Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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Confess the Mess

Psalm 32:1-5

James 3:1-12

      “The tongue is a fire….placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole.

body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  These words of James [who.

some claim was a brother of Jesus] are pretty off-putting; makes me half afraid to open my mouth.

Yet as we hear them, we can confess that what James says is too often the case. 

I can’t speak for you, but I myself find that nothing has gotten me – or gets me -- in more trouble than some of the

things I say?  My wife and children can testify to that.  Maybe a few of us can confess that mess;

having said something that we’ve regretted the instant we said it; or a day, or a week, or a month

later; or worst case scenario, for the rest of our lives.  There may have been words we’ve spoken in

anger, or revenge, or jealousy, or carelessness just over the course of the past week.  If given the

opportunity, we would try not to say them again.  On that, we can all agree.  We may chuckle at

children who wrestle in the dirt yelling, “You better take back what you said or I’ll hit you harder!”

It’s as if saying, “Okay, I take it back” somehow makes it all right.  But nothing hits harder than

words. And while the bruises and deep wounds may be hidden, the scars they leave behind can be

forever.  So yes, we all have a gut-level understanding of the counsel of James to mind our tongues;

for the tongue can indeed be a like a “fire,” setting ablaze everything around it.

     James, of course, is neither the first nor the last to give advice about the wildness of the tongue.

The ancient Greek poet Pindar – almost 500 years before James -- acknowledged the power and the

permanence of speech when he observed, “Longer than deeds liveth the word.”  Then there’s an

old proverb from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus:  “Many have fallen by the edge of the

sword; but not so many as have fallen by the tip of the tongue.”  More recently, Benjamin Franklin

wrote in his “Poor Richard’s Almanac”:  “A slip of the foot you may soon recover, but a slip of the

tongue you may never get over.” 

      You know that one of the earliest lies we unintentionally tell our children comes in the form of a.

nursery rhyme:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  We know.

that’s bull, and is about one of the most harmful lessons we can teach our kids, especially in this era.

of wholesale and widespread bullying.  We’d rather our child have to recover from a broken bone

than from a broken heart caused by malicious words; a wound which may never heal.  We know

how deeply words of malice can cut.

      What is it about us that compels us to use the gift of speech from time-to-time in such a way as.

to inflict painful wounds on another’s heart?  This question defies a simple answer, as it really gets

to the core of our human complexity, and our human dilemma.  James is not merely lamenting the

tongue’s looseness here.  And he’s not just giving some lesson on conversational etiquette.  He’s

going much deeper. He’s lifting up and lamenting the painful duality of the human heart that lies

behind the ways we use, and misuse, that gift of speech; the split the lies within all of us.  That split

between our imperfection, and our longing for perfection; between our fatal flaws and our noble

graces.  That split that runs through every soul, reaching all the way from the heights of our heaven-

ly aspirations to the depths of our less-than-heavenly impulses.  What do we call this split?.

      We sometimes speak of a tension within us between good and evil; the proverbial angel on one.

shoulder; the devil on the other.  Some imagine that within our very souls is a war between these.

demons of hell and angels of mercy.  What James is really getting to in this passage is that painful.

split that lives within all of us, and how it affects the thing we say. The source of that pain is the

agonizing contradictions of life that we all feel, but just can’t seem to resolve.  I personally live with.

a bunch of these inner-contradictions.  For example, I want to be kind and loving.  But why do I

sometimes hurt those who are closest to me?  I want to feel good about what I’m doing.  But why

do I feel so down on myself?  I want to be merciful and forgiving.  But why do I at times feel compel-

led to settle the score with those who have done me a bad turn?  I want to be free and alive.  But

why am I so bound by fear that I have to try to control everything around me?  I want to be gene-

rous.  But why am I so bound by a fear that I won’t have enough for me and mine?  Perhaps you live

with some of these contradictions, and many others.

      James understands these contradictions.  He illustrates them by talking about the way our

tongues articulate the contradictions when he observes:  “With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and.

Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth.

core blessing and cursing.”  Then we can almost see James shaking his head, and hear his cry of

frustration when he goes on to say, “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”  Our tongues

expose those painful contradictions within us all.  And only we ourselves – and the good Lord - know

the particular contradictions of own souls.  We may not know how to deal with them, but we know

they are there; these tensions; these splits; these inner battles.  What do we do to fix it?

      I’m not sure we can do anything ourselves to relieve these tensions, or resolve these contradict-

tions, other than acknowledge the reality.  That’s about as far as James seems to go with it.  He

offers no pat solution, although he does later say this, which I believe is instructive:  “But the wis-

dom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits,

without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”  How about if that wisdom guided our tongues?  I think

that wisdom from above – Godly wisdom – teaches us a few things.  The first is, let’s learn to live

humbly with the contradictions of our human condition.  Let’s quit believing that our duty or aim in

life is to be perfect.  Our duty and aim in life is to be human, and to confess what is sometimes the

mess of our humanness.  Let’s let God have full claim on perfection.  We don’t need to play God. Be-

ing human is in part about admitting the painful duality that lies at the core of our human heart, and

recognizing the danger of letting its dark side roll off our tongues.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once re-

flected on that split within him, and observed, “We seem to have put a crack in everything God has

made.  And we feel the worst pain of that crack deep within.”  Moving from the poetic to the theo-

logical, we observe that we are sinners who avoid dealing with the reality of our sins.  But no matter

how hard we try, we can’t escape our shortcomings, or our imperfections, or our blazing tongues. 

Try as we may, we can’t seem to resolve those contradictions on our own. 

      What does the Bible say about this dilemma.  Does it suggest that we are bound for damnation if

we can’t straighten out this mess?  No.  We are not going to straighten out this mess on this mortal.

journey.  We’re not going to reach perfection. We’re not going to be the ideal person we’d like to

be, because there is no such person…… save One.  We’re not going to tame the wild and restless

tongue.  The Bible simply suggests that we can use that tongue to confess the mess.  It could not be

confessed more clearly than it is in the Psalm of David we read a little earlier: “…I acknowledged my

sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess by transgressions to the Lord’”  And

then the gospel in the Psalm:  “…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  The hope of the gospel, and

the miracle of grace, is that somehow the burden of guilt is eased when we acknowledge our limita-

tions; our shortcomings; our contradictions; our sin.  For with that admission – that confession of

the mess -- God more clearly reveals God’s self to us.  I like the way contemporary Polish philoso-

pher Leszek Kolakowski puts it: “The Sacred is revealed to us in the experience of our failure….. the

awareness of human insufficiency….the lived admission of failure.”

      No question, few things are more difficult that admitting our failures; our dualities; our forked

tongues.  Yet when we do, we experience a kind of release that is more gratifying and freeing than.

just about anything else.  But rather than confess the mess, we tend to look for excuses that will jus-

tify our sin.  There’s a story of three boys who hid themselves on a Sunday morning in a barn in

order to smoke.  The parson, who discovered them after service, thought the offenders should be.

punished.  One boy exclaimed, “I shouldn’t be punished because I forgot today was Sunday.”  The

second boy said, “I forgot that smoking on Sunday was forbidden.”  The third boy raised his voice

and cried out, “I forgot too.”  “And what did you forget, young man?” the preacher asked.  The boy

replied, “I forgot to lock the door of the barn.”  That’s about as close to confession as one might get

out of a teenage boy.  But at least it’s honest.  And honesty is what God requires of us.  God doesn’t.

demand that we be perfect and sinless – regarding the use of our tongues, or anything else. 

      “The tongue is a fire,” says James.  From the same mouth, we bless the Lord and curse people.

That’s true for all of us.  We all are filled with painful contradictions that hurt and humiliate us, and

others.  Not much we can do to resolve them.  But we can confess them, with that one and same

tongue.  And we can seek the help of Almighty God who is great in mercy, and accepts our admis-

sion of frailty and failure; and in the most gracious way, accepts the duality of our hearts and our

tongues.  Then, by the miracle of grace, God works to redeem us; to integrate us; to save us.  So

thanks be to God for taking us sinners as we are.  And thanks be to God who loves us with a love

which is truer and greater than any and every contradiction which dwells inside us, or comes out of

our mouths.  Amen.


Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102