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.

Ephesians 4:17-5:2 – Living in Truth

truth

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (NIV)

Okay, a collective confession from the get-go: We know today’s New Testament lesson is the proper way to live. There’s no need to convince you that we must live and speak the truth in love, avoid angry tirades, keep a lid on our wagging tongues, keep bitterness out of our hearts, forgive others, and be compassionate to people. So, what is the real issue? Why, despite knowing better, do we as people have such a doggone hard time following God’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of people, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter and toast others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok. No, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, before it will free us, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and wrap our heads and hearts around it. Truth is: People are to be open, honest, and real with each other because we belong to one another. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

truth cross

What is truth?

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ.  Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus. That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other.  We will speak truthfully because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.  Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other.  My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic.  Pretending we are okay when we are not, or even acting like life is hard when it is not is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretension, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other.

Why do we not speak truth?

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it is not worth the risk. We become convinced that we will be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip.  In other words, we let shame take the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another.  So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth?

We speak truth because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful.  When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

truth 2

How do we speak truth?

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other because that is what God does with us.  Faith communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing.  There must be assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.  Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real.  No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken.  We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another.  The late author and psychologist, Lewis Smedes, said in his book The Power of Promises:

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.  What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are deigned to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love.

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity. When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment.  We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and, renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said and be open enough to let others in.

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love.  Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It is hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there is order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that is okay.

Lord God Almighty, the Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.

The Power of the Tongue

 
 
In 1899 four newspaper reporters in Denver, Colorado almost succeeded in tearing down the Great Wall of China with their words.  The reporters from four different newspapers were having drinks together at a local bar.  The men had been sent out to dig up any kind of story for the Sunday editions, since there was not much happening in the news cycle.  After bantering around some ideas for going after stories, one of them proposed that he was going to make up a story.  With more beer drinking, they began hatching a story together that would be a big whopper.  They would write about China.  It was on the other side of the world.  No one would know the story was a phony.  Nobody would verify the source.
 
            This is the story they came up with, in order to sell newspapers:  “Group of American engineers are bidding on a job to demolish the Great Wall.  Chinese are opening their borders to international trade and goodwill.”  The Denver newspapers carried the fake story.  But it did not end there.  Eastern newspapers like the New York Times picked up the story that China was opening up to the West by tearing down the Great Wall.  People took the story seriously to the point that the Chinese found out about it.  There were extreme patriotic groups within China that were suspicious of Western influence to begin with, and they ended up slaughtering hundreds of foreign missionaries.  Within two months of the story, 12,000 troops from six Western nations joined forces, invaded China with the purpose of protecting their own countrymen.  All the bloodshed that followed was originally sparked by a journalistic hoax invented in a bar in Denver by four men, and became the international crisis known as the Boxer Rebellion.
 
The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life (James 3:3-5a).
 
            The horse is a strong animal; yet, even an eleven year old girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit can make the horse do whatever she wants him to do.  The power of the tongue is also like a large ship that is completely controlled in its direction by a very small piece of the ship, the rudder.
 
            Our words might seem small and insignificant, but they have incredible power to determine the course and destiny of human lives.  A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble.  An undisciplined pilot of a ship who is not careful puts the passengers at risk of a shipwreck.  Likewise, the loose undisciplined tongue is on a one way course of destruction.
 
The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy a person and those around him/her (James 3:5b-6).
 
            Just like fire, our words have an awesome potential for harm.  The Chicago fire of 1871 killed 250 people and destroyed 17,000 buildings.  It was all started by a cow kicking over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn.  The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 torched 783,000 acres and took 13,000 firefighters at a cost of $120 million to contain.  It was all started by flash of lightning.
 
            The tongue has the same capacity for destruction.  Those who misuse it are guilty of negligent spiritual arson.  We take our God-given power of speech for granted when we allow stray words to fly off the tongue.  The power of the tongue destroys when it resorts to gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not dare say to their face); flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would never say behind their back); negative criticism; sarcastic humor; boasting; and, a whole host of other sins of the tongue that all have as their end game the destruction of people’s lives.
 
We are never to take our words for granted in the church.  They have the power of speaking life and adding immense value to others’ lives.  Conversely, words have the ability to destroy both the speaker and the hearers.  The answer is not to keep our mouths shut, but to use the tongue as it is intended by God to be used: 
 
·         “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). 
·         “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).
·         “My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long” (Psalm 71:24).
·         “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15).
·         “Do not repay evil for evil… every tongue will confess to God” (Romans 12:17, 14:11).
 

 

May the love and grace of Jesus direct your every word and guide your tongue so that the church is edified, the world blessed, and the lost are found.

Teaching and the Tongue

 
 
            The most important tool any teacher, preacher, or church member has in their box is the tongue.  It is the chief implement for speaking encouragement, catechizing students, preaching the Word, as well as in informal conversations when giving advice or counsel.  The tongue is powerful.  Since it carries so much might, the tongue is a tool which is to be holy and set apart for God’s use. 
 
            Untruthful, unproductive, negative, and sinful words are not meant for the Christian’s tongue any more than an electric razor is meant to shave one’s tongue.  Our words and our speech are meant to be used in such a way as to build up the Body of Christ and bless the world.  Therefore we need to be quite careful about what and why words come out of our mouths.
 
            In the Greek and Roman society of which the church was founded within, philosophers and persons adept at rhetoric and speech were the celebrities and mega-stars of the ancient world.  People didn’t watch TV, listen to talk radio, or go to movies.  For entertainment as well as education they went to the town square and listened to those trained to speak talk about the latest ideas and often debate with one another. 
 
            What is more, the early church grew out of a synagogue tradition in which rabbis (the Hebrew word for “teacher”) were highly respected figures.  In addition, the way early believers did church gatherings was an open discussion forum where people gave a word of encouragement, exposition, or exhortation.
 
            In our world, ambitious young people move to LA or New York and wait tables in order to work on getting their dream job in the theater or in the move business.  In the ancient world, young people dreamed of moving to cities like Athens or Rome in order to try and become a student of a great teacher and be a famous philosopher and rhetorician.  This is why the Apostle James gave a warning about not rushing into the role of becoming a teacher (James 3:1-2).  Teachers were highly respected individuals, wielding much power, and made the most money in the ancient world.
 
            The role of teacher tended to attract people with the desire to become wealthy and influential.  Pride and ambition were the twin sins always crouching at the door of the church teacher.  The danger with talking, no matter if it is in a formal setting or informal gathering, as fallen people we have a tendency to be slow to listen, and quick to give advice and counsel.  In other words, we too often run into a teaching role without considering what we are really doing.  A fool in the role of teacher is both dangerous and damaging because they delight in airing their own opinions and disdain listening to others.  The more that we listen to ourselves talk, the less we are able to be taught from someone else.
 
            A teacher who does not have a teachable-spirit has no business being a teacher and they must keep their mouths shut (at least for a while) and take a humble position of listening and learning.  Teachers need to teach for the right reasons – to provide sound instruction, offer wise counsel, and build up others.
 
Your tongue is a precious gift from God to be used with a great amount of discretion.  You have in your mouth the power of life and death – the power to promote life and influence others in a godly direction; to build up others according to their needs; and, to nurture others with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ.  No one ought ever to walk away from our fellowships discouraged and beat down from rancorous tongues that lacked mercy.
 

 

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17).  Amen, and amen.