On February 24, 2010 at Sea World in San Diego, during a public performance, Dawn Brancheau was dragged into the water by a killer whale she’d trained. The whale grabbed her around the waist, and dragged her into the pool. As terrified spectators watch on helplessly, the killer whale tossed her around under water like a rag doll. Within a couple of minutes she’d drowned.
There’s all sorts of animals we can train. Even huge and dangerous and wild animals. But sometimes the animals we THINK are under control show their true nature. Show that they’re WILD. Uncontrollable. And DEADLY.
And James wants to make the point that THE TONGUE is just like THAT. We can think it’s under control. That our words will only be safe and gentle and harmless. But then, all of a sudden, without warning, our tongue will just ATTACK. With devastating results.
See it there in v7?
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but NO MAN CAN TAME THE TONGUE. IT IS A RESTLESS EVIL, FULL OF DEADLY POISON.
Our words can do SO MUCH GOOD. We can guide and teach and encourage. We can say, “I love you” or “Well done!” or “Jesus is Lord”.
James has already mentioned some examples. 1:18 God chose to make us his children THROUGH THE WORD OF TRUTH. And in v21, if we humbly accept the word planted in us IT CAN SAVE US.
WORDS help us understand the gospel. And be saved.
But our words can also WOUND. They can leave scars that never heal. They can ruin lives.
And it’s often THOSE words that are so hard to control. So quick to come out. While the GOOD words seem to take much more effort to produce.
It’s almost like our tongue has a mind of its own. James says, “No one can tame the tongue. It’s a restless EVIL. Full of deadly poison.”
It’s a theme he’s come back to here in Ch 3. Back in Ch 1, he said we should be QUICK TO LISTEN. And SLOW TO SPEAK. Words MATTER! So use them WISELY.
And at the end of Ch 1 he listed our SPEECH as one of the three tests of ACCEPTABLE RELIGION. Of whether we LIVE OUT PRACTICALLY the things we believe about God. He said (1:26)
26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet DOES NOT KEEP A TIGHT REIN ON HIS TONGUE, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
Why keep a tight rein on your tongue?
And now he comes back to the subject of OUR WORDS. And he unpacks WHY IT’S SO IMPORTANT to watch what we SAY. Why it matters that we keep a tight rein on our tongue.
And he gives THREE REASONS.
Because the tongue’s SMALL BUT POWERFUL
Because the tongue’s DIFFICULT TO CONTROL
Because the tongue’s A TOOL OF SATAN
Because the tongue is small but powerful
First. Because the tongue’s SMALL BUT POWERFUL.
V3. Like a bit in the mouth of a horse. It’s only small, but it can turn this huge, powerful animal from one direction to another. Just a little touch on the reins, and the horse will turn left or right. Or even stop. Because it feels the pressure from the bit in its mouth.
Same thing with the rudder on a ship (v4). Hundreds of square metres of sail, pushing a 50m ship along that weighs tonnes, but it’s STEERED by a rudder that’s perhaps 2 square metres in area. The physics and the fluid dynamics means a great deal of force can be exerted through a very small object.
Or again, v5 – the end of the verse. A huge, destructive forest fire can be started by ONE TINY SPARK. We see it every year. One carelessly tossed cigarette butt, and millions of hectares destroyed. Small thing, huge effect.
And it’s the same with the tongue v5. Tiny but powerful.
5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it MAKES GREAT BOASTS.
Think about the damage GOSSIP can do. Just one or two sentences repeated to the wrong people. Or the deadly effects of cyber bullying. Or constant criticism in a marriage. Whole LIVES can be ruined.
Or in a church. Criticism and complaints instead of gratitude and compliments can tear a church apart.
Tiny object. Huge impact. That’s the FIRST reason we should watch what we say.
2. Because it’s difficult to control
And the SECOND reason is because the tongue is DIFFICULT TO CONTROL. We looked at those verses at the beginning.
