If you ask people what the scariest book in the Bible is, most would probably say Revelation. With its horrifying visions, terrible judgments, and fantastical imagery, I’m almost surprised that Hollywood hasn’t tried to make a horror movie out of it yet.
However, if you ask me, I’d probably say it’s the Letter of James. While Revelation definitely has some frightening imagery, I know it’s just imagery. Those scary visions aren’t going to literally come to pass. In fact, when we understand Revelation correctly, it’s actually one of the most comforting books in all of Scripture.
James, on the other hand, is truly terrifying. It has some of the harshest condemnations of sin in the entire New Testament, and unless our names start with the abbreviation “St.” we can’t help but recognize ourselves and our own sinfulness in those condemnations.
More than Just Church and Prayer
For example, take these words from the opening chapter of the book:
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:26-27)
For those of us who take our faith seriously, this passage is essential reading. It tells us in no uncertain terms that we have to do a lot more than just say our prayers and go to Mass on Sundays to be truly religious. It says that if we don’t live out our faith in our words and actions, then our piety is worthless.
The text mentions a few specific ways we need to do this, but for this article, I just want to focus on the first part, where James tells us that we have to “keep a tight rein” on our tongues. This basically means that we have to watch what we say (James 3:1-12). For example, we shouldn’t criticize people needlessly, we shouldn’t gossip, and we shouldn’t spread rumors about others. Instead, whenever we open our mouths to talk, we should always be charitable to the people we’re talking to and the people we’re talking about.
Two Specific Applications
More specifically, in our day and age, there are two contexts where we really need to keep this in mind. First, we have to always remember that this teaching also applies to what we say on the internet. When we interact with people on social media or in the comments sections of articles, we often just see a name and a picture, so it’s all too easy to forget that there are real people on the other ends of those conversations.
But we can’t forget it. We can’t forget that even on the internet, we’re talking to real people made in God’s image and likeness, so our obligation as Christians is to be as charitable to them as we’re supposed to be to the people we meet face to face. Even though we don’t literally speak with our tongues when we post things online, James’ teaching still applies.
Secondly, we also need to keep this in mind when we talk about famous people like celebrities or politicians. Again, since we don’t usually meet them face to face, it’s easy to forget that they’re real people just like you and me. But they are, and we have to treat them that way. While we can certainly disagree with them or criticize them when they deserve it, we must always do so in a charitable manner.
The Importance of Controlling Our Tongues
If we don’t do all this, then as James says, our religion is worthless. If we don’t control what we say, then all our prayers, all our Masses, all our devotions, and all the other religious things we do are worth nothing.
So the next time you’re tempted to insult someone on Facebook, to criticize a random stranger passing you by on the street, or to spread some juicy new gossip you just heard, remember that Scripture calls us to keep a tight rein on our tongues. If we don’t, then we’re not truly practicing the Christian faith, and that, I would contend, is scarier than just about anything we read in the book of Revelation.