The Power of the Tongue
Topic: Church Life Passage: James 3:1–3:12
The Power of the Tongue
James has already written a lot about the tongue, saying that we should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, and that true religion will bridle (or control) our tongue. It’s often said we need to walk the talk, but James is saying we also need to talk the walk. Our tongues need to align with our profession of faith. But even with all that being said about the tongue, James isn’t done with our tongues yet.
He begins chapter 3 with a caution to those thinking about using their tongues to become a teacher of God’s word: don’t be too quick to call yourself a teacher. Teaching God’s word is a good thing and it’s needed in the church but James says that those who teach will be judged more strictly on Judgment Day.
Jesus said in Matt. 12 that we will all answer for our words on judgment day, "…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matt. 12:36-37. So Judgment Day already includes scrutiny of our words. But those who teach God’s word will be judged more strictly because they are declaring what God’s truth is, and if they carelessly mishandle it or twist it to fit their agenda, or if they aren’t applying what they teach to their own lives, they aren’t just doing damage to their souls, they’re doing damage to the souls of those who hear and believe what they teach. Mishandling the Bible or teaching error and heresy can have far-reaching and long lasting effects on the hearers and those who the hearers then influence. There are some heretics who on Judgment Day will carry the weight of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of souls who have been led away from God and His truth by their teaching and that will be a terrifying thing for them. On the positive side, if a teacher is careful to teach God’s word faithfully and seeks to apply it as they teach it, they will see the fruit of that truth and its influence on their listeners and receive their reward for that. So James isn’t saying not to become teachers, he’s saying don’t be too quick. Make sure God has called you to teach, and make sure you’re ready to handle God’s word carefully and faithfully. This warning leads him to talk about the power of the tongue.
- The tongue has tremendous power for good or for evil (vs 2-5)
In chapter one James says true religion bridles the tongue. Here he says if you are able to bridle your tongue, you can bridle everything. If you can get your tongue to be perfect, you can get your whole life to be perfect. We’ll never be perfect this side of eternity, as James admits that when he says “we all stumble (or sin) in many ways” but a big part of God's sanctifying work in us is focused on our tongues. The tongue has tremendous power for good or for evil.
- The tongue’s power is directive (3-5)
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
Horses bits and ships rudders have this in common: they are small things that steer big things. The tongue is a small thing that has an outsized ability to steer our lives, especially when it comes to our relationships. A big factor in our relationships being where they are –good or bad – has been our words.
I’m not saying that we’re at fault for every relationship that has gone bad. Jesus was a perfect man who
always spoke perfect words and yet there were relationships in his life that went horribly bad. I know people who have been far more careful and godly with their words than I could ever be, and yet have broken relationships in their lives. So please don’t hear this and think that you must be to blame for every relationship that isn’t where you’d want it to be.
But our words do have tremendous directive power in our lives and relationships. If someone looks back in life and sees a string of people that want nothing to do with them, they need to examine the role their words played in getting them to that place. If your spouse is cold and distant, have your words made them that way? If you are estranged from your kids, did your words push them away?
A study was done of newlyweds over their first 10 years of marriage to discover the difference between marriages that last and marriages that don’t and one of the patterns they noticed was that the marriages that didn’t make it started out insulting and putting each other down twice as much as the couples whose marriages lasted. After 10 years those couples were insulting each five times more often than the couples that stayed together. Once we go down that road it becomes a slippery slope.
Our words have a large part to play in where we arrive in life and our relationships. If we don’t like where we are, we should ask, what role did my words play in getting me here? Questions like: Am I overly critical? Do I tend to speak harshly when I’m angry? Do I shut people down when they try to share their thoughts and feelings? Do I assume I’m right and lecture people? Do I jump to hasty conclusions before knowing all the facts?
Prov. 18:21 says the power of life and death is in the tongue. Our words influence not only where our relationships are at, but where other people end up in life. We can literally send people down a path of death or a path of life. Path of security or a path of insecurity. Path of love for God or a path of hating God. Our words can play a directive role in the trajectory of other people’s lives. James is mostly focusing on the bad side of this but the good side of this is true too: the horse can be directed where the rider wants to go by the bit and the ship can be directed where the captain wants to go by the rudder. Our words can foster healthy relationships and help people want to get near us. Our words can help steer someone’s life in a good and God-glorifying direction.
The parent who speaks words of affirmation and loving acceptance over their child helps that child grow up with an inner confidence that they’ll take with them for the rest of their lives. The teacher who shows kindness to a lonely, insecure child and builds them up with words of encouragement can literally send that child on a different trajectory in life then they would have otherwise gone without those words. Sunday school teachers can sow seeds of God’s word in young hearts that bear eternal fruit.
James doesn’t tell us to muzzle our tongues, he tells us to bridle them – control our tongues so that they speak words that build up and give grace. God can use our words can help direct the people in our lives to be better people. The tongue’s power is directive.
