On July 1, I went to get my haircut. I was waiting until July 1 so I could get the double MVP treatment at Sport Clips. You can get the MVP treatment anytime throughout the year, but only in the month of July does Sport Clips double it for free. I arrived early for my appointment, signed in and sat down. A few minutes later, I was called back by the lady who regularly helps me. She asked, “Are we doing the normal four on top, three on sides, blended down to a two around the neck?”
I said yes. I sat down, and, as she cut my hair, we chatted about her son, the church I pastor, and summer plans. Then came the moment I had been waiting for — the double MVP treatment with the legendary hot steamed towel, massaging shampoo and leave-in conditioner scalp treatment while I relaxed with my feet up in a massaging chair. I was feeling relaxed with not a care in the world. We headed back to the chair for her to run the clippers over the top to pick up any long stragglers, and we continued chatting. Through our chatting, she became distracted and forgot to switch the clippers back from the setting of two (which she used for the edges) to a four, and neither of us caught it until after the first swipe over the top of my head. A lot of extra hair came off!
She instantly turned bright red and said, “Well, your haircut is free today. I am so sorry.” I responded, “I am sorry too. I’ll never be back — ha, ha.”
My wife and I just celebrated 11 years of marriage, we have three daughters, and I’ve been in fulltime ministry since my sophomore year of college 13 years ago. I still look young, however, and a buzz cut doesn’t help!
Now that was my internal response, but I knew in that moment I had a choice. I am not perfect, far from it, but I’ve known this lady for a few years. She lives down the street from the church and knows I’m a Christian and, worse, a pastor. So I smiled and said, “You know what. We all make mistakes. It’s OK.” She goes over the rest of my head with the two and I left her a tip and said, “Don’t worry about it. Mistakes happen. It will grow back.”
Now is that what I wanted to say? No! But our words are powerful. A simple statement can make someone’s day or ruin it.
A Practical Book
James, the half-brother of Jesus, gives us some instruction in James 1:19, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
This summer, we’ve been going through the book of James at New Life Church. I’ve read this book more times than I can count, and I’ve taught on it at least a dozen times. Each time I read it, I discover something fresh as my season of life changes. James starts out with this key principle that a mature person is someone who is patient in testing because of what the Lord works in and through us through our trials and testings. He then works through topics of listening and doing, favoritism in the church, faith and deeds, our speech, wisdom, discovering the will of God for our lives, and he comes full circle by talking about patience in suffering (James 1:2–18 and 5:7–12). What I love so much about this book is the practicality of it.
I stepped Jan. 1 of this year into the role of lead pastor at New Life. Whenever someone asks me how it is going my response is: “Good; we are laying the foundation for the future.” My main goals have been to get systems, structures and teams in place; lay out a clear vision; and get people excited about going forward together toward that shared vision.
One of the most lifegiving things in ministry for me is learning about who people are and why they are the way they are. I love discovering their story. Oftentimes over a cup of coffee, I’ve discovered things that have blown me away. Take, for instance, my conversation with a man named James.
I knew James was intelligent, but after about an hour into our conversation, I realized that he was being grossly underutilized. He shared about how when he was younger, his family was involved in ministry for a few years, but through some painful things that transpired, he ended up turning his back on God and lived his own way for quite a few years. Through providential events during his young adult life, he ended up developing a new relationship with Jesus.
Through our conversation, I discovered that he earned his Ph.D. and is the acting assistant professor and project manager of a group of scientists through the University of Washington and the local VA hospital. The group he oversees is leading the way in discovering development in dramatic brain injuries.
I said, “Brother, I should be calling you Doc. I had no idea!” He smiled and said, “No, please just call me James.”
I then asked, “How did you get to where you are, and why did you take this path?”
I discovered that through time in the Army and an accident in his life, he decided to become a scientist and research brain trauma.
The conversation with James allowed me to share a little of my journey. With a smile on my face I said, “While I may come across as the most eloquent speaker you’ve ever heard, I haven’t always been that way.”
