Taming the Tongue

The first two chapters of James spent a lot of time emphasizing the need the need to help others. While on the surface it may appear that James is advocating earning one’s salvation, this is not what he is discussing at all. Instead, these are the acts of a mature Christian.

James 3 starts a shift away from helping the less fortunate but he continues in discussing the marks of a mature Christian. The trend continues with outward acts being indicative of what is going on inside but James 3 goes negative to address an area of common sin.

James 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.

James puts things bluntly about the seriousness of being a good teacher but this is actually nothing compared to what Jesus has already stated before. Matthew 18:6 says,
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

The point is that what you pass along to the next generation is incredibly important. It would be easy to read this verse and think that it’s not a problem because you aren’t going to stand before a Sunday school class or small group Bible study and teach the Bible. And that is fine. Not everyone is gifted in this manner and James’ warning applies to these situations.

I won’t pretend to put myself in the place of God because of don’t know the hearts of people but there are going to be some high profile “Reverends” that we commonly see on tv whom are going to be very surprised on judgment day. There are people who are trusted because of the position and title and who have led people astray out of ignorance, arrogance, and sometimes downright sinfulness. And the bigger a platform that these people have been given to teach from, the more severely they are going to be judged.

But this doesn’t mean everyone else is off the hook. Unless you live your life like a hermit and make sure that you have no interaction with other people, you are a teacher. Parents are not responsible for the choices that their children make. I have an older friend whose teenage son dealt drugs for a short time. That obviously was not a decision that the parent made. But parents are responsible for teaching their children right from wrong and instilling proper values in them. If the child rejects these values, then that is on the child’s head and not the parents.

You are a teacher virtually everywhere that you go because you are a representative of Christ. What you approve of and disapprove of teaches others about Christianity. The way you treat other people teaches them the value for life that a Christian has.

When you go to work or visit a friend or call a relative on the phone, they probably know that you are a Christian. If they don’t, why don’t they? You don’t have to have your car covered in bumper stickers to let everyone know that you are a Christian. (And if you drive like I do, you’re probably better off not having them because you’ll give Christians a bad name.) People should know that you are Christian by the way you act and that you are different from other people. You don’t have to tell everyone. We are teachers by the example that we set, whether it is good or bad. If you listen to what James and Jesus have to say on the issue, you should be very careful to set a good example.

James 3:2

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.

This is kind of a good news/bad news verse. The bad news is that we sin. The good news is that we aren’t alone in this. James isn’t identifying what a sinless person looks like. Instead he is implying that there is no perfect person, there is no person who is always able to keep themselves in check.

There is a strange paradox with sin. The Bible makes it clear that we are all sinners. We are born sinful. We can’t help but to sin. But here’s the thing – every sin is a choice. Every time we sin, we are given an option, sin or don’t sin. Sometimes we choose properly, sometimes we mess up big time. We could, in theory, choose not to sin. There is never a time when we come to a fork in the road and the options are go right and sin or go left and sin. There is always the option not to sin.

Even with the Holy Spirit we still struggle with the issue of sin. James isn’t writing to non-Christians who need to repent, he’s informing Christians that they stumble in many ways. When Paul looks back on his life he doesn’t decide that he was the chief of sinners, he says that he is the chief of sinners.

So, the Christian life is a struggle, even with the help of the Holy Spirit. If you’re an optimist you can take heart in knowing that you’re not alone and that your fellow Christians struggle with sin. If you’re a pessimist, you throw up your hands and say that you may as well not even struggle with sin if you’re not going to win.

Of course that’s not the reason for James’ writing. He wants to encourage Christians and he goes on to discuss one of the most prevalent sins.

James 3:3-6

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.

Whoever came up with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was dead wrong. Words hurt and they are destructive. This is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:22:

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ’ is answrable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

We kill people with our words. We tear them apart and dehumanize them and make them into something less than people who were created in the image of God. You do it and I do it. When we make people into something that they are not, we assassinate their character and who they are. It is the same as murder

Our intent matters a lot with the words that we say. Jesus referred to several people as fools or foolish in his ministry. The difference was that they were fools. Jesus didn’t say those words to attack them but rather to point out that they were without wisdom. The words we use rarely have such intentions behind them.

James points out the damage that the tongue can do even though it is such a small part of the body. Within the past year we’ve had a couple of high profile suicides as a result of bullying. These were made more prominent because the internet was involved and a couple of the victims were gay. But bullying isn’t anything new. And often it doesn’t involve the clichéd threat of physical violence such as taking someone’s lunch money. Instead it goes back to destroying someone with words.

If you’ve ever seen or have been involved in a fight – a real punches flying, fingernails scratching event – you’ll know that it doesn’t start with physical violence. I can recall a few that I witnessed in high school. They pretty much always took the same course. There were words spoken, often an accusation. And then more words thrown back. I don’t recall a single fight where one person tried to calm the other one down and avoid a fight. Instead there was verbal sparring before it came to physical blows. The tongue provided a spark that erupted into an eventual explosion.

James 3:7-8

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.

This is just a bad news set of verses. James has just laid out the problems that the tongue causes and then states that the tongue can’t be tamed. There is no easy fix. When I read this verse, I think of the circus. There are people who train lions and tigers to perform tricks. Bears and elephants can do stunts. And if you brought these brave trainers a tongue and asked them to train it, they’d say no way. It’s too dangerous. It can’t be done. It might go off at any moment. The lions and tigers and bears are far less scary than a tongue because it can’t be tamed.

James 3:9-12

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.

Despite the fact that it seems like we’re fighting a war that can’t be won, James cuts to the heart of why we fight the battle in the first place. Even though it seems like it is an unwinnable war, the tongue is a reflection of who we are. It is often going to reveal our true selves better than anything else.

And the truth is, we are imperfect. We are going to do and say things that are not glorifying to God. But James tells us that we need to be better reflections of our Lord and Savior. We can’t be hypocritical Christians. It comes down to a matter of what are we going to do with our tongues. Knowing the power they possess, are we going to use them to praise God or are we going to use them to curse men? We can’t do both, because one pollutes the other, so which is it going to be?

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