Tongue tied - James 3:1-12
In 1899, four newspaper reporters, Al Stevens, Jack Tournay, John Lewis and Hal Wilshire, met by accident at a railway station one Saturday night in Denver in the USA. They were reporters for four different Denver newspapers and they had been sent out to dig up a story for the Sunday editions. All four of them happened to meet at the station, because that's where the news in those days was to be found. By the end of the evening, none of them had found anything worthy of a news story. One of them joked he would make up a story and the rest liked the idea, so they went off to a hotel to have a drink and discuss the idea. It was decided that instead of having four different stories, they should try and think up a whopper of story which all four newspapers could carry. It could not be an American story, since it would be all too easy to check up on. It would have to be a story about somewhere far away, where no-one could check. And then, John Lewis came up with the idea. They would write that a group of American engineers were stopping the night in Denver en route to China. The Chinese government, they would say, is planning to pull down the Great Wall of China, and these American engineers are bidding for the job. Why would the Chinese want to pull down the Great Wall? To symbolise international good will and to welcome foreign trade. So the story was set. The next morning the Denver Times carried this headline: 'Great Chinese Wall Doomed! Peking Seeks World Trade!' It was a phoney story, but it was to have devastating effects. The next week, the story was taken up by the major American newspapers, and then by newspapers abroad. The Chinese discovered that the Americans were planning to send to a crew to destroy the Great Wall and some were enraged. One group of revolutionaries were so enraged that they attacked foreign embassies in Peking, and killed foreign missionaries. Within two months, and international army of 12,000 troops joined forces and invaded China to protect their own countrymen. The bloodshed which followed became known as the Boxer Rebellion, in which many lost their lives, all started by four journalists in Denver making up a story on a Saturday night over a few drinks.
Well I guess each one of us could stand up and give a horror story about how something we have said which has gone horribly wrong, maybe not as bad as the Boxer Rebellion, but certainly painful and embarrassing. Abraham Lincoln once said: 'I would rather remain silent and be thought a fool, than speak out and remove all doubt.' The tongue is a very dangerous weapon, and it is this that James tackles in this passage before us today. By now, if you've been here for more than one of our studies in James, you'll have got James' main point. He's wanting to tell his readers that if they claim to be Christians they must show it by the way they live their lives. We must not only listen to the word, he says in 1 v 22, but do what it says. There is always the danger for the Christian of what James calls double mindedness, being the sort of people who claim to be going God's way and obeying him and yet all the while are actually doing what they want, going the world's way. And one big area where we are in danger of being double minded is in the area of our tongues. James has already told us in chapter 1 verse 26 that the ability to tame the tongue is one of the marks of the true Christian, and that if we don't then our religion is worthless. And it's that topic that James challenges us on today.
But it's worth bearing in mind as we look at this passage, that James is not just telling us in the letter to pull our socks up. James is not telling us to be good for the sake of it. No he's already told us in chapter 1 verse 18 that God has saved us through the word of truth, the good news about Jesus. And so the challenge for the Christian is not to be good in order to impress God, but rather to live the life that God in his grace has given us to lead. He says in 1 verse 21 that we should humbly accept the word planted in us which can save us. The word which saves us is the same word that transforms us. And as we will see, we'll need this reminder of the implanted word when we get to the end of this study. So let's turn to James' teaching on the tongue, and we'll discover four things to challenge us and spur us on:
1) Heed the Warning (Vv 1-2)
2) Understand the Power (Vv 3-8)
3) Recognise the Source (Vv 9-12)
4) Tame the Tongue (Vv 13-18)
1) Heed the Warning (Vv 1-2)
And the first thing James teaches us is that we must heed the warning in verses 1-2. That is a warning for Christian Bible teachers. 'Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.' Now why does James start his teaching on the tongue with a reference to people in the church who teach the Bible? Well we need to remember that speech and communication is a good gift that God has given human beings. It reflects God's own person. He is a speaking God, and in fact the first thing God does in the Bible is to speak. Genesis 1 v 3: 'And God said: 'Let there be light.'' And the way human beings are brought back into relationship with God is through hearing and accepting a message about God's Son Jesus Christ. That's the implanted word that James talks about in chapter 1. But the communication of that message is in the hands of frail and sinful human beings like you and me. So those who have been entrusted to speak this message to the church have a very great responsibility. They are handling the very Word of God, and the way they do it is with their mouths. But with responsibility comes accountability. So James says, such teachers will be judged more strictly. Now this judgement does not mean that Christian pastors will be condemned. Rather their worked will be tested and evaluated on judgement day. That's what James means. And of course, the problem with any sort of speaking ministry is that the way you do it is with the tongue, the most unruly member of the body. Everyone sins in respect of the tongue. As James says in verse 2: 'We all stumble in may ways, even the apostle James. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.' So, says James, don't covet a teaching responsibility in the local church because you're setting yourself up for greater judgement. And because we all fail in the area of the tongue, the teacher has a difficult responsibility to fulfil.
