Taming the Tongue

Taming the Tongue

James 3:1–12

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, [O] Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”[1] These beautiful words may be found at the close of Psalm 19. They were written by David, that great writer of sacred songs—which is what a psalm is. This closing verse commends to God all David has written about before—a sense of wonder at the beauty of God’s heavens, the natural world he has created; and a sense of wonder at the beauty of God’s law, the supernatural Word he has disclosed. David further expressed a desire to be innocent of transgressing that Word. His closing prayer should be the prayer of us all. We should all desire that our gracious LORD and Maker would be pleased with the words that come out of our mouths and the meditations that come from our hearts.

When we began our study in James a few weeks ago,[2] right in the opening chapter of his epistle he, too, makes clear how important it is for us to watch our speech as he exhorts all believers to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.[3] As we saw, that first chapter even ends, in part, with these sobering words: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”[4] And in this morning’s passage James returns to this theme in earnest as he challenges followers of Christ to be mindful of the power of the tongue.

James begins by addressing those who teach: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” The reason for this strict judgment is, I think, obvious for James has in mind teachers of God’s law, his Word. Teachers are provided a unique platform to influence others. So if what they teach is wrong, they have a greater ability to lead others astray. This is part of the reason why Jesus was especially hard on religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. Though called upon to rightly divide God’s Word, they too often used their positions of power to hurt rather than help those they were intended to teach. Luke records one of the many instances in which Jesus warned his disciples and others who were listening against these irresponsible teachers: “46 Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”[5] These religious teachers were more interested in the prestige attached to teaching than they were in putting their teaching into action. James, as a teacher of God’s Word himself—notice that he states that “we who teach will be judged more strictly”— is similarly aware of the importance of teaching what that Word actually says and thus exhorts believers to view teaching as a sobering responsibility, not as an opportunity to gain power or prestige over others.

Yet James is a realist who understands that none of us is perfect. As he goes on to state in verse 2, “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” Being the brother of Jesus, James knew that Jesus was the only person who ever lived who lived a perfect life. As to his teaching, in the very first chapter of his Gospel, Mark notes how “The people were amazed at [Jesus’] teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”[6] Jesus rightly divided God’s Word. And as to his living, Jesus rightly lived the Word that he taught. As the author of Hebrews tells us, though Jesus was tempted as we are, yet he did not sin.[7] Therefore in the person of Jesus, we find one who not only taught the law but who also kept the law he was teaching. He presented God’s law to others in deed and in truth. Only Jesus was perfect. Only he was able to keep his whole body in check. And yet this kind of perfection, this kind of holiness, is what we were made for as well. Therefore this kind of perfection is what we all should aspire to.

But holiness, even for those of us who have had Christ’s righteousness imputed, credited to us by him,[8] is nonetheless hard work. And the indication that we have come to a saving faith and knowledge in Christ is that we desire and work to be like him; that we desire and work to live according to the Scriptures that God has given us that we might know what love for God and love for each other looks like in practice. This kind of practicality is what James specializes in and beginning with verse 3 he offers some analogies to help us understand the power of our tongue in particular. Now when you think about it, upon first considering it, how hard can it be to control our tongue? How hard can it be to keep our mouths shut? Plenty hard, as it turns out. As James states in verse 3, some types of control are easy: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” It’s been a long time since I’ve been horse-back riding but a well-trained horse is a pleasure to ride. With but a light movement of the reigns, you’re able to make this one-to-two thousand pound animal turn right, turn left, or stop dead in its tracks. All of that power to control by means of a small bit attached to the horse’s bridle. Then in verse 4, James provides another example, one that is no doubt near and dear to the hearts of many seafaring New Englanders: “Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.” Though I confess to knowing far less about the mechanism of rudders we can still take James’ point. As in the case of a horse, ships, despite their great size, are able to be controlled by the relatively small mechanism of a rudder, even when driven by strong winds.

