Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Contradictions of the Heart"

James 3: 1-12

Romans 7: 14-25a

      “And the tongue is a fire,” James observes.  “The tongue is 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.”  Wow!  That’s pretty strong and vivid language.  Yet every one of us can nod shamefully,

almost laughingly through our embarrassment, because we know that what James says is spot on.

Who of us have not said things we’ve regretted the instant we said them?  I know I have.  We all

would like to delete from our hard drives the vicious words we may have hurled in rage; at loved

ones, friends, work associates, acquaintances, people we don’t know. Just over the past week, we

may remember having said some things in anger, malice, or simply carelessness we’d like to take

back; or some things we’ve texted or tweeted…… 

    We might laugh at children who wrestle in the dirt yelling, “Take that back or I’ll hit you harder,”

as if saying, “Okay, I take it back” makes it all right.  We may chuckle at the silliness of the fight

and the demand to take back harsh words.  But if the fighting and the taking back could diminish

the sometimes devastating pain we’ve felt from the assault of harsh words, we’d gladly get down

in the dirt ourselves.

      Now of course, James is neither the first nor the last to offer counsel about the wildness and

the weaponry which dwells in the tongue.  The ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote centuries before

James acknowledging both the power and permanence of words, noting that “Longer than deeds

liveth the word.” There is also an ancient proverb recorded in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus: 

“Many have fallen by the edge of the sword; but not so many as have fallen by the tongue.” Maybe

we’d prefer the polished words of American statesman Ben Franklin:  “A slip of the foot you may

soon recover but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.” 

      One of the earliest lies we were told as children came in the form of a nursery rhyme:  “Sticks

and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  I’m sorry if I burst any bubbles if

you happen to live by these words, but that’s a crock.  It’s the bully’s primary line of defense.  Our

children would recover a lot faster from a broken bone than from a grievously wounded heart

caused by malicious words.  I speak from painful experience because as a youngster, I was on the

receiving end of such verbal assaults from my peers.If you share that with me, you understand how

deeply careless and hateful words can cut, and keep on cutting. Some of those words still hurt now.

      What is it about us that compels us to use God’s gift of speech in such a way as to inflict the

deepest wounds the human heart can sustain?  I must admit that I don’t have a simple answer.

The reason I don’t is that the question really gets to the core of our human complexity, and our

human propensity to sin.  I don’t believe James in this passage is merely lamenting the tongue’s

looseness.  Nor do I believe he’s just giving us some concise lesson on conversational etiquette. 

No, James is getting to more than that.  What he’s really lamenting is the duality of the human

heart; what he refers to in the opening words of his letter as “being double-minded and unstable.”

He is bemoaning the split within us all, most fully expressed in our “doubting” – the split between

our imperfections and our longing for perfection; between our fatal flaws and our noble graces;

the chasm which runs through every soul reaching all the way from the heights of our heavenly

aspirations to the depth of our hellish impulses. 

      Theologically, we have sometimes called this split – this tension within us – a spiritual battle between good and evil. 

The apostle Paul speaks often of this spiritual warfare which manifests itself in actions, both good and evil.  But the battlefield

is essentially the human heart.  In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he writes of his own inner-turmoil when he admits that,

at times, the very thing he hates, he does, while the right he wills, he does not do.  All this he attributes to the sin which dwells within him,

acknowledging that only Jesus Christ can save him from “this body of death.” 

      Some have imagined that within our souls, there is a war between demons of hell and angels of

mercy.  Now I don’t know about all that, but there is certainly a painful struggle that lies deep within. 

The source of that pain is the agonizing contradictions of life that we all feel and have great

difficulty resolving, leading to all sort of doubts – about ourselves; about others; about God.  Here

are some of those contradictions:  I want to be kind and loving.  Yet why do I hurt those whom I love

most?  I want to say things which build others up.  Yet why do I instead say things so unsupportive

and hurtful?  I want to feel good about what I’m doing.  Yet why do I instead feel so miserable and

unfulfilled?  I want to be merciful and forgiving.  Yet why do I have this impulse to hurt those who

have done me or someone I love a bad turn?  Why do I have such a desire for vengeance when I

know it’s not right?  I want to be free and alive.  Yet why am I so bound by fear that I have to control

everything and everyone around me, even though I know I can’t and shouldn’t do it? 

      The struggle with such contradictions lies at the core of James’ teaching.  He illustrates them by

talking about the way our tongues articulate the contradictions.  “With [the tongue],” James says,

“we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

We can almost sense James crying out as he shakes his head in frustration:  “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” 

It ought not be so of you.  It ought not be so of me.  But it is. 

