Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

Good morning! Today, I am inviting you to pull up a chair, lean in, and allow me to have a talk with you about “talk.” In effect, the premise of today’s text insists that the single greatest reveal that you are a child of God is demonstrated in how you talk, and what you say—including what you say about others. Let me illustrate.

Some of you may have visited the gravesite of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

It is located in Springfield, Illinois. What you may not know is that Lincoln’s coffin was pried open twice after his burial. The first occasion was in 1887, 22 years after his assassination. Why? Because there was a rumor sweeping the country that his coffin was empty. They opened it. The rumor proved false. But rumor is harder to bury than an assassinated president. Fourteen years later, Lincoln’s body was exhumed again for the same reason, despite strong protests from Lincoln’s son, Robert. As you could guess, the process produced the same result as before. The body was still there.

That scenario illustrates the problem with the tongue—how we sin with our speech. Especially when we are going through a trial, we are more prone to speak negatively or critically. And that reveals a heart problem. Jesus declared,

Matthew 12:34b, “…For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Sinclair Ferguson writes insightfully when he says,

“(Our use of the tongue) is the hinge on which the door into our soul swings open in order to reveal our spirit. In effect, our words are like so many media people rushing to file their reports on the condition of our soul.”

James speaks to this issue in today’s text. Turn with me to James 3:1-12 for my message, “Taming the Tongue.” I should explain that, when James uses the word “tongue,” he is employing a Hebraic figure of speech called metonymy. Metonymy is when a part of something is used to refer to the whole. For example, the White House is often used as an expression for the decisions of the president. In today’s text, the tongue is the conduit of speech which flows from the heart.

James gives us three insights about the use of the tongue. As you can imagine, James gives us straight talk about talk. Here is the first insight:

  1. Control of the tongue is a mark of Christian maturity.

James 3:1-2, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For 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.”

In the early church (the assembly or the synagogue), the floor was opened for unofficial lay teachers called the “didaskaloi” to share whatever they wished. It would be as if I stopped right now and asked, “Who of you would like to get up here and share a spontaneous mini-sermon?” Most of you would quickly decline, but some of you would say, “Yes, I’d like to. Just give me the mic!”

Apparently, James observed that too many of the extemporaneous speakers of his day were overly anxious to hear themselves talk—and share their own thoughts over against God’s Word. So, he warned them that teachers will have a stricter judgment than others at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Only the spiritually mature should be allowed to speak.

By extension, every believer is entrusted with family talk around impressionable ears. That includes the holidays. Christmas time is synonymous with family time. And, likely, every family has at least one extended relative who flits in and flits out with little regard for the feelings of others.

Those relatives remind me of a bird on the loose in the house. I think back to Christmas time last year as we were preparing food for the holidays. Much of it was lying exposed on the stove and on the island in the kitchen. I happened to open the front door momentarily and a little sparrow, who had perched on the wreath outside, decided to fly into the house rather than away from it. Oh no! I had visions of this little avian bomber dropping a load as he flew over the food. That made for an exciting adventure in getting him out—broom in hand. Our actions would have made for a humorous inclusion in “Funniest Home Videos.”

But, what do you do when difficult people fly into your house? Even more to the point, how do you speak to your own immediate family?  It would appear that we all bruise as easily as a banana. At Christmas time, adults and children can get overly-stimulated and tired. If we are not careful, we can respond spitefully. “’Tis the season to be crabby, na na na na na, na na na na.” To quote the children’s song: “Oh, be careful, little tongue, what you say…!” Why is it so important to work carefully through our words? Because:

“Communication is the currency of relationships—and we cannot afford to go broke.”

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that  Death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Yes, the power of the tongue is amazing. Physically, it is the strongest muscle in your body. Figuratively speaking, the same could be said. Look at two analogies that James uses: the use of the bit on a horse and the use of a rudder on a ship.

James 3:3-5a,If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

The bit and bridle control an animal of a thousand pounds or more. I had a relative who owned a draft horse hitch of six Belgian horses weighing nearly 2000 lbs. each. Through use of harness and bridle, he could turn them as he wished—a cumulative six tons!

A rudder does the same thing for a ship—in Bible times driven by the wind in their sails. Without the underwater rudder, they would have no control. In the same way, the small tongue controls the entirety of your spiritual being. Control of the tongue is a mark of spiritual maturity.

2. Destruction with the tongue is a mark of satanic iniquity.

Does that seem like an overstatement to you? In vs. 6, James links the source of wicked speech to hell (the Greek word, “Gehenna is used—the lake of fire…the place made for the devil and his angels.) In fact, James also likens wicked speech to untamed beasts and to the poison of venomous reptiles.

James 3:5b-8, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

Forest fires destroy tens of thousand of acres of forest every year in the American and Canadian West. Having lived in the Washington state for nearly 27 years, I can attest to the destructive power of fire—sometimes caused by a supposedly small oversight by a camper or a discarded cigarette from a passing car or train. But that little spark turns into an inferno called a fire storm with millions of dollars of losses.

In that same way, wicked words spread and inflame every conflict from a domestic fight to an international power struggle. In the end, the war of words may be as deadly as a poisonous snake bite.

The pain of a snake bite is intense: Burning, searing, cramping, paralyzing. Harsh words can cripple a child. Destroy a marriage. Ruin a friendship. Split a church. Harsh words stick like shrapnel in the mind—never to be forgotten by those closest to us. How often do you think about the fact that you carry around in your mouth a deadly weapon? Psalm 64 describes bitter words as  arrows that can kill from a distance.

Psalm 64, “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;

preserve my life from dread of the enemy.

