Welcome back, friends! I hope you’re enjoying reading through James and I hope you’re finding yourselves sharpened by God’s Word and your discussions with others! If you haven’t already, take a minute to read James chapter 3 before you jump into today’s discussion.
Today’s discussion is pretty damning! Not like James ever holds back, but he begins chapter 3 with a slap in the mouth. Literally. And it’s not like in some areas of the Bible where we can say to ourselves “I’m glad I don’t struggle with that in my life.” Because no one can possible say that. This hits every person of every demographic of every country. You, reading this. This is something you struggle with. That even includes me as I proofread this post! Today we’re going to talk about our words. And how bad you are at using them well.
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his 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 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 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 person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 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. 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. -James 3:2-10
Boom! Your jaw hurt? Cuz you just got struck! Slapped the taste right out ya mouth! I read that and I almost want to be like, “Alright, that settles it. I’m never opening my mouth again.” But James obviously isn’t calling us to live lives as mutes. But he wants to be sure he’s crystal clear in what he says about speaking because it’s not just important. It’s vital to the life of a believer! And it can make or break the people who live life alongside us!
So James begins by saying, “look, we all sin.” And because we live in a society where we never want to offend and people’s words are always set to pacify & justify, we almost expect the next words to be something along the lines of “…but it’s okay.” But it’s not okay. So James just barrels in to his point. A man who can control his tongue must be absolutely perfect. Because the tongue is the hardest part of the body to control. I’ve seen alot of guys who tempt me to argue the point, but it’s true. Because we can speak evil so easily. We can do it away from the ears who will care and correct. We can make the evil we speak sound lovely. We can make it appear as news. We can even disguise it as a prayer request. Controlling our tongue is like trying to eat spaghetti with tongs. Or playing the piano with baseball gloves. It simply can’t be done. And we’re all guilty.
James goes on to give three examples of the power of the tongue:
- Guiding a horse: You ever been beside a horse? They’re huge! Most horses average just under 1,000 pounds. And when you’re up close, you don’t just see them run. You feel them run. With every hoof that hits the ground, your heart jars with the impact. These mighty beasts were ridden to battle for centuries. They’re fast, strong, and courageous. And yet, a hobby of rich little girls is to ride them around obstacle courses and jump over walls. This mighty 1,000 pound beast is controlled by a 50 pound girl who is still afraid of the dark. And this tiny little girl puts a tiny little bit in the mouth of the horse. And that’s all it takes to make the horse do what you want. Control the mouth, control the horse.
- Steering a ship: Boats, no matter how big, are controlled by a small rudder. The ships that James saw were not the same we see today. They were powered by wind, not motors. But the steering was the same. All you needed was a paddle in the water behind the boat. And these rudders only accounted for about 1% the size of a ship. Tiny part of the boat, controls the entire thing.
- Forest fires: I’ve always wanted to visit Lake Tahoe. It looks like such an incredible place during all four seasons. But I’m glad I wasn’t there in the summer of 2007. It was then that an illegal campfire began a fire that would take weeks to control. By the time it was finally contained, it would claim hundreds of homes, nearly 100 businesses, over 3,000 acres, would do nearly $150 million in damages, and cost over 10 million to put out. All that damage from just a small campfire, begun by a little spark.
These are pretty big claims! But think about it: the unbelievable power of words.
Just this morning, I was at Owen’s basketball name. Owen loves playing ball and he’s really good at it! Problem is, he’s just not an aggressive guy. But I’m watching him play and he’s got a cheering section, with family and some teens from the youth group. And we’re all cheering him on. And at one point, he’s right in front of where we are and the guy he’s guarding was dribbling the ball really high and sloppy. I can literally see in Owen’s eyes his desire to go after the ball, but he was holding back. And since he was just a couple feet away, I called out “Get it, Owen.” Immediately he stole the ball, ran down the court, and scored two. His cheering section erupted and a smile spread out across his face. Owen was poised to win that battle. He was completely able. But he was holding back. Just three words gave him what he needed to make it happen.
On the other hand, look at three other words I’ve said to Owen. I remember like it was yesterday. We were living at the house in Finley and Owen was riding his bike. And cars flew down that road, I’m really not sure why. It was a neighborhood. But anyway, one time Owen wasn’t paying attention and he just flew out of the driveway, into the street, and into the the neighbor’s driveway across the street. He did that with a car, unbeknownst to him, flying at him. I was so scared I ran across the street and yelled “That was stupid!” The moment I said it, I felt horrible. Was it stupid? Of course it was! But what did those words do? I could have said “Be more careful” or “Pay more attention” or “That car was coming right at you” or something. But I blurted out “That was stupid”. And immediately his face fell. I didn’t do a single thing to help the situation or help him learn. I backpedaled and tried to make good of the situation, but it was all lost. He hung his head, put his bike up, and went inside the house.
Our words have so much power!
Consider this: you’re walking down a sidewalk and you overhear a group whisper about how attractive you are. Feeling good, right? Those words had the power to lift you up. But you keep walking just to overhear a group making fun of you. Those words had the power to tear you down. And the sad thing is: which instance carries more weight? Which one sticks with you? The negative! Those words doused anything that was said before. Those words cut you. And you put those words on your back and carry them with you the rest of the day.
And the scary thing is: words have the ability to haunt. I don’t know how many people I’ve counseled who have talked about things that were said to them. Things they can’t get past. Things they’ll believe no matter the contrary evidence. Words can not only destroy in the present. They have the power to destroy permanently.
