James 3:1-12 – Taming the Tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 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. 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.

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.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (New International Version)

Words and speech are the most powerful tools we have in the Christian life. And the tongue is the means of forming the words and using the speech God gives us.

The problem is, we may too often underestimate the importance and the great power of the tongue to effect both good and evil. We might not believe that our particular words carry much weight.

Yet, in reality, our words are very powerful.  In fact, what we say with our tongues is either the vehicle of praise to God, or the ruin of another person. We must measure our words because the tongue is a beast to control and tame. 

The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life.

The horse is a strong animal, and the strength of a horse must be respected at all times. Yet, a small woman, even a young girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit, can make a horse do whatever she wants. Ships can be massive and carry thousands of people and huge amounts of cargo. Yet, it is controlled and directed by the rudder – a very small piece of the ship.  In our own day, we know the devastating power of a very small handgun trigger which can literally snuff out a life in an instant.

Likewise, the tongue is quite small among the parts of the body. Yet, it sets the course of a person’s life and has the power to determine its destiny.  A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble.  An undisciplined pilot of a ship is in danger of shipwreck.  A gun owner loose with gun safety is a danger to others. And the loose, unbridled, untrained and undisciplined tongue is on a one way course to destruction.

The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy another person.

Like fire, the tongue has an awesome potential for harm. The great Chicago fire of 1871, one of the costliest disasters of the nineteenth-century, killed three hundred people and destroyed seventeen-thousand buildings.  All the destruction was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern in a barn. 

The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 burned for several months and completely destroyed nearly 800,000 acres of the park.  At the peak of the fire there were 9,000 firefighters battling the blaze. All the devastation was caused by one quick flash of lightning.

The largest fire in American history occurred in 1871 and began in northern Wisconsin. The fire created its own wind system and turned into a tornado, moving into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time it was over, 3.7 million acres were scorched with 2,500 people left dead. All the destruction was likely caused by a small meteorite.

Whenever we underestimate the power of our speech and allow a stray word to fly off the tongue, the spark has the potential to start a huge conflagration of evil. A firestorm of destruction can be set off with just a few uncontrolled words. 

Through gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not say to their face), flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would not say behind their back), negative criticism, sarcastic humor, boasting, and a host of evil words, the tongue has the immense power to destroy life.  It is speech fueled and spread by Hell itself.

The tongue is so powerful that it cannot be tamed.

Animals can be tamed, even crocodiles.  I once took my oldest daughter to the circus, when she was a small girl, and watched as a guy had a trained crocodile open its mouth and stuck his head inside the crazy reptile! 

Yet, no one can tame the tongue. It is like a tarantula, biting its victim with paralyzing venom so that the arachnid can eat its prey alive. The untamed and uncontrolled tongue is like a poisonous spider which spreads its verbal venom, paralyzing other people and sucking the life out of them.

The Apostle James paints a hopeless picture because he wants to drive us to the grace of God for help. We cannot tame the tongue – but God can. When we begin to see the true nature of our speech, it reveals something of ourselves.

The tongue is so powerful that it exposes the duplicity of the heart.

Whatever comes out of our mouths reveals what is on the inside of our lives. If we can grasp the truth of this, I believe it could transform the way people talk to one another. Even more metaphors to communicate the point….

Salt water and fresh water cannot both come from the same spring. A fig tree cannot bear olives, and a grapevine is not going to produce figs. And whatever comes out of the mouth reveals the source. Evil words come from an evil source; good words come from a good source. 

A pattern of negative condescending speech is drawing from a well, pumping up words from the depths of Hell. Conversely, a continuous stream of helpful words that encourage and build up others, draws its nourishment from God’s Word.

Conclusion

The following are four ways to help bring the tongue under control:

  • Train your tongue for good. Speech is a skill to be developed. When starting an exercise regimen, we are deliberately training our bodies for health. When dieting, we are saying “yes” to certain foods, and “no” to others. The tongue needs to be trained to express gratitude, good news, and grace. And one of the best ways to do it is through speaking Scripture out loud in a daily regular regimen. Consider going on a fast from talking and seek only to be silent and listen for a specified amount of time.

Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8, NLT)

Solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14, NRSV)

  • Read a chapter of Proverbs each day for a month. There are thirty one chapters in Proverbs, one for each day of the month. Pay attention to the power of words. Notice the difference between the speech of a wise person and the words of a fool – and take to heart the consequences of both approaches. 