- The tongue’s power is destructive (5-6)
The tongue has the power to change the trajectory of lives – both ours and others. But it also has tremendous power to damage and destroy. Verse 5 goes on: How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.
We’ve all been watching the horrible devastation as three wild fires rage in California. The worst of them is the Camp Fire in Northern California where last I heard 71 people had died and a thousand are unaccounted for. The pictures and stories are horrifying.
James compares our tongue to a spark setter that can set entire forests on fire with just a few words. Maybe we only intended to set a small fire, but soon we find it burning out of control. Slanderous words can burn a reputation to the ground. Harshly critical words can reduce a child’s confidence to ashes. Cynical words can torch a person’s ability to trust others. Friendships can go up in flames from a few words of gossip. Divisive words can leave scorched earth where once there was a healthy, thriving church.
Our tongues possess tremendously destructive power. We need to bridle our tongues by the grace of God so that we don’t start wild fires that we can never unstart.
- The source of our tongue’s power (6-8)
James gets to the source of our tongue’s power. I like the way the NIV translates the flow of thought in verse: 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 (there's that directive and destructive nature of the tongue again), and is itself set on fire by hell.
The tongue corrupts and sets the course (literally, the wheel) of our lives in a destructive direction and James says, the source of that fire is hell. James is clearly talking about our hearts and thinking about Jesus’ description about what comes out of our mouths:
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. – Matt 15:18-20
The word for hell that James uses is the word “Gehenna” which originated from the valley of henna where in Old Testament days Israelites sacrificed their children to a false god called Molech. Later it would become a garbage dump that burned continuously outside of Jerusalem.
Our tongues are set on fire by hell – not the literal hell where the devil and his angels and those who reject Christ’s salvation will spend eternity - but the garbage heap of our sinful hearts. When we speak lies, slander, gossip, accusations, boastings, we are speaking the devil's language. Apart from regenerating and renewing work of Christ our hearts are smoldering garbage dumps. And we spread that garbage largely through our tongues.
Then, because James doesn’t feel he’s made his point strongly enough, he then adds another metaphor to the mix: our tongues are full of deadly poison (vs. 8). …no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
There is a tiny frog found in South and Central America, called the Phyllobates Terribilis, also known as the "poison arrow frog" and it's poison is so toxic that one seven hundred millionth of an ounce is enough to kill a person. Some natives obtain this poison to dip their arrows in so that what they shoot dies quickly. Our tongues are like Phyllobates Terribilis – poison darts that speak death into people.
All this might leave us feeling pretty hopeless about our tongues. But James gives us a better way. Let’s read on.
- The taming of our tongues (9-12)
9 With it (that is, our tongues) we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
James is saying that the nature of the source will determine what it will produce. A freshwater source
won’t produce salt water. A fig tree won’t produce olives. A grapevine won’t produce figs. People don’t give birth to monkeys, dogs don’t give birth to cats. The nature of something determines what it produces.
If the source of our tongue is the heart, then we don’t need to change our tongue, we need to change our heart. It’s not enough that our hearts be filled with anger and gossip and accusations and slander but we keep it to ourselves. If our hearts are garbage pits, it will eventually find its way out of our mouth.
Some time ago I noticed a bad smell in our car. At first it was faint, but it got worse. I checked the back seat and the front seat and the trunk, but couldn’t find the source of the bad smell. After about a day it got so bad, that I took a more thorough look, determined to find the source of the smell and I found a cantelope had rolled out of a grocery bag and lodged deep in the corner of the trunk where I didn’t see it. I would never get rid of the smell until I removed the source: the rotting cantelope.
True religion bridles our tongue because it bridles our heart. It cleans up our tongue by cleaning up our hearts. Jesus knows our problem is our Gehenna garbage heap hearts, and so he comes into our lives, he gives us a heart transplant. Ezek. 36:says,
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26
God doesn’t promise to give us a perfect heart – not until we see Jesus face to face. He promises to remove our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. A soft heart. A heart that wants to obey the Lord, a heart that is sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, a heart that feels conviction when we sin and is quick to repent when we’ve spoken hurtful, destructive words.
This side of heaven there will always be a war between the Spirit and the flesh. Our new heart wants to speak words of love and grace, wants to build up and not tear down, wants to cover people’s shame not expose their shame unnecessarily. But our remaining flesh is an arsonist that wants to set as many fires as it can. Every day we need to depend on God for grace to bridle our tongues. In every situation we need to choose to follow the leading of the Spirit rather than the impulse of the flesh. And when we fail and speak sinful words, we need to go to our heavenly Father and confess our sinful words to Him and ask for His forgiveness and cleansing. Repentance is getting the rotting cantelope out of our trunk so our conscience is clean. If our words have injured or damaged someone else, getting the cantelope out of the trunk means going to them, confessing how our words have hurt them and asking for their forgiveness.
We have an indestructible hope in Jesus. He died to forgive us and save us from our Gehenna hearts and to give us new hearts. Our faith in Christ knows that our words don’t have the last word, Jesus does. And his last word is “It is finished”. He paid it all on the cross.