I remember talking with some friends about a problem I was having, and one friend shared some words from the Bible which I found amazingly helpful, it was as though God was telling me through my friend’s words, and God’s word exactly what I needed to hear. I remember other times where people have spoken words to me that haven’t seemed helpful at all, words that have hindered, confused, distracted or hurt. Words can be incredibly powerful, they can encourage us, teach us, correct us, inspire us, or they can confuse us, hurt us or tear us down. All of us have been on both the giving and receiving end of unhelpful speech. James 3:1-12 addresses part of our body that we use every day to speak thousands of words: our tongue. Let’s look at 1) Some problems with the tongue, 2) Some keys to transforming the tongue.
1. Some problems with the tongue
a) Destructive power (v2-6)
Small things often have significance far beyond their size. The tongue is one of those, look at v2 If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. The tongue is small, but if you could control it James says, you could control your whole body. James gives three examples of things that have influence beyond their size. Firstly a bit: small enough to go in a horse’s mouth, yet it can control the whole animal. Secondly a rudder: small in comparison to a boat, yet this small part can steer the whole ship. V5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. The tongue has power far beyond its small size.
The third example James gives is one we’re well aware of as we come into bush fire season – a small spark can start a much larger fire. A deadly fire that causes great loss of bushland, or property or life can be started with something as small as a cigarette butt. James says in v6: The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the course of his life on fire…
He’s not exaggerating here is he? The tongue can do great damage to yourself and others. Adam Gilchrist talks in his biography about the first time he cried on the cricket field. In those days Australia won more regularly than they are at the moment, so his tears weren’t to do with results! It was while on tour in South African in 2002. An anonymous email claimed he was not the father of his latest child who had just been born. It made a hard time worse for him. His son had only been born a month ago, and it had been a difficult birth with serious post-natal complications. There was no truth to the rumour but it spread and, he had to walk on to the ground and see big signs ridiculing him about a falsehood.
A small lie, a rumour can spread, cause hurt and impact someone’s reputation or career. Hurtful words, even towards people you love can have a destructive impact on relationships.
I know someone who had spent significant time building a relationship with a non-Christian who eventually came to church. Yet during one of the visits to church they witnessed a regular church attender speaking very harshly to someone, and the non-Christian never came back again. It seemed they didn’t want to be part of a church where people spoke that way to each other. The way we speak can have a huge impact. The tongue has destructive power.
b) Impossible to tame (v7-8)
Our family has often enjoyed the bird show and seal show at Sydney’s Taronga. If you go to Australia zoo you can see all sorts of animals that have been tamed. Yet humans who can tame so many creatures, can’t tame their own tongues: V7-8 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
What are some of the problems we have in taming the tongue? For some the problem we have is talking too much – too much about ourselves, or too much about others. For others, there are times when we should speak, but we don’t. Our tongue is more silent than it should be. We don’t have control over our tongues.
We can be too quick to boast or criticise, and too slow to encourage or build up others. We’ve all said things we wish we could take back, but cannot. We all have things we wish we had said, but now it’s too late. By ourselves it’s impossible to tame the tongue.
c) Inconsistent (v9-10)
V9-10 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
Have the tongue and mouth that you’ve used to sing or pray to God today, been used to put down or criticise others today? We all tend to be inconsistent in our speech. I’ve noticed that since I’ve become a pastor, people swear in my presence much less than they used to when I was at school or university or in some workplaces. I remember playing in a local sporting team and someone commented how much less swearing there was after I joined. I’m sure it wasn’t that everyone gave up swearing, they just swore less when I was around. Many who happily swear with other friends feel reluctant to swear when they are with a pastor, or around Christians.
We all do something similar. We may not swear, but we often speak differently when we’re with one group than another. You may never yell at anyone at church, yet you may regularly yell at people at home. You may never have any unwholesome conversations at church, yet have plenty of unwholesome conversations at school or work.
Even at church our speech can be inconstent, we may well be critical of others, willing to gossip about them or tear them down. When we do, we are speaking badly about people who are made in God’s image. If we speak badly about Christians we are tearing down brothers and sisters for whom Christ gave his blood, yet with the same tongue we sing praises to God. Our tongue can be hopelessly inconsistent.
Is there any hope for the tongue, can it ever be transformed? The epitaph on a tomb stone in a church yard in England reads:Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, Lies Arabella Young Who on the 24th of May Began to hold her tongue.
Her tongue only stopped causing damage when she died. The tongue has such destructive power, is so difficult to tame, and is so inconsistent. Is death the only time it can be stopped from doing damage?