You will say the wrong thing
    if you talk too much—
    so be sensible and watch
    what you say. (Proverbs 10:19, CEV)

Careless words stab like a sword,
    but wise words bring healing. (Proverbs 12:18, NCV)

  • Build friendships with people who are positive and encouraging. If a negative person keeps being negative, even after you have warned them more than once about it, you likely need a new relationship. 

Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness, he cuts himself off.  (Titus 3:10-11, MSG)

  • Listen and learn before speaking. A judgmental spirit often comes from misinterpreting another person’s words and/or actions. We can too often jump to conclusions about something or someone with only partial information and without the whole story.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, MSG)

Right and Just God, teach us to speak wisely. Let us avoid useless thoughts and useless conversations. Help us to speak often of you. Grant that our words may never hurt others but always bring comfort to those in sorrow, and guidance to those in need. Take our tongues and make them yours. Take our minds and make them instruments of your goodness and a channel of truth. May you help us to use both words and silence in redemptive ways, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

James 1:17-27 – Be Good because God Is Good

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first-fruits of all he created.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (New International Version)

God is Good – All the Time

And all the time – God is good. That statement is a bedrock foundation for Christian faith. Without a basic affirmation and belief of God’s goodness, our faith will experience cracks and not stand the test of hardship and difficulty in life. Without the steadfast conviction that God is good, the alternative is that God is somehow fickle or even mean – that God does not care about my problems.

The trials and tribulations of life are intended by God to be watershed experiences that prove the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. When life is good, it is easy to say God is good. However, when it isn’t, we may slide into a belief system that thinks God is the source of our trouble. And if we have not been working on a relationship with God, we will have scant resources to draw from to help us.

God is good, and not mean. Every single good gift there is in this world comes from God. Nothing evil comes from God. God’s grace is constantly around us. If his grace were not here, it would be like living inside a dystopian novel, or a zombie apocalypse, where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders for the next evil thing to happen. Although evil exists, it could be a whole lot worse if it were not for divine grace and goodness.

“This is true faith, a living confidence in the goodness of God.”

Martin Luther

God is immutable, that is, God’s goodness is ever-present. On this earth we are constantly subjected to changing light as the sun rises and sets, and as the clouds come and go. Yet, God does not change like shifting shadows. God is not fickle or capricious. God’s goodness is always at high noon, standing like an eternal sun in a bright blue sky radiating unbroken grace to us.

God’s goodness has delivered people from sin, death, and hell. God’s grace has given us new life. God created the world and pronounced it “good.” God formed you and called you “good.” And God has forgiven you, in Christ, and says it is “good.”

God gave us a good word for us to accept and live by.

Hurry Up and Listen

There is a great need for listeners today. Precious little productive communication takes place because there are so many people in a hyper-vigilant state airing their opinions. They talk over and on top of each other because they’ve already made-up their minds about how things really are and what should be done. Nobody is listening.

Bible reading is a primary source for listening to God. Yet, although many people own multiple Bibles, and Scripture is freely available through digital sources, far too many persons simply don’t read and listen to it.

Slow Down and Speak

God has given us two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.   

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

A loose tongue and constant opining happens because of faulty listening.  An inability to listen leads to a lack of understanding because we do not take the time to get the whole story. It’s easy to pronounce verdicts with little information, and offer bad advice, when there is little listening.

Have a Long Fuse

Be slow to anger. A fool speaks without thinking, which stirs up strife. Slow to listen and quick to speak leads to anger flares. An angry spirit is an unteachable spirit, unwilling to listen to both God and others. 

Rash words said in anger produce an ugly unrighteous life. Selfish opinionated anger produces harsh bitter words and kills God’s plan for a good life.

We are to accept the Word of God. Throwing labels at people only de-humanizes them. They become objects of anger and scorn, and not people made in God’s image. Nothing good comes from ignoring God’s Word and giving-in to bitterness. It destroys good people.

Get Rid of Evil

Get rid of all moral filth, and the evil that is so prevalent. The unwillingness to listen, a loose tongue, and unrighteous anger are moral evils. Evil is not only perpetuated by serial killers, terrorists, and other people different from us. In fact, the face of evil rarely comes to us in the form of red horns and a pitchfork.

Evil also resides as soft-core wickedness – common ordinary evil. The demonic can work in an almost ho-hum manner, subtly questioning whether anyone can really live up to the precepts of God’s Word, and generally undermining all that takes place to the glory of God.

