We’ve been tracking through James this fall. We call the series This Is the Life because James sketches out what the Christian life looks like. This is no remedial course. Nor does James coat it with cinnamon and sugar. It feels more like a nasty-tasting dose of medicine that makes you screw up your face in disgust. And you’re sure not licking the spoon. It doesn’t taste so good when you take it. But when it does its work, you get healthy again. James calls us to a healthy Christian life and shows us how to live it. He’s not talking theory; he’s talking practice. I invite you to open your Bible today to James 3:1-12.
Being in the same class with a kid from the family that owned the Silver Dollar City/Marvel Cave complex had its benefits. Birthday parties for that kid meant a journey through the wild part of the cave—the part that has no concrete walkways or man-installed lighting. On one of those occasions, a handful of us were exploring the cave. One section of the cave required a belly crawl through a narrow chute that opened into a massive room. I don’t know if it was our lights or the noise, but we stirred up an army of bats. They left their hanging perches in the big room and made a bat-line for the nearest exit they could find. We were in that exit … and poor Dave. He was in the lead, and when he saw and heard those bats zooming for our narrow little tunnel, he opened his mouth in shock, and a bat flew in. These were little bats—not the kind that carry off women and children, or suck your blood and turn you into a vampire. These were little bitty bats that made a life eating insects by night and hanging in a cave by day. They were little critters, and one flew right in Dave’s mouth. After a little tug of war, David spit it out, but the boy was never the same for the rest of the trip. And who would be? It’s a frightening thing to have a wild beast in your mouth.
Yet every one of us does. It’s called the tongue. Hear the word of the Lord through James … (read the text).
This text looks like James puts the whole loaf on the table concerning the use of the tongue. But he’s been dropping breadcrumbs about this all along:
- In James 1:19, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak ….”
- In James 1:26, “If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself.”
- In James 2:12, “Speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom.”
James is not introducing a new idea in our text; he is expanding on some of what he has already written. James is not a big fan of the human tongue. Of course, he isn’t. He’s a pastor in the church in Jerusalem. He’s seen what a loose tongue can do in a church—everything from complaining to spreading gossip to false teaching to stirring anger to judging harshly to hurting feelings to telling lies. He’s not saying that the tongue is of no value. He just sees a lot more trouble than good in the way we speak to one another. The text is so strong and so pessimistic one wonders if James might have opted for a second initiation rite into the church: baptism and the ripping out of the tongue. He’s not a big fan.
He explains why …
The tongue holds power disproportionate to its size.
James seems worried about the teachers. Teachers were a big deal in the early church. The rank and file looked up to them. Many aspired to be a teacher. James warns them not to get in a rush about that. There’s a lot of power in a teacher’s tongue. A false word here, a heresy there, and whole congregations can get off track. Back in 1988, Edgar Whisenant published a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. He set the date for September 11-12, tied it to the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah. The publisher mass-mailed the book to churches across the country. I pastored in the Kansas City area at the time. There were pastors and churches there that swallowed that book hook, line, and sinker—taught it like it was the Bible. Some put their animals to sleep in preparation for that day of Jesus’ return. Others spent their savings to indulge themselves or maxed out credit cards leading up to that day. The day came and went. Jesus still hasn’t returned. That one false teaching disillusioned many, left many doubting their faith and the Bible. Pastors who taught that book were disgraced. Teachers hold a lot of power. In our day some popular preachers teach a prosperity gospel. Some teach there is no hell. Others teach that God is okay with homosexual behavior. Just one false teacher in the body of a church can send the church spiraling off in wrong directions. Souls are at stake. So James begins his tirade on the tongue with a word of warning to teachers: “Better think twice before you become a teacher, and you better get it right because we teachers are going to receive a stricter judgment.” Why? Because of the power of a teacher’s tongue to convince and persuade and motivate.
Some scholars believe this whole section of James is geared toward teachers. It’s possible. James’ use of the word body in the text could easily hold the double-meaning of physical body or church body. I agree with those who don’t think James is only writing to teachers here. While those of us who teach need to pay special attention to this section, it’s for all of us—for anybody who has a tongue and feels compelled to use it … which is every one of us in this room.
James writes in v. 2 that mastering the tongue is a sign of Christian maturity. Master the tongue, you master the whole body. Seems a bit out of proportion, doesn’t it? Many would give more props to the eyes or the ears, the hands or the feet. You remember the children’s song, O Be Careful Little Eyes. There are five stanzas:
Be careful little eyes what you see.
Be careful little ears what you hear.
Be careful little hands what you do.
Be careful little feet where you go.
Be careful little mouth what you say.
James would rearrange the lyrics. He’d take the fifth stanza—“Be careful little mouth what you say”—move it to stanza one, and probably make you sing it about ten times before you sang anything else. Control the tongue, you control the whole body. He’s kind of a Jimmy-one-note here …
Because the power of the tongue is disproportionate to its size.