Yet rather than state that a tongue, though small, can similarly be as efficient at controlling us as a bit does a horse or a rudder does a ship, James instead goes on to speak of the tongue negatively starting in verse 5: “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” So the only similarity between the tongue, a bit, and a rudder is that all three are small. But unlike a bit or a rudder which are able to control a horse and ship, respectively, James likens the tongue to a small spark in the forest that ends up setting the whole forest on fire. So a spark is yet a third small thing which, though small, can have great power. But unlike a bit or rudder that do good by guiding and controlling, a spark can get out of control and thereby cause chaos. So, too, the tongue. Though little, the tongue makes great boasts. Though but a small part of our bodies, the tongue is “a world of evil among the parts of the body.” It “corrupts the whole body.” It “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue, used wrongly, is demonic and destructive. So despite its small size, the tongue presents a tremendous danger to us.

When James first raised the topic of our need to take care in our speech in chapter 1, I noted that the childhood taunt of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” wasn’t quite true for names can and do hurt. And sometimes the effect of that hurt can last a long time. As I was trying to bring to mind a particular quotation on the power of the tongue, I came across one by Joel Osteen, a contemporary preacher with whom I have strong disagreements given his emphasis on prosperity being the outcome of a life of faith. Nonetheless, I want to share this quotation by him with you because in this instance I think Osteen is exactly right in stating, “Be careful what you say. You can say something hurtful in ten seconds, but ten years later, the wounds are still there.” I knew a man whose first language was Spanish who told me that when he was in elementary school learning English one day, in front of his father, he pronounced the country “Mexico” as we do in English and as I just did—pronouncing the “x” with a “ks” sound rather than a “h” sound as would be done in Spanish. His father mocked him for this mispronunciation and this man, over fifty years after the incident, still felt the shame of his father’s ridicule. Fifty years. For mispronouncing a word. I imagine most who are here this morning could provide your own examples of words said long ago by which you were hurt or said by you that were hurtful to others and you’d love to take back. A tongue’s spark set on fire can become a destructive danger.

When I was a young seminarian, for a short period of time a long-distance friend and I wrote and shared short stories with one another. One of these I entitled “Evil is More Real.” In it I noted our tendency to believe negative things others say rather than positive. So, for example, if on a given day three people tell us we look good but a fourth person tells us we look terrible, we may interpret the first three positive comments through the lens of the negative fourth comment thinking that the first three people noticed how terribly we looked but were only trying to be nice. Evil is more real. Negative comments linger longer. Perhaps because we assume most people wouldn’t want to hurt our feelings, we conclude—often wrongly—that the negative comment was the true one. And yet why not assume that the fourth person was simply being rude? For too often we uncritically wield our tongue to deadly effect. Studies done have picked up on the power of negative comments and consequently recommend that when we offer feedback to others, we should provide at least positive comments for every negative one.[9]

And in case we missed the point on how difficult it is to tame the powerful tongue, James goes on to state in verses 7 and 8, “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James is pointing out the irony that we, God’s image-bearers who have been commissioned with the great task and privilege of being stewards of his world have done so successfully, taming “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures.” Yet despite our ability to tame the world of nature, we have been unsuccessful in taming the restlessly “evil, deadly poisonous” tongue.

Not only that but starting in verse 9 James addresses a major concern of inconsistency—of the tongue’s deadly poison—that was taking place in the very lives of these believers: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” How can we praise God and yet curse his image-bearers? The Alpha video we watched this past Thursday evening[10] noted that part of the implication of God having made us is that we are his masterpiece. The dictionary defines “masterpiece” as “a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.” Do you ever think of yourself as God’s masterpiece? I know I don’t. But we all should for God’s masterpiece we are. As stated in the opening chapter of Genesis, when God first created humanity, he “created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”[11] Think about this. God who made everything that exists also created us in his image. We are his workmanship. We are a work of outstanding artistry and skill for the God who made us is an outstanding God. Therefore we should view ourselves as his masterpiece. And we should view each other as his masterpieces as well.