Verses 7 and 8. The tongue is like a wild animal. A crocodile or a lion or a killer whale. You can TRY to tame it. And it can SEEM tame enough for a while. But then it just SNAPS. And shows its true WILD nature.
Same with your tongue. For a while, you’re saying NICE things, gentle things, encouraging things.
But then something you’re thinking just pops out of your mouth before you know it. And the damage is done.
Or maybe the problem is you DON’T think. You say THOUGHTLESS words that hurt people. You don’t think about the effect they’ll have. But before you know it, it’s too late, and the damage is done.
Either way, the tongue is like A SLIPPERY SNAKE. Hard to hold on to. And full of deadly poison.
Which is why James BEGINS this chapter by warning his readers that TEACHING is a dangerous career. You may not have THOUGHT of it as a dangerous career. Unless you taught at Doonside High. You probably thought OTHER jobs were dangerous – like stuntman, or army commando, or Council parking officer.
But James says, No! Teachers have the potential to be the most dangerous of all. And it’s all because of the tools of the trade.
Some tools of the trade are SHARP AND DANGEROUS. A hairdresser uses sharp SCISSORS. A carpenter uses sharp CHISELS. A butcher uses sharp KNIVES. And there’s a few butchers around missing bits of their fingers.
But I reckon the sharpest and most dangerous tool of the trade belongs to TEACHERS. It’s their TONGUE. Which can be SHARP AND DANGEROUS TOO. And can do even MORE damage than a sharp knife.
And that’s why James says in v1.
3:1 Not MANY of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that WE WHO TEACH will be judged MORE STRICTLY.
That would have been revolutionary for James’ Jewish readers. To be a teacher – a rabbi – was a high prestigious position. It means, in Aramaic, “my GREAT ONE”.
If anything, they’d expect Rabbis to be judged more EASILY. (That God would over look a few things because they’d done such good work TEACHING people). But James says the OPPOSITE is true. The bar is HIGHER.
The danger for teachers is that people LEARN from them. They LISTEN to what they SAY. That’s why God will judge them more strictly. Because their words have GREATER IMPACT. There’s MORE AT STAKE when a teacher speaks than when someone ELSE speaks. They can do more GOOD. But they can also do more HARM.
And what makes teaching so DANGEROUS is that the tongue is so difficult to control. V2.
2 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 James says teachers will be judged more harshly, he’s not saying they’re expected to be PERFECT. He says we all stumble in many ways. NON-teachers and teachers ALIKE.
Then he goes on to say, “If anyone is never at fault in WHAT HE SAYS”, he’s achieved PERFECTION. In other words, our tongues are the HARDEST thing for us to learn to control. If we never say a hurtful or dumb or unkind word, then we’ve reached PERFECTION in EVERY area.
But the reality is we’ll go to our GRAVES still saying things we wish we could take back. So people shouldn’t PRESUME to BECOME teachers. And if you ARE a teacher, then you need to be ESPECIALLY CAUTIOUS about the things you say. Because it’s only THE PERFECT man who never makes a mistake with his words.
And that’s certainly not ME. I learned quite early on in my preaching that it was the UNSCRIPTED comments in my sermon that got me into the most trouble. The off-hand comments that I didn’t have in my notes ended up NOT being funny or clever, like they sounds in my head the moment before I spoke them. Instead they ended up negative or hurtful or confusing or distracting.
And because I’m saying it in A SERMON. And because there are plenty of people CONCENTRATING on it, those words can do greater DAMAGE.
So I stick, MOSTLY, to the words I’ve thought carefully about. And prepared during the week.
Because it’s a tool of Satan (6)
The third reason we’re to keep a tight rein on our tongue is because IT’S A TOOL OF SATAN. He LOVES to see us ripping each other apart with our words. Look at v6.
6 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.
Satan knows how dangerous the tongue is. What a huge destructive fire it can cause. It’s one of his favourite weapons. So he’s quite happy to kick start things himself with a little spark. A fire starter.
