“People have tamed all kinds of wild animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures. And they still tame them. But no one can tame the tongue. It is an evil thing that never rests. It is full of deadly poison.'”
“Do not be a false witness against your neighbor.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
This week, we were all stunned to hear the escapades of a group of American swimmers in Rio. Ryan Lochte and several others had gone to a party, had too much to drink, and then headed back to the Olympic Village for the night. Along the way they stopped at a gas station to use the men’s room, and it appears they caused some serious damage to the property. They then made their way back to the village by taxi and headed to bed. At some point the next day, Lochte called his mother and told her that he and the group had been robbed by a policeman or someone posing as a policeman. Once the story escaped his lips, Lochte watched as his mother notified the media, the press sensed a big story, and the IOC became involved. Lochte was on the Today Show, even claiming the robber had pressed a gun against his forehead.
A few nights later with Lochte already back in the USA, the other swimmers were detained, two of them removed from their flight home, to answer questions that had arisen about their story. The Rio police had conducted an investigation and, at least for the moment, it appears the swimmers’ story may have been fabricated by the foursome. An entire country shamed by what now appear to be false allegations of robbery and corruption.
Maybe Lochte and his teammates didn’t intend to report the issue, maybe he was just rambling on the phone to his mom while suffering from a hangover from the previous night’s partying. Whatever the reason, once the words of the robbery tale were spoken aloud, the story grew and grew. What began in a phone call home to mom became an international incident that has occupied police and diplomats in Brazil and in the USA.
James understood that words, while they can be helpful and healing, can also be hurtful and cause injury. Like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube, once our words have come out, there’s no way to pack them back in again. Lochte and his teammates bore false witness, lying about what happened to them in a way that could have led to legal problems for others. The investigation is ongoing at the moment, but even the TV commentators are now siding with the Rio police’s version of events, and denying the credibility of Lochte’s story. There are calls for Lochte to be permanently banned from international swimming meets. What a sad end to an awesome athletic career, all because of words that should never have been spoken.
The story reminds us that our words are more than squiggles on a page or sounds in our ears. Words have power; they can bless or harm, build up or destroy. When we are tempted to lash out verbally, to respond to insult with insult, we need to stop, count to ten, and ask ourselves, is this truly how God wants us to relate to others? Of course, we all fail at times and speak harmful words, but the goal is to challenge ourselves to pause, to reflect, to remember God’s amazing patience with us, and to respond as Christ would respond, even if we have to say, “I can’t respond right now, I’m too angry. I’ll answer you in a few minutes.”
God invites us to treat everyone as our sister or brother, to see the Christ in each person we encounter. If we imagine that every word we say is addressed to Jesus Christ, perhaps we can tame that tongue a little bit more and work toward becoming more like him who is the head, the Son of God.
Prayer: Loving God, you have so many reasons to speak harshly to me, to condemn me for my sin and for the ways my tongue slices like a blade instead of building up. Forgive me for the times I lose control and speak in ways that hurt. Help me this day to speak words that will encourage, support and show my love for my neighbor. Remind me that my words are a reflection of the depth of my faith, so let my faith grow deeper and wider until all I say and do brings glory to you and your son, Jesus. Amen.