So what do we do about this?  Is there some way to cast the “demon” out and be purified of all our

inner-contradictions; freed of the spiritual battle which is waging within us?  

      We wish is was that simple.  But I’m not sure there is anything we can do about it, save acknowledging

the contradictions and learning to live humbly with them.  Perhaps the answer is in the awareness and the admission.

  Sure, we Christians would like to believe that our aim in life is to be perfect, even as Christ was perfect; a high and noble aspiration.

  But is not our aim in life really to be human, and as such, to be the best that we can be?  And part of being human

is about acknowledging the painful duality that lies at the center of the human heart, while at the same time conceding

that Almighty God has the sole claim on perfection.  In their book “The Spirituality of Imperfection,” Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham cite Emerson once saying,

“There is a crack in everything God made.”  I agree with Emerson that there is indeed a crack, but it’s not a crack that

God made.  It’s a crack – a self-inflicted wound – which developed as a consequence of our alienating ourselves from our Creator. 

      What does the Bible say about this dilemma?  Does the Bible say we are on a hellbound train if

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

out this mess. That, on one level, is why Christ died on our behalf.  We fool ourselves if we think 

we can achieve perfection on our own – of word, or thought, or behavior -- and disappoint ourselves when we fall short of that ideal. 

The Bible suggests that our starting point is to admit our frailty and accept God’s offer of forgiveness. 

It’s no more eloquently stated than in David’s words from the 32nd Psalm:

  “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I

will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” 

      The miracle of grace is that somehow the burden of guilt is lifted – the hard drive cleaned –

when we acknowledge our limitations, our shortcomings, our contradictions, our cracks, our sin. 

 For in that acknowledgement, God reveals God’s self to us.  A contemporary philosopher, Leszek

Kolakowski, puts it this way: “The Sacred is most fully disclosed to us in the experience of our failure;

the awareness of human insufficiency; the lived admission of imperfection.”  To be sure, it’s hard to

admit failure and insufficiency.  But when we do, we experience a kind of release that is more

gratifying to the soul than most experiences we will ever have.  Admission of failure, confession of

sin, is not easy.  Most of the time, we seek excuses that will justify us.  It reminds me of a story I

once heard about three boys who hid themselves in a barn on a Sabbath morning in order to

smoke.  The rabbi discovered them and wanted to flog the offenders.  One boy exclaimed,

“I deserve no punishment because I forgot that today is the Sabbath.”  The second boy said, “And I

forgot that smoking on the Sabbath is forbidden.”  The third boy raised his voice and cried out, “I

forgot too!”  The rabbi asked, “What did you forget?”  To which the boy replied, “I forgot to lock

the barn door.”

      That confession may have not gotten him off the hook.  But at any rate, he was honest.  And

honesty is what’s required of us.  Our God doesn’t demand that we be perfect and sinless.  God

does however encourage us to strive to be our best.  And in our striving, God does require our

fidelity and our transparency.  Evagrius Ponticus, a monk of the Benedictine Order, once stated that

“the nearer we draw to God, the more we should see ourselves as one with every sinner.  And the

more we see ourselves as being one with every sinner, the nearer we draw to God.” 

      “And the tongue is a fire,” James writes.  “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we

curse those who are made in the likeness of God” – one of the many painful contradictions of our

humanness.  There may not be much we can do about these contradictions which seem so deeply

ingrained in us.  But we can confess them.  And we can seek the help of the Lord who in great

mercy accepts our confession, accepts the duality of our hearts, accepts the lived admission of our

failure, and forgives us, even when we struggle to forgive each other and ourselves.  Then, by the

miracle of grace, God works to redeem us and transform us, even in our imperfect state.  So thanks

be to God for loving us, sinners that we are.  And thanks be to our Creator for working to bring us

around to Her with a love which is truer and greater than all the painful contradictions of this life.


Almighty God, it’s not easy being human.  Life is filled with paradox, even as we ourselves

struggle daily with inner contradictions.  Lead us, Lord, to live lives of integrity.  Help us to bring

together our knowledge of what is right with doing what is right.  By Your Holy Spirit, help mend

the cracks and inconsistencies in our lives, and heal us of our double mindedness and instability.

Receive our confessions, and recreate us anew.  We ask it in the name of the One who struggled

with us, and overcame for us, even Jesus Christ.  Amen.