To get the tongue moving – with a pang of jealousy, or a bad night’s sleep and a quick temper. Or a feeling of being out of control in a situation. Or a simple misunderstanding. Or a badly expressed thought quickly taken the wrong way. Or feeling sorry for yourself.
Just a little spark, and our tongues will take over. And make a REAL mess of things. They’ll turn the spark into a forest fire.
And notice the areas James highlights that are damaged. We sometimes think our words just hurt OTHER people. And that’s certainly true. But here, James focuses on the effect our words have ON OUR OWN LIVES. He says our tongue “corrupts the WHOLE person”. EVERY AREA of our life. Our words can damage EVERYTHING. Our work, our family, our church. Our sleep, our recreation, our holidays.
They can damage how we THINK about people. They can damage our EMOTIONS, and what we think about OURSELVES. And they can damage how we think about God.
And he adds that the tongue “sets THE WHOLE COURSE OF OUR LIFE on fire”. It’s LENGTH of effect as well as BREADTH. From beginning of life to end.
We never grow out of saying the wrong thing. Babies learn very quickly how to use WORDS to get what they want. Or how to hurt others.
And young men sin with their words in ONE WAY. They’re ANGRY YOUNG MEN. They know best. They’re impatient and unteachable. They want to fit in, and be well-thought of.
But OLD men sin with their words in A DIFFERENT way. They’re critical and complaining and disagreeable and frustrated. And they don’t care WHO knows. Like that TV show, Grumpy Old Men, that’s basically just a series of interviews with well-known old men grumbling about what ANNOYS them about life. Terrible!
From beginning to end. Across all areas of life. The tongue is a fire. A world of evil.
No WONDER Satan loves to set the tongue on fire. So it can make a mess of things.
ESPECIALLY when it comes to THE CHURCH.
Up to this point, James has been making his point GENERALLY. But from v9 he turns his attention SPECIFICALLY to the Christian.
To how ILLOGICAL it is that the same tongue can praise God ONE moment, then CURSE a brother the NEXT. Same tongue! V9
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
The old American western movies used to have the Indians saying “white man speak with forked tongue.” In other words, that his tongue was split in two, like a snake. He’d say two different things. That white man couldn’t be trusted.
And that’s what James is saying here. The Christian SHOULDN’T have a forked tongue. But often WE DO.
I mean, it’s the ultimate in hypocrisy, isn’t it! We sing, “May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day!” Then we go outside and start gossiping about someone. Or criticising how they raise their kids. Or laughing at their fashion sense. Or arguing with them about what a Bible verse means. Or responding with sarcasm to their comment.
You can almost hear the pain in James’ voice When he says, “My brothers, this should not be.” It’s just not right! It’s not natural. He says (v11), fresh water and salt water don’t flow from the same spring. So what’s going on? He says, you don’t get olives and grapes from the same PLANT (v12). So what’s the story? What’s the problem?
The cause and the solution
And that’s beginning to get to the CAUSE of the problem.
Ultimately the evil words we speak are just the SYMPTOM. The RESULT.
The ILLNESS is what CAUSES the symptoms. It’s no good putting bandaids on measle spots. You’ve got to treat the MEASLES.
And, ultimately, the problem isn’t our TONGUES, but with the SPRING that the words COME from. From OUR HEART. James says it in v12. A SALT spring can’t produce fresh water. No matter how much you clean the bucket. No matter how much you filter the salt water. The SOURCE is salt. To get FRESH water, you’ve got to change THE SOURCE.
It’s just what Jesus said (Mark ch 7). He was talking about clean and unclean foods. And he said, it’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes OUT of him. V21.
21 For from within, out of men’s HEARTS, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from INSIDE and make a man ‘unclean.'”
The OUTSIDE is just the SYMPTOM. It’s the INSIDE where the CAUSE is. It’s a problem with our HEARTS that makes our TONGUES say the wrong thing.