Part of the problem James had to address in his letter was that there were those who were treating God’s masterpieces in a derogatory manner. Though they rightly praised God, the master craftsman par excellence, they wrongly cursed those who this master craftsman had made in his own image. Though they rightly praised God as their heavenly Father, they wrongly cursed his children, their very brothers and sisters to whom they were joined together by the Holy Spirit sent to them by means of Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Such cursing of God’s creation should have no place in the life of those who praise their Creator.

As James goes on to ask—and answer—some rhetorical questions starting in verse 11, “11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” In a none-too-subtle manner, James is pointing out a truth his half-brother Jesus also taught—that out of the mouth flows whatever is in our hearts. And ultimately this is why it’s so difficult to tame the tongue for the tongue expresses what is in our hearts. As recorded in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus similarly taught, “43 No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45 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.”[12] These followers of Jesus to whom James was writing were demonstrating the impoverished conditions of their hearts as evidenced by the abusive use of their tongues towards one another.[13]

So how do we tame the tongue? As James has been addressing, the first step in taming the tongue is to become aware of its power. But whereas James has been focusing on the negative side of this two-edged sword given the abusive context to which he was writing, there is a positive edge to the tongue. Another quotation I came across in preparing this week’s message was this title on a website: “Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.”[14] We need to remember the power of our words and act accordingly. Yet another quotation that brings this is home is one by Blaise Pascal: “Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.” We have a choice in how we use our words. We can use them in a destructive manner or we can use them to edify and encourage and build others up.

For those of us who know, love, and seek to be like our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, we who are Christ’s masterpieces should be focused on fulfilling his purpose for our lives. And what is that purpose? According to the apostle Paul, “…we are God’s handiwork,—or workmanship—created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”[15] God made us to do good. God placed us on this earth to do good. But doing good is a matter of deeds and words. On the one hand, as we saw James state in chapter 2 a few weeks ago,[16] we’re called not merely to speak good words to others for “15 [s]uppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” But on the other hand, we mustn’t use our tongue to “praise our Lord and Father” while cursing those whom that very Lord and Father has made in his image.[17] “This should not be[!]”[18]

Ultimately, we tame the tongue by looking to our Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ. As John teaches, “1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[19] Apart from Christ, we’re unable to tame the tongue. Apart from Christ, we will do and say destructive things. And as we see in James’ teaching, even with Christ it can be difficult to embrace the life and light he’s brought for we would happily love and praise God but not be bothered with loving and praising his masterpieces. Yet if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, it’s impossible in the end for us to claim to love him while not treating each other in a loving manner for he made us not only for himself but also for each other. To the eternal Word who became flesh and has made his dwelling in and among us; to the eternal Word who is full of grace and truth,[20] words matter.

So my brothers and sisters, let us tame our tongues that all might know and see him;

Let us tame our tongues that Christ Jesus, the eternal Word, might be pleased and glorified with the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts;

Let us tame our tongue that Christ Jesus, the eternal Word, would be pleased and glorified through us, his masterpieces.

Let us pray.

[1] Psalm 19:14.

[2] September 9, 2018, Reflecting God’s Word, James 1:17–27.

[3] James 1:19.

[4] James 1:26.

[5] Luke 20:46–47.

[6] Mark 1:22.

[7] Hebrews 4:15: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

[8] Romans 4:3, 11, 23–25: What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6]…. 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them…. 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.’ 1 Corinthians 1:26–31: 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [Jeremiah 9:24]; 2 Corinthians 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

[9] See, for example, The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio in The Harvard Business Review by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, March 15, 2013. This article may be found at <https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism>

[10] Why Did Jesus Die?

[11] Genesis 1:27.

[12] Luke 6:43–45. See parallel in Matthew 12:33–37:33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

[13] Jesus taught about this as well in Matthew 15:16–20:16 Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” Parallel in Mark 7:17–23: 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

[14] https://www.inc.com/peter-economy/26-brilliant-quotes-on-the-super-power-of-words.html

[15] Ephesians 2:10.

[16] Sermon preached on September 16, 2018, The Law of Love, on James 2:1–10, 14–17.

[17] James 3:9: With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

[18] James 1:10.

[19] John 1:1–5.

[20] John 1:14: 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

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