9). Each person carries the imprint of God and is made by His hands. What hypocrisy it is when we become angry and unforgiving with our speech towards another person, all the while knowing how God treats His children with unfailing love and compassion. When we fail to forgive, we have forgotten that God has forgiven us—and furthermore, that He has forgiven them. “Salty” speech promulgates condemnation; “pure” speech proclaims mercy.
So what should we do when we are honestly at a loss for authentic, loving words?
1. Be honest: resist the urge to cover your feelings with a charade. For me, this might mean admitting that I don’t have time for a phone call at the moment and offering to reschedule it to a time when I can give the client my full attention.
2. Be kind: ask God to help you to be patient and to speak with a loving tongue. Now, I offer a short prayer before I even pick up the phone. I bite my tongue when I want to say something sarcastic, and I try to remember the things I truly appreciate about the client and his work.
We have a choice before us today—to offer fresh or salty water.
We can’t do both.
What will you choose?
—Karen Pimpo, USA
Questions for reflection
1. Reflect on the last time you spoke ill of or spoke harshly to another.
How does today’s passage address this?
2. What changes do you need to make in your life today?
Karen Pimpo lives in Michigan, USA, where everybody complains about the weather but secretly loves it. When she was little, she wanted to be a librarian. Not much has changed. Besides literature, listening to and performing music is one of her greatest joys. She sings and writes to help untangle the knots in her head, and because telling stories helps us realize we are not alone. She endeavors to face the unknowns of life with the naive bravery of Bilbo Baggins: “I’m going on an adventure!”