2. Keys to transforming the tongue
a) Recognise the root of the problem
In v6 James spoke of the tongue being like a fire, yet look again how that verse ends: it sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. The tongue is powerful, yet there is a greater spiritual power at work behind the tongue. James is not saying here that we can blame the devil for everything. Satan and hell do exist, we need to recognise the reality of spiritual power, yet we can’t just lay the blame on Satan for our actions. James clearly wants us to accept responsibility for what we say.
Have a think about the illustrations James used earlier: a small bit can control a much larger horse, yet someone controls the bit don’t they? A small rudder can steer a much larger ship, yet someone controls the rudder, a small spark lights a large fire, yet someone must light that first spark, a small tongue can do immense damage – yet something controls the tongue. What is it? Have a look at v11-12: Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
What point is James is making here? Fruit on a tree tells you clearly what sort of tree it is. Whether spring water is salty or fresh tells you what sort of spring it comes from. In the same way, what your tongue says tells you something about the source of your tongue. James is really saying the same thing here that his half-brother Jesus had said: Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:44-46).
A tongue does not just wag by itself – it speaks what is in your heart. If you want to transform what comes out of your mouth, you first need to see what is in your heart, the centre of your being.
In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. (Psalm 4:4). If you notice angry words coming out of your mouth, you won’t help yourself or anyone else if you just keep yelling. Search your heart to see what wrong attitudes may be fuelling your angry speech. Sometimes those sinful attitudes are obvious, other times they may not seem so clear to us. We need God to help us see what are hearts are like. His word does this for us, it exposes and judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) We can pray like David: Search me, O God, and know my heart…See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24). By God’s grace we can begin to see the heart attitudes controlling our speech.
When someone corrects you and your speech becomes defensive and argumentative, it may be showing the pride in your heart – you think you know better than others.
When your speech is complaining or whining, it may be showing the selfishness in your heart, you want your way and you’re not getting it. Or it may be showing self-pity, you’re feeling sorry for yourself and want others to feel sorry too.
When your speech is all about possessions you own, or things you want to get, it may be revealing the greed that’s in your heart.
If you’re a Christian yet your conversations about the weekend always avoid church, or you always avoid mentioning your faith in Jesus, it may be revealing a sinful fear of people in your heart. You’re more concerned what people think of you, than what God thinks of you.
When your speech is gossiping or being critical about others, or speaks negatively about what they do or have, it may be revealing envy or jealousy in your heart.
We need to train ourselves to listen to our speech. Maybe you could ask someone close to you to help you see what haven’t noticed about your own speech. Listen to your tongue, and search your heart – see what your speech is saying about your heart.
b) Let the gospel impact your heart and speech
James has already mentioned speech back in 1:19 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James addresses Christians as family, he tells us the reason it’s possible to be quick to listen and slow to speak in the verses before and after v18: He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created…v21 humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
James says the word of truth, the gospel of Jesus, brings new birth, it’s through this gospel working in us, through humbly accepting this word planted in us, that our speech can be transformed. Look at what Paul prays for Christians: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge— that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, (Ephesians 3:17-20)
If we’re Christians, God’s power is at work in us through the Spirit and through the gospel. God wants us to grasp this gospel more fully to see the immense dimensions of God’s love for us shown in Jesus.
When your speech is angry, what you need is the gospel. The gospel helps you see your own sin more clearly, and the forgiveness Jesus offers. It’s in seeing his forgiveness that you receive power to speak words of grace, mercy and forgiveness to others.
When your speech is complaining or whining you need the gospel of Jesus. You need to see more clearly how God loved you while you were his enemy, see all that he has done for you in Christ, and through that let God transform your complaining into gratitude.
If your speech is always self-righteous, if you never admit you are wrong, or confess your sin to anyone else, you need to see the gospel. You need to see how serious your sin really is – so serious that God sent his Son to die for all who would turn from their sin and trust in him. The gospel helps us put off our self-righteous speaking and grow in humble and grateful speech.
If your speech is tearing others down, or tearing yourself down, you need to hear the gospel. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone by your speech because the gospel shows you in Jesus you are loved and forgiven and accepted.
If you’re always trying to manipulate others by your speech, the gospel helps you see that it is God who is in control not you, you don’t need to try and control people you can rest in God’s greatness and goodness.
It’s because of the gospel that Paul can say to us: 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. (Ephesians 4:29).
It’s through the gospel that we can be putting off unwholesome and unhelpful speech in all its forms, and be growing in speech that seeks the good of others and builds them up.
Jesus is the only person who was in perfect control of his tongue. If your trust is in him, his sinless death provides forgiveness for the rebellious way you’ve used your tongue. His resurrection points forward to the time when you will perfectly control your tongue. Yet while we wait for that time, his grace and presence enable us to grow and change in the way we use our tongue, so we no longer try to speak in a way that makes us look good, but speak in a way that makes him look good.