The face of evil is neither hot nor cold, but “meh.” It is the bitter slow-cooked seething anger bubbling just underneath the surface which comes out in a plastic smile while offering up a morsel of slander based on a lack of listening well. It comes out in fake gestures of niceness while being quick to make judgments with little to no information.

Put away the “meh.” Receive God’s Word. Take a teachable posture. Stop and listen to what God’s Word has to say.

Be a Doer of God’s Word, Not Just a Hearer

The Word of God is not truly received until it is put into practice. 

It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Romans 2:13, NRSV) 

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it (Luke 11:28, NIV). 

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He cannot stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes. And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.  Profession of faith means nothing without a practice of that faith; learning the Bible is useless without living it; and acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.  Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

Pay Attention to the Person in the Mirror

A person looks at himself in the mirror. He clearly sees all his flaws. Yet he does not respond, likely because he doesn’t like what he sees. It’s silly to look into a mirror, see a major bedhead, and just do nothing about it and go to work as if everything were fine. We look. We examine. We hear. We see exactly who we are. And we can’t even identify ourselves in a police lineup.

The person forgets what he looks like because he does not really want to face himself. This isn’t a clueless guy. It is one who sees himself as he really is and chooses not to do anything about it.

Forgetfulness happens because of inaction. Remembrance, communion, and hope all occur through active participation. God blesses the one who looks hard into the mirror of God’s Word, then intentionally makes changes based on what he finds.

Obedience to God’s Word brings freedom, not bondage. Listening, seeing, adjusting, and changing is a freeing activity. That’s because it’s how we are designed to live.

Holy and good God, give me grace to see you, others, and myself clearly so that I will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Matthew 5:7 – Blessed are the Merciful

“Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.” (NIV)

“Mercy” is one of the most rich and important words in all of the Holy Bible. Randomly turn to any page of Scripture and you will most likely find the word “mercy.” Mercy is highly significant because God is merciful.

King David was known as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). This is first and foremost about mercy. In the ancient world, when a new king came to power who was from a different lineage than the previous ruler, it was a common practice to kill all the male heirs from the former king because they posed a grave threat to the throne. David, however, did not do that; he did just the opposite. David ascended the throne and said:

“Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness?” (2 Samuel 9:1, NIV)

Indeed, there was. His name was Mephibosheth. He happened to be lame in both feet. That meant, literally, he was not able to run away when David became king. I am sure Mephibosheth believed he was being summoned by King David to his death. But when he arrived, David said to him:

“Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness…. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.” (2 Samuel 9:7, NIV)

That, my friend, is the very definition of mercy. And that is precisely the character quality Jesus was talking about in his Beatitudes.

Just as David used his power to extend mercy and kindness to potential rivals instead of exterminating them to consolidate his power, so the true follower of Jesus will identify with the powerless and give them a seat at the table.

If we are wondering, at all, whether this is really what Jesus is talking about with mercy, his words in the Gospel of Luke make it crystal clear:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36, NIV)

Merciful folks are gracious, kind, and accept others, especially an unworthy person, because they know that they themselves are unworthy of God’s great mercy and grace. The merciful person’s mantra is: “God has shown me mercy; therefore, I will show mercy to others.”

Those who are merciful will be shown mercy. If anyone treats another harshly and without mercy, they should not expect to receive blessing from God. This raises an important question which needs to be asked: Are we kind and merciful, or do we have a bent toward wanting to see others judged and punished? I share a hypothetical story….

My dear middle daughter was a remarkably busy girl. Whenever we were in public, it was my standing rule that she always holds my hand. The reason for this was that she always ran instead of walked. Holding her hand was the only way I could keep her safe and not literally run into harm’s way.

Here comes the hypothetical part: One day we are walking down the street holding hands. She gets away from my grip and runs… right into oncoming traffic… and is struck by a car. I run up to her, bend over her bleeding and broken body and say, “Well, that’s what you get for disobeying me. After all, you reap what you sow!”

Oh, my, no!… My daughter is now a Mom. And, lo and behold, she has a son just like her. I need to hold his hand, too! If an accident were ever to happen in reality, I can guarantee my response would be to run to him, bend over his bleeding and broken body, cry uncontrollably, and determine to do everything in my grandfatherly power to save his life and see him healed from his injuries.

So, then, my sisters and brothers, why in the world would we ever tell a broken hearted person – perhaps in the throes of depression or riddled with anxiety from hardship – emotionally and spiritually bleeding on the inside: “Get over it!” “Just stop worrying!” or “You need to be strong!”

