SCRIPTURE – James 3:1-12
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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 are 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 a 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. 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.
BodyBuilding: Pierced Tongue
February 28, 2010
I’ve never been able to roll my tongue. You know, when you curl the sides of it up and stick it out? Never could do that. Leigh can. Sydney can. Molly can. But I can’t. Can you all do it? Let me see…I actually asked you to try that so I could see how many people would stick their tongue out at the preacher during his sermon.
I’m very impressed with all of your tongue-rolling abilities. Wouldn’t it be great if our tongue were that easy to control ALL of the time? And yet, as we know, that little bugger can get us into a lot of trouble. As James helps us continue our body-building routine to become more like Christ, today he focuses on the danger of an uncontrolled tongue.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I used to repeat this saying over and over again as a kid when I would get teased. And yet we know that it’s not really true. Words have incredible power to do harm and what makes it worse is that it’s so easy to do. A lot of bad things we do take some premeditation and planning, but it only takes a split-second lapse of judgment to do damage with the tongue. Our words may not break bones, but they can break hearts and shatter egos. They may not leave visible bruises, but they can bruise a person’s self-esteem or their faith in God.
You’ve probably heard of the singer, Karen Carpenter. She and her brother Richard were very popular in the 1970s – “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays.” When they first started singing, one of the critics reviewing the band referred to Karen as “Richard’s chubby little sister.” From that moment on, every time she looked in the mirror, she said to herself, “I’m Richard’s chubby little sister.” And she started taking drugs to lose weight. And she became bulemic. And anorexic. Those simple words destroyed her. She died of heart failure at the age of 32, killed as much by someone’s words as by her own health. Our words have that kind of power.
But they not only have the power to destroy. Our words also have the power to create. In the creation story in Genesis, God spoke the world into being. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. One of the first duties God gives to Adam is the power to name. Genesis 2:19 says, “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” The power to name, to give something or someone an identity, to speak their existence into being.
There is so much power in what we say. Think about it: if you ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes, the do it. If you call someone’s name, you can make them turn around. Two people come before a minister and they say, “I do,” and they are bound together for life. Think about the power of the words “I hate you” or the words “I love you.” Such little words, so much power.
King Solomon, the author of the book of Proverbs, knew of the tongue’s power. That book is filled with warnings to be heeded, like Prov. 10:19: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Or Prov. 12:18 “Reckless words pierce like a sword but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Or Prov. 21:23: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.”
Part of the reason our words have so much power is because of our inability to undo them. Once they’re out there, you can’t take them back, anymore than you can put toothpaste back in a tube. Jesus certainly knew about this. He was criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, which would have made their food ceremonially unclean, a violation of the dietary laws. But these same Pharisees were saying harmful and destructive things. So Jesus told them, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” He tells them that the things that come out of the mouth originate in the heart, so that what we say is a reflection of who we are.
That’s why James is so vehement in his argument about controlling the tongue. He personifies it, gives it a life of its own: the tongue makes great boasts, it is a fire, it corrupts the whole person, it is a restless evil. The comparison to fire is a particularly powerful one. Back in those days, fire was one of the most feared emergencies because they simply didn’t have the means to stop it once it started. Without fire trucks or hydrants, all they could do was let it spread and run its course, and then assess the damage it left behind. That’s not unlike our response to a rumor or piece of gossip. All we can do is let it run its course and then assess the damage.
James knows about this damage, and he knows that such negative words are evidence of a much greater concern. “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 says there should be consistency between what we say to others and what we say to God. He knows that we shouldn’t be opening our mouths just to take out the right foot and put in the left one. Our speech is revelatory of our character. Things that come out of the mouth originate from the heart. A gossipy mouth is a sign of a gossipy heart. An insincere mouth is a sign of an insincere heart. A boastful mouth is a sign of a boastful heart.
The number one reason God gave us a tongue was so that we could express our praise, our gratitude, and our worship to God. And the second reason we have tongues is so that we can use them to encourage, to build up one another. And yet, how often do we use our words to build ourselves up, usually at the expense of someone else? It’s like the Pharisee in scripture who in prayer thanked God that he wasn’t like the lowly tax collector. Just because invoke God’s name doesn’t mean your words are a blessing. It’s like the axiom that you can say anything you want about someone, as long as you end with, “God bless his little heart.” “That boy of hers is the lyingest, cheatingest, rottenest good-for-nothing slacker who deserves to rot in the pit of Hell for all eternity…God bless his little heart.” It’s bad enough to speak poorly of someone, don’t bring God into it!
James calls this duality our “double-mindedness,” our tendency to be divided between God and our own selfish desires. William Barclay says, “In humans there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner.” None of us are either one of the other; all of us are a little bit of both. We all have the potential for double-mindedness. When we use our tongue to praise God on Sunday, but then use it to belittle someone or talk behind someone’s back or lift ourselves up at someone else’s expense, that’s double-mindedness.
Even when we think we have our tongue under control, it’s so easy to slip back into old habits. This is not a “one-and-done” kind of exercise. No matter how hard we work at it, it’s so easy to unroll our tongues and say the wrong thing without even thinking about it. There was a little boy selling a push lawnmower in his front yard. A preacher wanted to buy it and asked if it worked.
“Yes sir”, said the boy. The preacher pulled and pulled on the rope and said, “Son, this thing won’t start.”
The boy said, “That’s ‘cause you ‘gotta’ cuss at it first.”
The preacher said, “Son, I’m a preacher, and I haven’t cussed in 18 years.”
They boy said, “Keep pulling; it’ll come back to you.”
Taming our tongue takes daily attention, because it only takes one destructive word to light a spark. James says if we could completely control our tongue, we’d be perfect. But we can’t, so it takes constant attention, striving toward the single-mindedness of letting all we say and do be a reflection of God’s love for us and within us.
If you could hear a tape recording of everything you said last week, what would you want to edit out? How would your words change if you realized that every word you spoke to someone was being spoken to a child of God? Ask yourself, “How would I feel if what I’m about to say was said to me? Would I be angry? Would I be hurt?”
Better yet, how can you use your words this week to build up? What good thing needs to be named in a friend or a family member or a coworker? What words can you speak to someone this week that will be an overflow of the love of Christ that’s in your heart? Every person has something about them which can be complimented. Find it and voice it. Remember we have been give the power to name, and we can choose names that tear down, like “the chubby little sister,” or we can choose names for people that build them up, that remind them of God’s love for them and honor God in the process.
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Oh, yes they will. But words can do other things as well. It’s our choice how to use them. Our words have the power to destroy and to heal, to tear down and to build up, to condemn and to offer grace. Those words you are about to speak…what will they do? Choose wisely.