In the Isaiah passage, the suffering servant describes being attacked – hit from behind, beard hairs pulled out, and spit on. Yet, as he describes the attack, it becomes clear that the words said have done more harm than the physical attack. He speaks of being insulted. He claims it is only because of God that he is not disgraced, that he is not shamed, that he can stand strong. He will not be “found guilty” because God helps him. There are people who are attacking the suffering servant, and it is clear that their words hurt.
Most likely, the disagreement between the servant and his adversaries was a big one. This passage comes from the exile, when the leaders of the community of faith were residing in Babylon, trying to survive as slaves. Walter Brueggemann says, “It seems more likely to me that the abuse comes from other members of the exilic community who have worked out a sustainable compromise between Yahweh and the empire, who do not what to have the compromise exposed or questioned, and who do not want to be pressed to decide for Yahweh and for the disruptive venture of homecoming in a distinctive identity.”1 It is easy to imagine that both sides of that argument – to conspire with oppressors or not – would have strong opinions and good motivation to attack the other side.
It is also easy, from 2500 years and half the world away, to see valid arguments on both sides. But it seems that in the midst of the disagreement, the ways it was approached did great harm. The suffering servant is known as just that – the one who suffers – and in this passage at least, he suffers because people disagree with him and make it personal!
The Isaiah passage is a case-in-point example of the argument that James is making. James uses a whole lot of examples to validate the two key verses 9 and 10, “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 come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” James says that if we praise and bless God, it is INCONGROUS to curse seek harm to God’s beloved people. And just in case you had missed the memo, God’s beloved people and all human beings overlap are exactly the same groups.
James says that words have a whole lot of power, including power to do great harm, so we should be careful with them. Then he says that blessing God and cursing God’s people is utterly incongruous. It is like a grapefruit tree growing figs, or a fig tree growing olives. It can’t be. Or, at least, it ought not to be.
Understanding what James meant is not the difficulty. Figuring out how to live it is the hard part. Let’s get clear on what we’re trying to do first. To start with, I’m not certain what the text means by “blessing” nor by “cursing”. Don’t get worried about me, I looked it up in 5 books, they were just concerned with other questions so they didn’t answer mine. 😉 I THINK I know what each of those things means, but it always seems worth double-checking assumptions. Particularly on days when the scripture tells teachers to be extra-cautious.
The dictionary says that to bless is “to confer or invoke divine favor on.” The dictionary footnotes say that it got used to translate the words meaning “to praise” and “to worship” from Latin, which influences its nuance in English – and that helps us avoid a circular definition when it comes to understanding what it means to bless God.2 Conversely, the dictionary says that a curse is “a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something.”3
Not to be oppositional or anything, but it seems that the dictionary definition doesn’t exactly fit with what I’d expect. It seems to me that blessing has something to do with consecrating, that is, naming and acknowledging something for holy work. Cursing, as I think of it, has to do with wishing harm for another. This is why I wish the Bible commentaries told me exactly what it means, although I doubt they really know either. In any case, I think we have some shared sense – if broad – of what blessing and cursing are. You can go with the dictionary, with me, or with your own assumptions, I think they’ll all work.
So, what does it mean to bless God? Perhaps it just means to praise God or to worship God, perhaps it could be thought of as expressing gratitude to God for God’s goodness, mercy, and presence among us. What, then, would it mean to equivalently bless God’s people? Does it just mean seeing and remembering that each person is made in God’s image? Does it mean attending to the goodness within each one? Does it mean using our speak to build up one another? Does it require incessant praise, even if it is meaningless? Or is it more to see another, to listen to another, and to assume that the other’s being in the world is a sacred expression of the Divine – the each other person is made in the image of God and is thus infinitely beautiful??
I could ask the same questions about cursing God and cursing people, but I trust you to draw those conclusions without me knocking you on the head with them.
If, as James assumes, the response of the faithful to God and to God’s people should BOTH be words of blessing, how could we move towards that in our daily lives? How can we use our words for good? How can our tongues be blessings? When do we tend to mess this up??
