What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
As St. James wrote, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6).
In recent years, there have been a lot of forest fires in California. Sometimes, at the end of the investigation, firefighters find that the forest fire was set ablaze by a small spark from a cigarette or campfire. Similarly, a person’s life can be set ablaze when a small word is spoken about them. We see this happen a lot on social media in a phenomenon called hive mind. It is “groupthink, collective intelligence, and mob mentality” where “the digital hive mind finds its target—someone holding on to an unpopular view, doing something perceived by others as wrong, or make a simple mistake—and begins to swarm with public condemnation… No time or incentive to think for yourself or consider the individual person being shamed—there is only enough time to swarm, destroy, and move on to the next target” (Sutton, 24).
SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) excel in this mob mentality, for example. They demand you apologise for wrongthink or something you said (whether real or imagined), even if you said it 20 years ago (and it doesn’t even matter that you’re not the same person you were those many years ago). As soon as you apologise, however, they go in for the kill and continue slandering your name and demand you resign or be fired. To them, repentance is not an occasion for forgiveness but an admission of guilt, and therefore condemnation is the “just” sentence. O, how much different our gracious Saviour works!
Similarly, gossip is perhaps the favourite pastime of the Church. I know of many people who have either left their congregation and joined another or have left the Church altogether because Christians can’t seem to stop talking about others while they themselves do similar or worse things. It’s not the hypocrisy, per se, that causes them to leave, but that their living as if God doesn’t exist (called practical atheism) leads another into unbelief. “If a so-called Christian lives as if God doesn’t even matter in their life,” they wonder, “why should I believe?” Luther advises Christians to be wary of how they use their tongue:
No one shall use the tongue or harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement. Rather, we should use our tongue to speak only the best about all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor. Our chief reason for doing this is the one that Christ has given in the Gospel, and in which He means to encompass all the commandments concerning our neighbor, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” [Matthew 7:12].LC I, 285-286
“But what if I know it to be true,” you might say. Shut up about it! It always amazes me that whenever I teach on any Commandment—whether to children or adults—we immediately preoccupy ourselves with “what if” scenarios to justify breaking the Commandment. Luther cautions against this question, “If you know something, keep it to yourself and do not tell others. For when you repeat a story that you cannot prove, even though it is true, you appear as a liar. Besides, you act like a knave, for no one should be deprived of his honor and good name unless these have first been taken away from the person publicly” (LC I, 270).
And yet, even though our tongues love the flavour of kindling a person’s reputation, Christ speaks a word of forgiveness. His tongue remained silent before His accusers so He could win forgiveness for you (Mark 14:61). Even when we speak a fiery word against our neighbour, Christ speaks His gracious Word of forgiveness in repentance.
Sutton, A. Trevor. Clearly Christian: Following Jesus in This Age of Confusion. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.