God, forbid! No! Mercy! I insist, mercy! The world does not revolve on the axis of judgment, criticism, or giving someone what they deserve. God’s great big world spins because of mercy, grace, and basic human kindness that comes from the hand of a good benevolent Lord who cares about all humanity. Perhaps I must be even more specific…

  • The one filled with God’s righteousness will go out of their way to show kindness, love, and compassion to the LGBTQ+ community, becoming familiar with their needs, struggles, and heartaches as they listen without judgment and full of mercy.
  • The person touched by the mercy of God will intentionally seek to give people of color a seat at the table and the freedom to speak freely while listening with ears of mercy.
  • The human being who follows Jesus will see the image of God in our Native American sisters and brothers and will mercifully do everything within their power to advocate for them when it comes to things like inequities of poverty, disease, addiction, and death.
  • The person filled with the righteousness of God will respect all other religious people, regardless of their spirituality. They will be merciful to Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and even Wiccans, not because they see them as potential converts, but just because they need mercy, like the rest of us.

Consider what others have to say about mercy….

“God tolerates even our stammering and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us – as, indeed, without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray.”

John Calvin

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is mercy, not justice or courage or even heroism, that alone can defeat evil.”

Peter Kreeft

Consider what Holy Scripture has to say about mercy…

Some Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and other sinners?” Jesus heard them and answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others.’ I didn’t come to invite good people to be my followers. I came to invite sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-13, CEV)

The Lord’s kindness never fails!
If he had not been merciful,
    we would have been destroyed.
The Lord can always be trusted
    to show mercy each morning.
Deep in my heart I say,
“The Lord is all I need;
    I can depend on him!” (Lamentations 3:22-24, CEV)

May we not succumb to thoughts of violence and revenge today, but rather to thoughts of mercy and compassion. We are to love our enemies and be merciful to all so that we might reverse the curse on humanity and restore them, by God’s grace, to their right mind, heart, and spirit.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Luke 6:43-45 – Your Words Reflect Your Heart

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. You can tell what a tree is like by the fruit it produces. You cannot pick figs or grapes from thornbushes. Good people do good things because of the good in their hearts. Bad people do bad things because of the evil in their hearts. Your words show what is in your heart. (Contemporary English Version)

I always find public confessions on TV to be something rather disingenuous. Typically, celebrity apologies only take shape when one has been caught saying something and are called on the carpet. Then, when the apology comes, it is predictably odd and incongruent, in which the person says something to the tune of, “I’m sorry if I hurt anybody by what I said. Saying that really wasn’t me. I’m not really like that.”

Well, apparently you are like that because it came out of your mouth. Jesus said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The words we say out loud betray what is truly inside us.

To illustrate that point, Jesus used the metaphor of a tree. If the roots, the trunk, and the branches are good and healthy, then you can be sure the tree will produce good healthy fruit. However, if the tree is diseased, or infested with insects and rotting from the inside out, then no one can expect anything other than bad fruit, not fit to consume.

If the fruit is bad, the tree is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, ignorant, mean, unjust, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Conversely, if the words are affirming, encouraging, loving, compassionate, gentle, caring, direct, helpful, peaceful, kind, giving hope and life, then there is a good heart behind it.

Yes, bad hearts can parrot good words. However, those words are not genuine but mere rote recitations to achieve some sort of personal agenda. And, of course, good people will occasionally say dumb or hurtful words. In such times, let it be a reminder that we all have some shadowy places within our hearts – and that we must depend on God’s grace to enlighten those dark spaces.

It is best to observe patterns rather than focus on isolated events where either good or bad words were said. A consistent pattern of invalidating another’s experiences or feelings; intimidating or threatening others; dismissing or discounting someone’s input; or being unnecessarily blunt are all major red flags pointing to a severe heart issue.

Evil does exist in the world. And if we are not vigilant to it’s insidious role in the crafting of words, wickedness can easily smack us upside the head when we aren’t looking.

The heart cannot be concealed forever. Eventually, the virtuous person will be shown as such by their stream of speech which pours forth from the heart, as if it were living water for others to drink and enjoy. Their words reflect their good character.

The wicked person, however, cannot keep the bad words down. Those vile words sit in the soul, poisoning and making the person ill. Then, all of a sudden, the evil words come up and out with a great vomitous heave and spew impurity and unholiness all over the innocent. Their words betray their foolish and poor character.

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words win first-prize at the great heavenly fair.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy. Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Jesus is the gracious carpenter. God is the divine surgeon. The Holy Spirit is the energetic power source. They are ready for the work. Will you let them in?

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.