Teaching is a calling. I don’t think there are many other vocations that have the power to permanently change people’s lives. Whether the class is made up of pre-schoolers, teenagers, or adults, the truly effective teachers do one thing consistently: watch their words. Words have the power to heal or destroy, to build up or tear down. Teachers are entrusted with the minds of their learners, and it is a tremendous responsibility.
James is primarily speaking to church teachers in this passage, but no one should think about teaching lightly. There is too much at stake when learners are involved. Wrong teaching, in school or church, can be damaging. Thoughtless or careless words spoken by a teacher, in school or church pierce the heart and soul in ways that may never fully heal.
The word for teachers to be strict about their words is not limited to the classroom or the pulpit. Everyone has opinions, especially during a crisis like the one in which we now live. And although the First Amendment protects the right to speak freely, the way we speak must be gracious, well-thought out, and aware of the impact our words have on others. Ad hominem attacks, incomplete information, passing along stories without checking for veracity, and sharing third and fourth hand “news” does more harm than good. In a time of physical distancing, the words we write can be just as problematic as the words we speak. Those who teach must be even more vigilant to test stories, research information, and share only what is accurate and true. We who educate are held to a higher standard in promoting what is true and just and right, not just by society, but by the Father, himself.
Our reputations as believers and as teachers (formally or informally) will be judged by the society around us based on how we conducted ourselves in this difficult time. More than ever we need to be quick to hear and slow to speak. We all say things we regret. We all use the wrong words sometimes (okay, maybe often). We must be diligent to make the corrections required so that we do not tarnish the name of the Lord.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.James 1:19 (ESV)
James says the tongue is a fire. Anyone who has lived through wildfires can attest that, once something has burned, it is never the same again. It may regrow; it may be rebuilt; it will never return to what it was.
Words are the same. And teachers bear a greater responsibility to speak with the love of Christ behind every interaction with students, parents, and colleagues. We who are teachers must be vigilant in how we use our words.