- A bit is small, a horse is large—the one who controls the bit controls the horse. A 7-year-old would have to climb a ladder to mount an Arabian stallion, but that little girl could control that monster horse with a bit and bridle.
- A ship is large, a rudder is small—the one who controls the rudder controls the ship. The USS Eisenhower weighs over 91,000 tons, is almost the length of three-and-a-half football fields, is powered by a 280,000-horsepower nuclear engine, carries 6,100 service personnel and 100 aircraft. And all that bulk is steered by a rudder just 1/10th of 1% of the ship’s size. Go figure.
I’m 5’9”, weigh about 172 pounds, my tongue is maybe three inches long, weighs only a few ounces, yet I can stir up a lot of trouble with my tongue. As a teacher, I can mess up your souls and tear up this church with both hands tied behind my back. I can do it with my tongue. And as a church member you can mess up people and tear up the church with your tongue too—gossip, meanness, catty comments, divisive speech. The tongue is small but way more powerful than its size.
The tongue is also a destroyer. It’s “a fire,” says James in v. 6. Fire can cook up a meal that’ll make you smile and pat your belly. Fire can burn the dross out of precious metal and make it pure as snow. Fire can soften metal so it could shaped to shoe a horse, fashion a trinket, or form a useful tool. Fire can warm cold hands on a frigid night. Controlled fire—not a bad thing. It’s useful, helpful. It’s a basic element of the universe. We can’t do without it. Got to have it. But fire out of control, as we’ve seen in central California these last couple of weeks, can destroy everything in its path. The tongue is that kind of fire. It can turn people and churches into a pile of ash.
James says, “The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire ….” In other words, it burns down everything it touches. Christopher Church said it this way: the tongue is an “enemy agent placed among the parts of our body with the potential to stain them all.” It’s a saboteur, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and it is up to no good. James says the tongue “itself is set on fire by hell.” Hell as in Gehenna—the word Jesus used for hell in the Gospels. That stinking, smoldering dump outside of Jerusalem—always burning, always consuming, always destroying. The tongue is set on fire by hell.
And it only takes a spark to start a consuming fire.
- In 1871, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern, sparked a fire, and half of Chicago burned down.
- In 1913, a Miss Matlock, staying in the Pine Bluff house, let her iron get a little too close to a curtain, and it sparked a fire that burned much of downtown Hot Springs to the ground.
- In 1997, a little cigarette butt sparked a fire that burned down more than 800 acres in Berkeley and Manchester Townships in New Jersey.
- In 2014, in Sheffield, England, a phone charger started a house fire that killed 5 people.
The tongue is a fire, and it only takes a spark to set in motion a path of destruction. The most conservative estimate of the number who died during World War II is 50 million people. According to my calculations, at that number, at least 560 people died for every word in Hitler’s Mein Kamph. The tongue is a destroyer.
And the tongue can’t be tamed. Did I tell you James is a pessimist about the tongue? Listen to v. 8 – “But no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” We humans tame a lot of beasts. We can teach a horse to count by pawing out numbers on the ground. We can teach an elephant to sit on its backside and hold a ball on its trunk. We can teach a dog to steer a blind man through the busy streets of Manhattan. We can teach a parrot the words to a song. We can tame lions and tigers and bears. But we can’t tame our little beasty tongue. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Think of the many ways we sin with our tongue. Think of the poison that spews out of our mouths in our speech.
We lie and deceive by leading people to false conclusions for the purpose of protecting ourselves or advancing ourselves.
Profanity is another sin of the tongue. Most of us have a greasy word or two that slips out even when we don’t want it to. Some like to claim Christian freedom here. Fine. But I’d just say that if you can’t imagine those words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, then keep them out of yours.
Brutal honesty can be a sin of the tongue. This is unfiltered speech. “Well at least I’m honest,” says the tactless person. “You’ll always know where I stand.” And some folks take that posture without regard for the feelings of others, cutting them to shreds, leaving them bleeding inside, and then walking away with a sense of self-righteousness and self-importance. Honesty is an important ethic in communication. But so is love. And love dictates the timing of our honesty. How about a little tact? Brutal honesty can be a sin of the tongue.
So is gossip. Rumors and half-truths, lies, or even truths told in the wrong way at the wrong time to the wrong people, and a lot of folks get wounded. It doesn’t make it right when we spiritualize gossip by saying, “You need to know this about Bill so you can pray for him more specifically.” If you are tempted to tell a tale that could bring someone anguish; a secret that could cause someone grief, a fault that could cause someone shame, or anything that could bring sorrow into another’s life, don’t do it. Put a cork in it and shut up already. It’s not your place. Don’t let your tongue run wild with gossip. It’s a sin.