You see the public speaker has great power which can either be used for ill or good. Take Churchill and Hitler as examples. Both were men who knew how to speak with power. Churchill used his gifts to rally a nation to stand firm in adversity. Hitler used his gifts to rally a nation to take over the world. One used his gifts, we may argue, for good, the other, for ill. And a Christian minister must use his gifts to teach the local church, a position of huge responsibility. And says James, we'll be judged more strictly. Now I have to admit that this is the sort of verse which keeps me awake at night, literally. I think every preacher has those night time vigils when they lie awake at night worrying about something that has been said, a phrase mis-spoken, a passage poorly taught, a word sharply said. I'm sometimes asked if I am nervous before preaching. I am, not so much of the large crowd, but because of the responsibility of teaching the word of God. And I pray that God would never let me get complacent of that. So as a congregation I urge you to pray for those who teach you the Bible from the pulpit. Pray we'd do it correctly and humbly. And yet there is an application to any in the church who teach the Bible in whatever capacity. Any responsibility, be it for a Homegroup, a Sunday children's class, a student Bible study, a Holiday Club leader, any responsibility for teaching God's message brings accountability. Pray for God's strength to do it correctly, and pray we'd handle our tongues in a godly way. For greater responsibility brings greater accountability. Heed the warning.
2) Understand the Power (Vv 3-8)
But then secondly, James tells us to understand the power, the power that is of the tongue. And that's the topic he comes directly to address in verses 3-8. And the power of the tongue is seen in three ways, for each of which James gives us an illustration.
a) Small but strong (vv 3-4)- First, he says, the tongue is small but strong. Verse 3: '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.' Horses are very strong beasts and yet they are controlled by just a small bit in the mouth. And with that bit a person who is a fraction of the size of the horse can control it. It's the same with a ship. The ship may be huge, and it may be buffeted by storms and currents and yet it can be controlled by just a small rudder. One of the biggest warships in the world is the US Navy aircraft USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. She weighs about 91,400 tons. She is 1,092 feet in length overall and has a speed well in excess of 30 knots with their nuclear-powered 280,000 horse power reactors. Their complement is 6,100 men and women. The total cost of the Eisenhower commissioned on October 18, 1977 exceeded $2 billion excluding the more than 90 plus aircraft carried. But, even though this ship is of immense proportions, she is guided by one man at the helm controlling a rudder 1/1000th the size of the ship. A tiny rudder controlling a massive ship. So it is with the tongue. It is small but very strong. I'm told that the tongue is 0.4% of a person's total body weight. I cannot think of a painless way of confirming that! But it has a power out of all proportion to it's size. The tongue can in one moment sing a beautiful love song, and in the next condemn someone to death. No wonder James says, the tongue makes great boasts.
b) Little but Lethal (vv 5-8)- But the tongue is also little but lethal. Verse 5: 'Consider
what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also 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 in hell.' The tongue may be little but it can have a devastating effect. James uses fire as an example. A huge forest fire is set off by juts one spark. All we have to do is look what is happening in Colorado at the moment, or Sydney a few months ago, to see what devastating effects can be produced by just a small spark. And that's what the tongue is like says James. It is a world of evil, which sets the whole course of our lives on fire. Just think for a moment of the various things we say and the huge effects they can have. That little bit of gossip, which we sometimes spiritualise by saying 'just for your prayers'. The piece of innuendo dropped into the conversation. That biting criticism, that conversation where we put someone else down. Just with one word we can cut someone to the quick. One lie can deceive someone about the truth. The tongue is such a devastating tool in our mouths, and we use it to such horrific effects. And James wants us to be clear. Don't be naThe tongue is little but lethal. It is more deadly than a sniper's bullet, and more devastating than a nail bomb. Do you remember the children's rhyme? 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' We all know it's completely untrue. With our tongues we can put nations at war, we can ruin reputations, we can end careers, and we can even destroy lives.
c) Delicate but deadly (vv 7-8)- And James concludes this section by telling us thirdly that the tongue is delicate but deadly. It is completely uncontrollable. Verse 7: 'All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures 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.' Human beings can do amazing things, says James. They can train chimps to drive cars and sup tea, they can persuade killer whales to jump through hoops, they can make pigeons send messages across whole lands. But one thing they cannot do: Control their own tongues. It's true isn't it? No matter how hard we try, we cannot control our tongues. A sharp word, a blasphemy, a criticism, a piece of slander. We just cannot tame that tiny piece of flesh inside our mouths. It's a restless evil, says James, full of deadly poison. James pulls no punches. That's the power of the tongue.