We teach kids “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I don’t know who first said that crap, but it’s obviously not true. We should be teaching them “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will utterly destroy me.”
James goes on to say that “the tongue is a world of evil” that “…corrupts the whole body” James 3:6. That men have tamed every creature, “but no man can tame the tongue.” James 3:8. That’s why James is being so blunt. Because our words have so much power! But that power is impossible to control! It’s like giving a child a gun. Lots of power, can’t end well. James pleads with us: “be careful with that thing! It could go off any second!”
And then he brings it home:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. -James 3:9&10
You can say whatever you want about me. Call me names, discourage me, slander me. I won’t like it, but I’ll take it without a fight. You say things about my boys? I hope you’re ready. Megan’s the same way. Matter of fact, I’ve even got names for that side of her: Mama Bear & Magilla Gorilla. She will defend her boys at all costs. And nothing makes her go from zero to one hundred like the thought of her boys being mistreated. It must be a parent thing. We just lose our minds when we feel our kids are hurt.
And yet, here we are. We praise God with song. We worship Him with our service. We pray earnestly to Him. But we use our mouths to berate His kids. We call our neighbors names. We undermine our bosses at work. We speak harshly when we discipline. We spread slander about others. We discourage those with the bravery to risk. We bring down the more successful. We’re hurting God’s kids! We’re either really brave or really stupid!
Ouch! I hope you’re feeling convicted! I know I am! How much differently would we treat people if we really saw them for what they are? They’re sons and daughters of the King! They’re heirs, just like we are!
“Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” James 3:10. James may as well be yelling “You kiss your mama with that mouth?” How are we going to pretend to be living holy lives when our mouths are filled with such trash?
James says in verse 6 that the tongue is “set on fire by hell”. Outside of this verse, his word for hell is only used by Jesus in the gospels. The word for hell “gehenna” refers to the Valley of Hinnom. This deep gorge was used by Canaanites before the Israelites took up residence in Jerusalem. It was a place that they would sacrifice burnt offerings, including children, to the pagan god molech. When King Josiah put a permanent stop to the practice, the place was considered unclean and indecent for any sort of use. So it turned into a garbage pit, where trash, dead animals, executed criminals and all the sort were continually dumped and burnt. Because the place was disgusting, infested with maggots and worms, and constant fire, Jesus used it to represent hell.
That leads us to ask the question that James poses this entire section. What garbage comes out of my mouth? I’m not perfect. I don’t have complete control, no matter what I want to believe. So how is my mouth setting a fire from hell? How is it doing the work of the enemy? How am I letting Satan and his demons use what God meant for good?
- spreading discontent?
- cheering someone’s misfortune?
- wishing ill on others?
- inciting anger?
- speaking truth in anger?
James is forcing you to confront the horrible truth that your mouth causes great damage.
But we excuse it away.
We say we’re not gossiping. Bull$#!+. Gossip is Christian America’s favorite sin. That and lust. We dedicate entire television stations to it. There’s a whole aisle of magazines just for that in every bookstore and every checkout line in America. We huddle closely together and whisper in dark corners. We disguise it as prayer or present it as informative. But lets call it what it is. It’s gossip.
We try to divide. We speak of others to lower their status and raise our own. We decide the only way we can get ahead is by bringing others down. We can’t achieve way up at that person’s level. We’ve got to bring them down to ours.
We don’t like how that person is so courageous. They take risks that we could only dream of. Our jealousy causes us to discourage them and make them fear, and hopefully abort, that dream. We want them as hopeless and self-conscious as we are.
We complain. About the weather. About work. About family. About things close to our heart and things we couldn’t possibly care less about. We find ourselves without anything worth saying, so we say worthless things to fill the space. Be more interesting than that. I always tell our students: you’re not bored, you’re boring. Same thing goes if you complain out of lack of things to say. If that’s the best you’ve got, keep your mouth shut.
On and on I could go, but I don’t need to. You already feel God’s Spirit working on you. So take a moment and pay attention. Sit back for a minute and process what He’s saying. How are you guilty? How do you need to tighten your grip on reigning your tongue? Now tell someone. Confide in your spouse and ask them to help hold you accountable. Get with your buddies and determine to be people who speak life. Start taking steps immediately. And when that moment comes up and you’re getting ready to use your words in destructive ways, think to this passage and ask God to give you the strength to hold your tongue.
And if you’re brave enough, text me. Let me know how I can be praying for you and motivating you. I love you guys and I’m so thankful for your friendship and for partnering with me in ministry!
Extra Credit reading: Here’s a blast from the past! I’ve always been a bit of an antagonist. Growing up, I loved listening to the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine and 2Pac and all that. Because I’ve always had this bit of hostility toward what I thought of as corruption: whether it’s political or personal or whatever. And I’ve never been one to shy away from a fight and I always feel the need to make people think deeper than they are and see new perspectives. That’s why I’ve started more than a couple interesting conversations on Facebook. But there’s a song from 2007 that I’ve always loved and it captures this idea of our power for good and power for evil. The song talks about man’s path from purity to corruption. Man’s incredible capacity to do great things, but its propensity to do great harm. We have the ability to feed the world, but our energy is spent on selling products. We could heal the hurting, but we seek to rule the weak. We could invent all manner of helpful things, but it’s been the war machine that furthers science more than anything else. And I feel like James would stand up with his fist in the air listening to this song. Because up to this point in scripture, he’s been beating the same drum. Let your life match your convictions. Act out what you believe. Don’t be a tool of hell.