I think we’ve all experienced that. Someone looks calm on the outside, but then they’ll SAY SOMETHING THAT GIVES IT AWAY. Something that gives away that, really, they’ve been hurt. Or embarrassed. Or that they’re angry. Or that they’re REAL motives aren’t as nice as they seem.
You can try to control your tongue as much as you like. But if there’s a problem with your HEART. With the things you love. And who you’re serving. And what your ultimate motivation is. Then, some time, that’s going to come out in your words. Because the tongue is a wild animal. And because salt SPRINGS produce salt water.
It’s just what JAMES goes on to say. Into the next section. He identifies the CAUSE of the tongue problem. V14.
“But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in YOUR HEARTS, do not boast about it or deny the truth.”
That’s the SPRING. And it’s not the sort of heart GOD wants. V15.
“Such wisdom does NOT come down from heaven, but is EARTHLY, unspiritual, of THE DEVIL. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
Envy and selfishness in your HEARTS result in BOASTING AND DENYING. In WORDS that damage.
So how can do something about your HEART? What’s the solution to THAT problem? Because if we can do something about our HEART, then we can begin to do something about our TONGUES.
The simple answer is WE can’t do ANYTHING about our hearts. Only GOD can. We need wisdom FROM GOD, not wisdom from the EARTH. V17
“But the wisdom that COMES FROM HEAVEN is first of first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, fill of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
Think about it. If God does a miracle in our hearts. If he removes our heart of stone, and gives us a heart of flesh. And he begins to build in PURITY, then our SPEECH will be pure.
If he grows a nature that LOVES PEACE. Then we won’t go looking for a quarrel. We’ll be more able to COMPLEMENT than CRITICISE.
And if our hearts are becoming MORE CONSIDERATE, then we’ll be less and less likely to blurt out what’s inappropriate. We’ll THINK before we speak.
And if he makes us more and more SUBMISSIVE, we begin to let OTHERS win arguments. It becomes more important to KEEP A FRIENDSHIP than to win the disagreement. We’ll be content to BUILD OTHERS UP, instead of having to build OURSELVES up
Same thing with MERCY. If our hearts are FULL OF MERCY, then our WORDS will REFLECT that. We’ll speak with grace and forgiveness. We’ll say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” more often. We’ll ask others how THEY’RE doing, rather than complaining about how WE’RE doing. We’ll OFFER help more than we’ll ASK for it.
That’s what we need in this church.
If God’s doing a work like THAT in our hearts, then we’ll be seeing REAL CHANGES in our conversations. They’ll be genuine ENJOYMENT at being involved in each other’s lives.
They’ll be genuine ENCOURAGEMENT, which is why we meet together in the FIRST place. People will go away from church STRONGER than when they arrived. Which isn’t always the way it works with church.
And what all of that means is that I need to preaching about HEART changes, not just MORALITY. I’m a lazy physician if I just focus on the SYMPTOMS without addressing the SICKNESS. If I just tell you to DO THIS, or DO THAT.
I need to be pointing you, with the best of my intellect and emotion and strength, to the GOD OF ALL GRACE. So you might LOVE HIM BETTER. To the one who has lavished on us every spiritual blessing in Christ. The one who did not spare his only Son but graciously gave him up for us all. The one who washes us clean and makes us children. And gives us his Spirit to teach and strengthen and guide and convict.
I need to be helping you to love him WIDER. To be treasuring him above EVERY area of your life. I need to be helping you to love him DEEPER. To be appreciating more and more the BEAUTY of God. His WORTHINESS of our loyalty and love and honour.
I need to be helping you to UNDERSTAND HIM BETTER. With your intellect. To know his Word better. To know HIM better. So we might know his CHARACTER better. What he LOVES, and what he HATES. So that we might love and hate the same things HE does. That’s HEART-change.
And the more our hearts grow LIKE him, the more our WORDS will REFLECT that.
And the more, as James puts it, God will produce A HARVEST OF RIGHTEOUSNESS in us.
May that be a harvest that overflows in THIS church!