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"The Power of the Tongue"

(Prelude to the Gospel presented in Galatians)


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          This morning, we want to spend our time in the third chapter of the book of James.  James is at one and the same time one of the most beloved books of the New Testament and I daresay, one of the most avoided.  Although James writes with theological precision, his burden is in the area of practical theology.  James speaks to those areas of our lives where the rubber meets the road.  His letter addresses with godly wisdom, counsel and rebuke issues we confront every day.  He is very direct and isn’t ashamed at points to sound more than a bit like an Old Testament prophet, threatening judgment on those whose lives are dominated by sin and who bring division into the church.  If we were to choose one theme of the book, we wouldn’t be too far off if we said that the book of James is a book that tells us what genuine faith in Christ looks like.  James reminds us that faith is not simply being in mental agreement with the basic truths of the gospel.  In a person who has been spiritually reborn, faith is clearly seen in their increasingly consecrated life.  This faith is expressed in action as well as attitudes and beliefs.  One of the areas where James reminds the church how genuine faith expresses itself in a believer is in the manner in which we speak to one another. 

We see this in chapter one.  In 1:19 he says, “19Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.  James implies that the fact that God gave us two ears and one mouth is not simply because he wants us to hear in stereo but speak in monotone.  There are behavioral implications to God’s design as well.  In listening to others, we should be so interested in them and their viewpoint that we should be anxious to hear what they are saying.  When someone else is speaking to us, that’s not just a break in our monologue—it’s not simply a convenient pause for us to think through what our next earth-shatteringly important statement will be.  When James says we should be “slow to speak” he is saying that our words should be carefully chosen and weighed out.  In verse 26 of chapter one he says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. What a sweeping statement!  James tells us that when a person regularly says whatever comes into his/her head without first passing it through a Biblical filter—when a person’s mouth is consistently governed more by their emotions than by thoughtful reflection, that person is self-deceived about their place with God.  That consistent pattern of behavior indicates that their faith is worthless.  Their kind of faith will not ultimately bring them home to Christ and they should by implication repent of their counterfeit faith.  That’s a strong statement, isn’t it?

That isn’t even James’ most definitive teaching on the tongue.  That is found in chapter three.  Again, as we saw with Daniel’s repetition of major truths, the fact that James devotes so much space to the issue of our speech, we can be certain that how we use our mouths matters a great deal to God.  This should be a huge concern for us and one we must regularly submit to the Lord, crying out for more of His grace.  This emphasis in James challenges me with the question:  Am I treating this issue of my speech with the seriousness God clearly intends?

          Let’s look at this major treatment of our speech that James begins in chapter three.  3:1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  2For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.  3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  4Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.  5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,  8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”

          James begins with a warning that not many should become teachers.  In a culture where teachers were highly esteemed, and in Christ’s church where teaching is so influential, teaching can be an appealing ministry to people.  There were doubtless individuals who pursued teaching out of self-exalting motives and other wrong reasons.  James points out that teaching carries special spiritual liabilities and he connects those liabilities to the tongue.  He says, “… if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  The logic is inescapable.  The tongue is the most difficult part of our body to control and is capable of great evil.  The primary tool of the teacher is the tongue. 

That means the teacher--who will undergo stricter judgment because of his/her influence--uses as his/her primary tool, that part of the body that is the most difficult to control.  This is a potentially volatile combination--high accountability because of the teaching ministry AND high vulnerability because of the weak means by which the ministry is discharged—our tongues.  James’ intent is not to discourage people who are genuinely gifted and called to teach, but his warning serves to discourage those who would seek to teach without counting the cost and checking their motives. From there, James moves into an extended teaching on the tongue which applies to everyone, not just teachers.

          The truth which encompasses all these verses is:  We must manifest our faith in Christ by controlling our tongues.  From that truth, I see three supporting truths this text brings out about the tongue.  First:  The tongue exerts a disproportionately powerful influence over our life.  James devotes several verses to make the point that of all the parts of our body, the tongue is in a class by itself in terms of the influence it wields. He uses three separate illustrations to bring out this truth.  He implies this in verse two when he says, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  He uses the greater to the lesser argument here.  He says in effect, “The tongue is the wildest, most untamable, most susceptible-to-sin part of our bodies.  If we can control the wildest part of our bodies, then all other parts will be under your control as well.”