When I was younger, I had trouble pronouncing my r’s, and I had a stutter. I also spoke too quickly, which led me to become frustrated when I would open my mouth to speak and the words wouldn’t come out. It was embarrassing, caused anger inside of me, and a low self-esteem. My parents could see the turmoil inside of me and brought me to a speech therapist. To this day, I don’t remember much from speech therapy besides playing Connect Four. I’m sure my speech therapist would ask me questions and help me slow my speech down, but all I cared about was Connect Four. I now joke and say that I will challenge anyone to a Connect Four game, because I got pretty good! I shared with James how God has a sense of humor because what once was a huge struggle for me is now what I do for a living.
I met my wife in high school. The first time she came over to my house, I remember asking her on the way home if everything was OK because she didn’t say much. She answered that everything was great, but that it was just impossible to get a word in because my three sisters, parents and I were all talking so fast and over each other. As I mentioned earlier, the book of James speaks a lot about the power of our words and not only what we say, but how we listen.
God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. I love what Jesus says in a parable known as the Parable of the Sower. After speaking the parable, His disciples asked Jesus, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” Jesus then goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah:
“For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15, referencing Isaiah 6:9–10).
I’ve discovered that Jesus calls us as His followers in this world to become better listeners. To listen with our ears, see with His eyes, and glean His wisdom that will transform our hearts so we would be healed, and bring healing to those around us.
“The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences” (Proverbs 18:21 NLT).
Words are free, it’s how you use them that will cost you.
“Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut” (Proverbs 10:19 NLT).
The Ways of the Words
James 3 shows us three ways the words you speak will affect your life.
The first is that the words you speak will rule where you go. James 3 gives us examples of a bit in a horse’s mouth and a rudder on a ship paralleling the power of our tongue (v. 3–4).
What words are you speaking in and over your life today — over your marriage, your ministry, your family, your career? Whatever you speak today will lead where you will go tomorrow.
The second is that the words you speak can ruin the direction of your life. James continues to discuss how the tongue is like a flame of fire and from it can flow a spark that can be small, yet set an entire forest on fire (v. 5–6). You can spend a lifetime building someone up, and one word can tear it all down. Are you speaking words of life or death?
The third thing James says in this chapter is that the words you speak will reveal who you really are and what’s in your heart. Throughout the entire book, James parallels each major topic as not just an outward problem, but really inward from the heart.
Are you going to just glean wisdom, or are you going to let that wisdom change how you live and love others (James 1)? Are you showing favoritism to some in the church because of how much someone gives or where they comes from (2:1–13)? Are you someone who says you have faith? Then show it by your heart for others in your deeds (2:14–26). Are you running after you own wisdom, or have you allowed the wisdom from above to transform you heart (3:13–18)? Are you asking God for help and guidance in the direction of your life, or are you allowing pride to rule your life (4:1–10)? And once again, what’s flowing from your mouth (4:11–17)? Whatever you speak comes from your heart.
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).
So how can we tame our tongue? How can we become better listeners in this world full of opportunities to share our opinions?
First I believe we need to practice the pause. Sometimes the wisest thing you can do is to stop and pause before responding. Then after you stop, ponder. Think: Is this going to be true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and/or even kind to say? Then pray. Pray that God will speak through you the words you need to speak. Not the words you may want to speak, but the words He wants you to.
As my friend James was speaking, I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to interject my thoughts into the conversation. But through asking the right questions and fostering an environment that allowed him to feel open to share, I was able to learn more about who James was, discover his gifts, talents and abilities and plug him into a place where he can use them to make the biggest impact for the kingdom of God through our local church. As a pastor — I’ll be honest — I love to talk, but I’ve learned that my job isn’t to be the student in speech therapy. I’m called to be the teacher. Ask the right questions and listen.
Jeff Fullmer is the lead pastor of New Life Church in Lynnwood, Washington. He graduated from Portland Bible College and then spent nine years as a youth pastor at SouthLake Foursquare in West Linn, Oregon, before becoming a campus pastor at Timberlake Church in Washington and leading the Duvall campus for three and a half years. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Natalie, for 11 years. They have three girls, Charlotte (6), Evelyn (4) and Julianna (2).