Hide me from the secret plots of the wicked,

from the throng of evildoers,

who whet their tongues like swords,

who aim bitter words like arrows,

shooting from ambush at the blameless,

shooting at him suddenly and without fear.

They hold fast to their evil purpose;

they talk of laying snares secretly,

thinking, “Who can see them?”

They search out injustice,

saying, “We have accomplished a diligent search.”

For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.

But God shoots his arrow at them;

they are wounded suddenly.

They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them;

all who see them will wag their heads.

Then all mankind fears;

they tell what God has brought about

and ponder what he has done.

Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD

and take refuge in him!

Let all the upright in heart exult!”

What are the most common types of evil speech among Christians? I would suggest the following as a few examples:

  • Complaining (Have you ever paused to ask yourself how many times a day you complain about the lack of a perceived need? Researchers have discovered that when we are talking to another person, we complain about once every 60 seconds.) Pathways of thought are developed.
  • Murmuring (against God and the leaders in our lives)
  • Criticizing (attacking motives that you cannot see)

BTW, I advise, don’t use public social media to vent. It does no-one any good and it only files a media report on the condition of your own soul. Use public social media to praise God or cite Scripture. Use it to build someone up.

  • Quarreling (angry outbursts…often using 100% words)
  • Gossiping (talking about other people negatively)

Before passing along a negative comment about somebody, remember, those famous four quality-control questions:

Is it true?” “Is it kind?” “Is it necessary?”  “Would Jesus say it?” A word to the wise: “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

I often have to tell myself in a group when a hot topic comes up, “Curt, you don’t have to say anything. Just keep your mouth shut.”

Proverbs 17:28, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise…”

Are you a talker? You are especially vulnerable.

Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.

I might add, go easy on the self-praise.

Proverbs 27:2, “Let another man praise you—and not your own mouth…”

People eventually distance themselves from self-promoters.  As Lincoln put it,

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.”     Abraham Lincoln

Oh, for the fruit of the Spirit called self-control!

Every day, we speak between 25,000 to 30,000 words—the equivalent of a fifty-four page book. If we do the math, we spend one-fifth of our lives talking—and maybe more when we factor in the talk we express through our fingers and thumbs. Yes, we really do need self-control empowered by Spirit control.

Okay, to review:

1.Control of the tongue is a mark of Christian maturity.

2. Destruction with the tongue is a mark of satanic iniquity.

And, now to James’s third insight:

3. Duplicity (hypocrisy) with the tongue is a mark of Christian carnality.

James 3:9-12, With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”

Again, we find illustrations from nature. Obviously, James loved natural metaphors. He appealed to his reader’s sense of logic by asking two questions:

  1. Does a natural spring produce two kinds of water?
  2. Does a fruit tree produce two kinds of fruit?

Of course, we know the answer to both questions. The point is: Our tongues produce words according to our inner nature. What’s in the root comes out in the fruit. Our words tell on the condition of our hearts. Listen carefully:

In the final judgment, your eternal destiny will be determined by your words.

You may protest, ‘But I thought I was justified by faith in Christ.’ You are. But the reality of that justification is revealed in your words. Your words are a tell. They are a tattle tale on your heart. When God gives you a new heart, He also gives you a new tongue.

The most sobering text I found in my study on the tongue is found in Matthew 12:36-37. This is what Jesus said:

Matthew 12:36-37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

God has them all recorded. The word “justified” in vs. 37, in this context, means “proven true.” Do the words you speak during the week reflect what you sing on Sunday? Bob Kauflin puts it this way:

“It is not uncommon for Christians on Sunday to sing songs that exalt the righteous Christ and during the week sing songs that exalt the sins He died for.”

James 3:10, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

How do you get your mouth clean? By getting your heart clean. When Isaiah confessed to unclean lips (filthy talk) in his vision of Christ (Isaiah 6), God had to touch those lips with a purging agent, namely the burning coals from the altar of sacrifice—the brazen altar. It was there that sins were atoned for by the substitutionary sacrifice that was placed on that altar.

We know that altar represented the cross of Christ. Only His sacrifice can cleanse our souls of sin. So, if you want a changed tongue, you have to go to Jesus for a changed heart. Forgiveness comes by faith in the heart and it is demonstrated by words from the mouth.

Romans 10:9-10, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

The word confess, “homologeo” means to say the same thing that God says.

Professed believer, what do you say with your words? If you have been saved, you should use words to build up, not tear down.

Ephesians 4:29-32, “Let 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. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Parents, a word to you. Here are seven “words” that your children need to hear you say:

  1. I love you!
  2. I was wrong: Forgive me!
  3. I am proud of you!
  4. Yes!
  5. No!
  6. Let’s pray about it!
  7. Jesus comes first! (Including our faithfulness to the services on Sundays).

To all of our church family, I urge you to be encouragers in the Lord!

When we finish this service, I urge you to find a person nearby and say something to build them up or encourage them. You may even ask them, “How may I pray for you?” When you get the answer, then pray for them right there on the spot. That will lift their spirit.

I am going to ask for a minute of quiet reflection before we sing. I want you to ask the Lord to search you and expose to you any way that you need to change the way you talk. Confess your sin and then sing with lips that reflect the truth of your heart. Let’s pray silently after I pray aloud.

Our speech is a good barometer of our hearts. In the physical, a medical doctor can sometimes detect a problem in the body by looking for a “film” on the tongue. If he finds the film, he goes deeper—to the heart of the problem.

Let Christ rule in your heart and now take a moment to say of word of encouragement to somebody you talk to.


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