          It’s like saying, if you can beat Michael Jordan in a game of one on one, you can beat anybody.  He expands on this in verse eight when he says, “no human being can tame the tongue.”  That is--the most self controlled person in the world—the person who monitors and carefully controls every bite of food they put into their mouth—the individual who measures and disciplines every minute of time they use up, every penny they spend and every calorie they burn off—even THAT person will not be able to control their tongue.  The tongue is by far the top rung on the self control ladder.  Divine intervention is required for this. The Holy Spirit alone can give us the power to control the tongue.  This is a remarkable truth when you think about the implications.  I daresay everyone here struggles to gain control over several areas of their life.  These will be different depending on the person.  There are some here who think, “If I could just get my thought life under control—sexual lust is my greatest thorn.”  For others it’s, “If I could just get a firm handle on what I eat--what I watch on TV, what I think about others--what I spend God’s money on.”  If we are not living out of the gospel, our passions and appetites can seem so uncontrollable that perhaps we have given up all hope of keeping them in check.  James says here, “Those other areas of struggle aren’t even in the same ballpark with the tongue.” If we are battling against those other appetites, but aren’t struggling with what comes out of our mouths, it’s NOT because we have that area under control.  It’s because we have not seriously confronted this most daunting challenger to our self control, our tongue. 

          Beginning with verse three, James implies that we have a tendency to over look the tongue because it’s small, but then continues that we should never allow the smallness of the instrument to lull us into underestimating its immense power.  To illustrate the fact that physical size is irrelevant to the spiritual power of the tongue, he cites three other small things whose influence is disproportionate to their size.  First, a bit the size of your hand has the capacity to control the massive bulk of the largest horse.  Second, the comparatively small rudder on a ship that directs the largest ships driven by the strongest winds.  Finally, the tiniest spark that can ultimately turn a vast forest exploding with life into miles of charred wood.  These small things exert enormous influence in spite of their small size. According to James, the toughest spiritual battle we have to fight in the area of self control is not with lust or greed or comfort or gluttony, it is the battle of the tongue.  And if we are not painfully aware of that truth, it’s almost certainly because we have yet to even set foot on the battlefield of the tongue.

          This is so crucial to know because in order for us to walk in the power of the gospel, we must first learn to be humbled by our spiritual weakness—the influence we have allowed sin to have in our lives shows us our desperate and ongoing, moment-by-moment need for grace.  James says in 4:6, “6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  The grace found in the gospel that gives us victory in Christ is available only to those who walk in the humility that comes as God reveals our intense need for him.  It’s no coincidence that the book of Romans, which is really just an exposition of the gospel, spends the first three chapters on sin and God’s wrath and our desperate need for God. Without that, the gospel is meaningless and we will never be able to tap into the overcoming power it gives us over sin.  The excellent Sonship Bible Study*, which some of you have gone through, after an introductory lesson, begins with what they call the “Tongue Assignment.”  The teacher simply asks that for one week students in the study make a conscious effort to “not gossip (or spread a bad report), complain, criticize, blame shift (or make excuses) defend yourself, boast or deceive others” [“Sonship,” lesson 2].  The purpose of the assignment is to powerfully demonstrate our enormous and daily need of the gospel and its overcoming power.  And the reason the Sonship people use the tongue to demonstrate our need is because our great weakness in that area is the most penetrating reminder of our need for the empowering grace found in the gospel.

          In addition to that, we should resolve not only to stop saying the bad things, but also to start more regularly saying the good things.  If you were to resolve to daily use your tongue to speak the truth in love even if it might hurt someone, and to speak in a way that will consistently encourage and uplift others, you will even more see your need for grace. Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, 29Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  If you want to be humbled, ask God to clearly reveal to you the times you fail in that area.  On the basis of James chapter three text, if you sincerely do that, it won’t take you too many days—perhaps hours before you are on your face before God waving the white flag of surrender, crying out to Him for mercy and grace for your woeful lack of self control. God can use this to powerfully humble us if we let Him because the tongue exerts disproportionate influence over our life.