One major issue to consider is how we respond to people who we think are wrong, as seen in the Isaiah passage!! I watched a TED talk about this recently, in which Karen Shultz outlines some common issues humans have when we disagree. Her talk was called “On Being Wrong” and she says:
“Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. And when you feel that way, you’ve got a problem to solve, which is, how are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you? It turns out, most of us explain those people the same way, by resorting to a series of unfortunate assumptions. The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, when it turns out those people have all the same facts that we do and they still disagree with us, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, when it turns out that people who disagree with us have all the same facts we do and are actually pretty smart, then we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe.”4 (emphasis mine)
That sort of thinking is how we get to cases like the suffering servant. People simply disagree and then it grows into something MUCH larger. As a reminder, there are at least two more options for what might be happening when we disagree with someone: first that we might actually be mistaken (gasp!), and second that our worldviews lead us to different conclusions. Most of the time, I think disagreements come from different worldviews, and that’s a source of strength, when we let it be.
John Wesley, in his book “On Christian Perfection” says that all of us are wrong sometimes, and none of use know when we are wrong (or we’d have fixed it already!), therefore we should be humble when we disagree with another because it may well be one of the times we’re wrong. Between the two of them, Shultz and Wesley urge caution at the very least with speaking to someone you think is wrong. James, then, just adds a bit more – wish them well, and speak to them in ways that will lead to their well-being. It is a HIGH bar, but one worth seeking. So, when we start thinking someone is wrong is a VERY good time to consider how we might use our words as blessings, and not as curses!!
It is also very common to be in a position when we are feeling attacked and wanting to defend ourselves. I think most of the worst speaking I’ve ever done has been when I’ve been in that position. Both my words and my tone seem to leap out of my control! In those situations, we may identify with the servant in Isaiah, who was struck, had beard-hairs pulled out, was spit on, and insulted. That could raise most people’s defensive heckles, right??? Let’s be clear, it SHOULD. We are not people who advocate being passive in the face of harm. We are people who advocate being PEACEFUL in the in face of violence, but not PASSIVE in the face of harm. So, the servant says that with God’s help, he made it through and kept his dignity in tact through it all. He trusts that a reversal of fortunes is coming, and that the harm will end. He even suggests that those who have done harm might stand WITH him on that day.
The most practical wisdom teachers I know say that when we feel attacked we need to slow down and get curious. First ask: am I in harm’s way? If so, do whatever is possible to get away from it. Then ask: do I have the resources to hear and respond to this right now? If not, do all in your power to exit the conversation/experience safely. If, however, you are not in danger and you do feel like your internal resources are up to the task, then we get back to James’ teaching. Then we need to think about what it means to bless the person who got our heckles up, and how we can use our words – and tone – to seek their well-being and our own at the same time! That DEFINTELY requires keeping things slow, and staying with curiosity, and it tends to be a skill easiest to develop with those you already trust to like you, love you, and seek your well-being. Remember CURIOUSITY as a means of moving us to blessing, if you can!
Finally, the more I think about James affirming the importance of BLESSING and not cursing God’s beloved people, the more I suspect he was advising each of us on how we speak to OURSELVES. I don’t think I know anyone who speaks more harshly to other people than they do to themselves. In fact, most of the time when I hear people speaking harshly to others (myself included for sure), I suspect that the way they’re speaking is simply a toned-down reflection of how they speak to themselves. (By the way, this assumption helps me have a lot more compassion when people speak harshly.)
The ways most people speak to themselves sounds a lot more like cursing than it does like blessing. But James says we aren’t supposed to curse those made in the image of God, and that includes ourselves. It includes everyone else too.
So, dear ones, may we find ways to slow down our tongues, may we remember to be curious, and may our tongues be sources of blessings for God’s people, including ourselves. This world of ours is definitely in need of some blessings, and I hope we can be sources of it. Amen
1 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah Vo. 2: 40-66 in Westminster Bible Companion Series, edited by Patrick D. Miller and David A. Bartlett (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 122.
2 Apple Dictionary “bless” accessed 9/13/18.
3 Apple Dictionary, “curse” accessed 9/13/18.