3) Recognise the Source (Vv 9-12)
But James won't let it rest there, as he rams home his lesson in his third point in verses 9-12, which we'll call 'recognise the source.' Verse 9: '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.' Now it's worth saying here that James shows us that there is a good use of the tongue, and that is to praise our Lord and Father. In fact, that is what our tongues were designed to do. Like every part of our body, it was designed to give glory to the God who made it. But our problem is that so often there are other things which come out of our mouths which are exactly contrary to the praise we give God. For we also curse men, who are made in god's image. In one breath we give glory to God, in the next we dishonour him in the way we speak to or about others. My brothers, says James, this should not be. It's not right that the tongue is an instrument of praise in one moment and then an instrument of cursing the next.
To make his point, James gives us an illustration in verses 11-12: 'Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grape vine bear figs. Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.' You don't get a spring which gives out both fresh and salt water do you? And if you try and mix fresh water with salty water, what do you get? Salt water. The two don't mix. It's one or the other. Neither do fig trees bear olives, nor vines figs. If you want grapes, you go to the vine. If you want figs, you go to the fig tree. So what's James saying here? Well he's saying that there is a problem with the source, that is the heart. Jesus himself said that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The tongue only speaks what is going on the in the heart. And that says James is the real problem. It's as if there is a battle going on in our hearts. And double talk reveals a divided a double minded heart. We want to go God's way and praise him and yet we cannot help but use our tongues for evil as well. We're essentially showing our double mindedness by the way we speak and use our tongues. That's the painful truth. We slander others because we have a slanderous heart. We lie because we have lying hearts. We cut people down because we're jealous or hateful. And so it could go on. So says James, recognise the source. The heart of the problem is actually the problem of the heart, from where the mouth speaks.
4) Tame the Tongue (Vv 13-18)
But actually, though it may seem strange, this recognition that the heart is the source of the problem helps us to see that there is a way forward, that there is hope. And this brings us on to our final lesson, which we'll look at briefly. Tame the tongue. Because the problem with the human heart is a problem human beings cannot deal with. We cannot give ourselves spiritual heart surgery. But God can, and that is exactly what he does for the person who trusts in Christ. Our only hope for any sort of change in ourselves is the God who made us. We need to go back to the manufacturer. And that takes us back to chapter 1 verse 21. Because the word of the gospel which saves us is the same word which can transform us. Only by a humble acceptance and daily and submission to that word can we have any hope of change. God is at work in the Christian by His Spirit to make him or her more like Christ. And our task as Christians is to humbly allow God to do his work in us and work hard to battle against sin with his strength.
And what do we need most in this battle? Wisdom. And that's what James tells us about in verses 13-18. We'll look at these verses properly next week. But just for a moment look at verse 17: 'But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, submissive, full of mercy, and good fruit, impartial and sincere.' Too often in our speech we are impure, unloving, proud, deceitful. And our only hope of taming the tongue is if God helps us to do so by giving us his wisdom. You may have noticed that James said in verse 8 that no man can tame the tongue. But with God everything is possible, even the taming of the tongue.
Many Christians down the years have seen God change the way they use their tongues. John Newton was a man who swore and cursed with the best. He was an eighteenth century slave trader, whose use of the English language made even the most hardened slave traders blush. 'My whole life,' he said later, 'was a course of most horrid impiety and profaneness.' Maybe he was thinking of James 3 v 6: 'The tongue corrupts the whole person, and sets the whole course of life on fire.' But Newton became a Christian at one of the darkest moments of his life, and he began by the grace of God to use his tongue for good. As James says, 'With the tongue we praise our Father...' Newton went on to write such songs as 'How Sweet the Name of Jess Sounds,' and 'Amazing Grace'. Even this horrific man could be changed round for good, and his tongue employed to lead Christians in praising their God.
So will you engage in this battle to tame the tongue? Will you commit yourself to pray for God's strength to help you with your tongue, whatever it is you find yourself slipping up on most, whether it be gossip, slander, filthy language? Whatever it is, there is hope as God works in us by his Spirit and as he gives us his wisdom. We won't ever be able to tame the tongue completely this side of heaven but we can make progress in godliness. Even with the tongue we need not be double-minded and worldly. Even here with this most powerful of forces there is hope. But it's the double-minded person who just carries on regardless, with no desire to humbly accept the word and allow that word to work in them. Don't be like that. No, seek God's help and tame the tongue.
So once again, James has given us a tough lesson. Yet his great longing for us is to grow in godliness, not to be double minded, and to humbly accept the word planted in us which can save us. So how will you respond to today's message? Well let's pray we'll not only listen to word, but also do what it says.
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