          A second truth about the tongue James brings out is:  The tongue is diabolically destructive.  James has made the point that the tongue is powerful.  Beginning with verse six, he begins to unpack: 1. how that power is used and 2. he reveals the source of spiritual power behind it.  He makes some astonishingly strong statements about the destructive power of the tongue.  In verse six he says, “6And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell”  Verse eight continues, “ is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  These words are so strong they almost make me want to say to James, “Come on, James--didn’t you get a bit carried away with your metaphors--the tongue is a fire--the most feared destructive force on earth--the tongue stains or corrupts the whole person--it influences the course of the entire life for evil--a restless evil—it is full of deadly poison like the venom in a snake’s fangs?  Aren’t we just a bit over the top there, James?”  But this is not just James’ words here—this is God’s description of the destructive power of the tongue.  God says in effect we carry around a nuclear powered spiritual missile inside our heads.  Is that the way we view the tongue?

          I could describe the specifics of what James means here by examining the metaphors, but let me illustrate the power of the tongue by briefly telling you the story of how one of American church history’s most beloved saints had the entire course of his life changed by a comparatively benign but thoughtless remark he uttered in a weak moment.  Many of us know about David Brainerd--that great saint who lived in early 1700’s.  His diary, which he wrote while he was doing missions work among Native Americans, has had virtually unparalleled influence in the modern missions movement.  His influence in missions is difficult to overestimate.  But the truth is, David Brainerd didn’t sense a call to be a missionary--he wanted to be a pastor.  But he never became a pastor…because of his mouth.

          He was pursuing his degree in divinity at Yale with the intent of being a pastor. At the end of one of the chapel services, the campus pastor at Yale closed with a long and pharisaic prayer.  Someone asked Brainerd what he thought of it. Brainerd said he thought the rector had as much grace as a chair. His comment was overheard by another student who reported it to the school officials.  The result was that this godly, devout man was summarily expelled and in spite of repeated attempts was never re-admitted. That brief careless statement changed the entire course of his life—one unguarded comment.  I’m not taking away from what he accomplished as a missionary, but that doesn’t change the main point of the story.  His subsequent impact on missions simply tells us that God is bigger than sin and uses it to accomplish his purposes.  The point for us is--his tongue in that brief moment vaporized all of his vocational plans and dreams.

          I have little doubt when we get to heaven and see the course of our lives from God’s perspective that many of us will see how, under God’s sovereign rule, our tongues reshaped the course of our lives.  We said something to a potential fiancée that was offensive and caused him or her to see us in a negative light from which we never recovered.  We made a careless remark to a prospective employer that eliminated us from consideration.  We deeply wounded one of our children at a crucial time in his/her development.  We passed on a rumor that, unbeknownst to us, caused someone else’s life to be completely derailed.  We verbally abused a former spouse at a time when he/she might have otherwise stayed with us.  We failed to encourage someone who God had sent our way. We failed to bring correction to someone whose life went astray because of our cowardly silence.  All of those sins of the tongue can and DO alter the course of people’s lives, our career track, our children’s lives as we break their wings with our harsh words, and it goes on and on. 

Don’t misunderstand.  We can rest in God’s grace in our failures.  But we must not let that fact to dampen the sobering truth James reveals here about the immense destructive power found in our tongues.  We must know how destructive our tongues are so we can understand our serious need to control them by the Holy Spirit.

          If we have any remaining questions about the destructive power of the tongue, we need only look at the source of its destructive power revealed in verse six.  James says the tongue is, “set on fire by hell.”  When I said earlier that the tongue is “diabolically destructive” I was not throwing away words.  Diabolical means “devilish” or “demonic” or “satanic.”  James says here that an uncontrolled tongue is ignited by the fire of hell.  It is a potentially satanic instrument that the adversary can use to for his evil purposes.  What is his purpose? “to steal, kill and destroy” [John 10:10].  He uses our tongues through gossip to steal people’s right to privacy, to steal their dignity. He uses our thoughtless and razor sharp tongues to kill their confidence and to destroy the course of their lives. Satan is “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” [1Pet5:8].  The sobering truth which ought to give us all pause is this:  When our tongues are not under the control of the Holy Spirit, Satan can use them to kill, steal, destroy and devour other people created in God’s image.  When we do not control our tongue, Satan can fill it with his deadly venom, his hate, his lust, his fire, his corruption. And Peter tells us he is just waiting for the right moment to unleash these potentially lethal instruments to bring his demonically charged assault on someone God loves.  The tongue is diabolically destructive.  If it is not under the control of the Holy Spirit it is vulnerable to becoming an agent of Satan.