And maybe some of us need to quit talking too much. I don’t know if this is a sin, but it sure can be annoying. A little girl asked her mother what made thunder. “I don’t know,” said her mother. “Ask your dad.” And the girl said, “I don’t want to know that much about it.” Don’t talk so much. You annoy people. Nobody listens as much to what you say when you’re always blabbing about something. If a man asks you what time it is, don’t tell him how to build a watch. As Sam Rayburn said, “No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.“ Before you babble on, make sure your words will improve the silence. Some of us talk too much. That may be more a bad habit than a sin, but it marks a tongue out of control.
And not just a tongue out of control—fingertips too. In this day of social media, a lot brave people post insults and tweet harsh things they probably wouldn’t have the courage to say to someone’s face. Cool it already. Christians need to bring light to social media. Our voice needs to carry the fragrance of grace and the makings of peace. Don’t add to the hate and the darkness and the division.
And James highlights another sin of the tongue: hypocrisy. Hypocrites say one thing, but live another. They speak in double-talk; they live a double life. Jesus had more hard things to say about hypocrisy than he did about almost anything else. Read Matthew 23 if you want a little taste. But James shows us here how we can be double-tongued. Listen to James in vv. 10-12 …
Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
Hypocrisy. The negative wins every time: cursing drowns out blessing; bitter water spoils the sweet; salt water overtakes the fresh. Enough with the insincere double-life and double-talk. Even though James didn’t realize it at the time, he is picking on our Southern sensibilities here. We like to judge people in the nicest ways: “That poor Sally, she’s overweight and has no idea how to dress herself for her weight. God bless her.” Or “Poor Jeff. He’s as dumb as a post … God bless him.” Talking out of both sides of our mouth is every bit as much hypocrisy as professing one thing and living another.
There are plenty of ways we can sin with the tongue. James puts his finger on it: “no one can tame the tongue.”
And that’s where James leaves it. Perhaps he continues the conversation in the next section when he contrasts the wisdom from below with the wisdom from above. Get wisdom. Then you’ll act wisely and speak wisely. Maybe vv. 13-18 are James’ effort to curb a bit of his pessimism about the human tongue. And then again, maybe not. Maybe James wants to leave it right here in pessimistic hopelessness for the stunning effect.
We’re not going to leave it here. There is hope and help in the way we use the tongue. Now, we don’t access that help through the mouth but through the heart. The heart holds the key to the tongue.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, San Pedro describes Benedick in this way: “Benedick’s heart is like a bell, with his tongue as the clapper: everything his heart thinks, his tongue speaks.” Jesus said the same thing in Matthew 15:18 – “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a person.”
None of us will ever have complete mastery over our tongue. Some of us would be hard-pressed to go a week, even a day, without sinning with our speech. James nails it: the tongue “is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” But if the heart is right, the tongue can grow to follow suit.
We get the heart right by giving our heart to Jesus. The heart affects every organ in the body. When Jesus rules and reigns in the heart, he affects every organ in the body, including the tongue. Give your heart to Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for your sins of the tongue. He took those sins on himself, cancelling their penalty and breaking their power. Jesus can tame the heart and, through the heart, the tongue.
It’s not about willpower. The teacher was determined to break my will: “John, you will stay in from recess and write 50 times on the chalkboard, ‘I will not talk back to the teacher.’” I did that. It didn’t help. It’s not about willpower. It’s not about telling yourself, “I will not cuss” or “I will not talk back” or “I will not gossip.” You might make temporary gains, but it won’t last. You can’t tame the tongue with willpower.
It takes Jesus-power, Holy Spirit-power. The closer you walk with Jesus, the more your words will reflect that walk. Truth will take up so much space, deceit won’t find room in your words. Words that give life will elbow death words out of your vocabulary. Encouragement will replace condemnation. Gratitude will replace complaint. Discipline will replace spouting off. Integrity will replace hypocrisy as life and speech become one. Instead of people flinching every time you open your mouth, people will lean in with open ears. Here’s the deal: when your heart is full of Jesus, love moves in. And love restrains the tongue from condemnation, from gossip, from backtalk, and from all the sins of the tongue that stir up trouble and hurt people.
Only Jesus can tame the wildest beast of all. Only a heart full of Jesus and his love can tame the tongue. You want to tame your tongue. Give your heart to Jesus.
A woman in the church had a real problem controlling her tongue. She was the biggest gossip in the church. She was known to fib and slander and judge. She was a mess. She was mean. And she had been extra tough on the new pastor. She had damaged his ministry with rumors and innuendoes. He’d pretty much had it with her. She was nicey-nicey to his face, but a back-stabber the rest of the time. One day, in a fit of guilt, the woman called him up: “Pastor, the Lord has convicted me of my sin of gossip.”
The pastor wasn’t buying it. “Oh really? That would be a good thing. What are you going to do about it?”
She thought for a moment and said, “This Sunday, in front of the whole church, I want to come forward and lay my tongue on the altar.”
“Lady, our altar isn’t nearly big enough for that.”
An altar may not be big enough, but the cross is. Give your heart to Jesus. Give him your heart; he’ll get your tongue. And that wild beast in your mouth that hurts people and starts so many fires will be humbled and tamed
Preached: October 22, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II