           A final truth about the tongue James makes is:  The tongue reflects the condition of our heart.”  In verses 10-12 he says, 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  12Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”  James points out the utter inconsistency manifest in that we both curse and bless with our tongues.  He says this should not be so and finally, he explains why we do this it in these last few statements.  James’ point is this--when we say things that are dishonest or are gossip or uncharitably critical or whatever, the reason is not because we are simply making misstatements that are disconnected from our hearts.  In fact, those statements unerringly reveal the state of our hearts.

          A fig tree bears figs, not olives because its genetic programming compels it to produce figs.  Likewise, the reason we speak sinfully is because our heart compels us to do so.  We are simply expressing with our mouths what is in our hearts.  Jesus says in Matthew 15:18-19, “18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  As much as we would like to, we can’t divorce what we say from what’s in our hearts. If we use profanity, we can’t with any integrity say, “I’m basically a clean person who occasionally cusses with my mouth.” No.  We are forced to conclude that the reason we use profanity is because we have a profane heart.  If we tell crude jokes, we can’t say, “I’m basically a pure person who happens to occasionally tell a completely uncharacteristic crude story or joke.”  No.  If we tell crude jokes it’s because we have immorality and crudeness lodged in our hearts.  All we are doing when we speak those things is allowing what’s in our hearts to overflow our lips. 

If we lie with our mouths, it means we have dishonesty and deceit in our hearts.  If we had none of that in our hearts, we would never lie, period!  If we gossip, it’s because we have cheapness and tawdriness in our hearts.  If we boast or brag or use our words to very subtly place ourselves in the best light, it’s because we have arrogance and pride in our heart.  If we complain and gripe it’s not because we are just having a bad day or because some fool really made us angry.  No.  It’s because we have a covetous, self-centered heart that isn’t satisfied with what God has given us and that gives birth to the fruit of griping and complaining.  The fool who sinned against us isn’t the source of our insult or profanity or expression of disgust.  All he did was incite us to pull the trigger that fired the spiritual mortar shell we had loaded in the chamber of our hearts and which we unleashed out through our mouths.

Jesus in Luke 6:45 drive this truth home.  45The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”  There is a direct correlation between what is in our heart and what comes over our lips.  When we say something harsh or critical or boastful or otherwise sinful, we should not respond by saying to ourselves, “OOPS, I wonder how that slipped out” as if it were some sort of cosmic accident.  NO.  When we say something sinful (as God counts sinful) it’s because we have a HEART problem and we need to bring the gospel to bear on our hearts.  If we write it off as simply a “slip of the tongue” because we were tired or exasperated or whatever, then we will never address the real cause--a sickness in our heart. 

          We must allow the evil that passes over our lips to show us that we have some work to do--God has more transforming heart surgery to do on us through the life changing power of the gospel.  Soon we will begin a series on the book of Galatians that is all about the gospel of grace as opposed to the false gospel of works.  I would encourage you to prepare your hearts for this extended treatment on the gospel by spending the next several days concentrating your efforts on not gossiping (or spreading a false report), not complaining, not criticizing, not blame shifting (or making excuses), not defending yourself or boasting or in any way deceiving others.  As you do that, you will see not only the immense power of your tongue, but more importantly our daily need for the gospel of grace.  The tongue—this venomous killer can be overcome(!), but only by the power of the gospel.  May God give us grace to see the truth about our need for God and in that humility find increasing victory through the gospel. 

*“Sonship,” World Harvest Mission, Second Edition, 2002.


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