1 My brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers, because we know that we teachers will be judged more strictly. 2 We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. 3 When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.
4 Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. 5 In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly.
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. 6 The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
7 People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. 8 No one can tame the tongue, though. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!
11 Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.James 3:1-12 Common English Bible
When I was growing up we lived in “company housing” until I started 8th grade, My dad was the foreman for that particular gas field. The houses were right next to the warehouse, so I knew most of the men that worked there, and my brother and I were in and out of that place all the time. We were usually “borrowing” nails and used lumber to build tree houses up on the hill behind the house.
One of the men that worked for my dad was a guy by the name of Ezzie. As a kid, I didn’t know him by his first name – to us kids he was “Snuffy” because of the large amount of Copenhagen he chewed.
Snuffy was probably one of the most vilest and vulgar persons I think I’ve ever met in my life. As a kid we just thought he was funny. He was an alcoholic which sometimes caused him problems at work. The summer before I started college I went to work for the company and usually ended up working with Snuffy. When he found out that I was heading off to Bible College to become a preacher he made it his personal mission to try to get me off the straight and narrow and also to say as many things to embarrass me as possible. I really did like him and did pray for him, but it was challenging to work with him. What was even worse was that he lived in the same town as I did so we carpooled to work together. Thankfully it wasn’t a long drive!
So for two summers in a row, I worked with him, and he tried his best to say things to trip me up or embarrass me. I think it was a game to him. I continued to pray for him.
Towards the end of his life, he said some things to my mom that has left me with some hope that God answered my prayers for him.
Words are powerful. As much as Snuffy wanted to get to me, I tried my hardest with God’s help to live my life before him that hopefully, he saw Jesus in my by the way I spoke and acted before him.
The things that we say can have a tremendous impact on other people. James wrote in verse 9:
With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.James 3:9
One of the challenges in approaching this section of Scripture is that we can reduce it to a list of things that we, as Christians, don’t say. It can become like a parent teaching a child not to say bad words. We come up with a list of bad words, and we memorize them, but then we commit to never saying them. We become very legalistic about it.
I remember in my church that we were taught not only not to say the bad words, but there were similar words that we couldn’t say either.
We were taught that you couldn’t say “shoot” because we were really thinking of another word. You couldn’t say “crap” because we were really saying something worse. Don’t even think about saying “gosh” because you were really taking God’s name in vain. Don’t say “darn” because you were really saying something terrible, and “heck” was not permitted because you were really talking about the “bad place.”
And if you put some of these words together like “gosh darn it” you were really in trouble. You probably had better head straight to the alter because you were in danger of heading straight to “heck,” um that bad place.
I remember the time my girlfriend’s father said “der mean snake in the grass” too one of their cows – I don’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew at that moment his soul was in mortal danger because that statement had to have been on the prohibited word list.
As a kid and on into adulthood, I was so confused. I can recall times when teaching Sunday School or even preaching that when I would need to say the word “hell” that I would almost say it in a hushed voice half expecting a lightning bolt from heaven to get me for daring to utter that word.
Can you see how goofy that logic is? Is that what James was talking about? Indeed, there are words that, as Christians, we shouldn’t say. We as Christians shouldn’t be known for the things that we don’t do or, in this case, the things that we don’t say but that we should be recognized for what we do or by what we do say.
The first case is that of legalism, that keeping a list, not doing this, not saying that. The second case is the sanctified life, transformed by the Holy Spirit, living a life pleasing to God.
James says that no one can tame the tongue. He describes the tongue as being small and compares it to some ordinary everyday objects. A horses bit – it’s put into the horse’s mouth, and with it, you can control the horse. He points out a ship and tells how big they are and how much wind it takes to move them, but a small rudder controls them.
James moves on and talks about a forest fire. What does it take to start a forest fire? Just a small spark, a small fire, even a carelessly discarded cigarette can start a forest fire.
James doesn’t have a nice thing to say about the tongue. He said that from the same mouth come blessing and cursing.
Take, for example, the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers chapter 22. The children of Israel were still on their journey from Egypt to the promised land. They were camped out right on the Jordan river, just across it from the city of Jericho.
They were in the land of the Moabites, and the people were afraid because there were so many of them and that they would take over everything. The king, Balaak, sent a message to Balaam. We don’t know a whole lot about Balaam, but apparently, he was some type of prophet of sorts. The Balaak, the King, wanted Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites.
The custom of cursing an enemy before battle was widespread in the ancient world, and Balaam seems to have gained a reputation as an effective operative who could be relied upon, on the payment of an appropriate fee, to give satisfaction.
Balaam tells the messengers to spend the night, and he’ll check the situation out with God and provide them with an answer. Somehow God speaks to Balaam and tells him that he cannot put a curse on the children of Israel because they are blessed people.
Balaak doesn’t like the answer he received from the messengers, so he sends another group to Balaam ups the offer to him. The next day and we’re all familiar with the story, Balaam gets up and saddles his donkey and heads off to see Balaak. An Angel of the Lord comes and stands in the road unseen by Balaam but seen by the donkey.
The donkey sees the Angel and tries to avoid going any closer because it sees the Angel has a drawn sword ready to strike them. Balaam ends up beating the donkey, and it finally just lays down and refuses to get up.
The scriptures tell us that God opened the donkey’s mouth so that it could talk to Balaam. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was riding a donkey and it started talking to me, I’m not so sure that I’d have a calm, rational discussion with it that Balaam seems to have.
I can almost picture the scene as Balaam looks around to see if someone is playing a trick on him by speaking from behind a wall or rock or tree, and it seems like the donkey is just talking. I don’t know if they had ventriloquists back then, but I’d be looking to see if there was one around.
King Balaak wanted nothing more than for Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites. If you read Chapters 23 and 24, you’ll learn that not only did Balaam not curse them, but he blessed them not just once, but four times. And then for good measure, he curses three different groups of people before heading back home.
Words have power, while Balaak wanted a curse spoken, words of blessing were given.
Words are taken very seriously by those we read about in the Bible. Think of the prophet Jeremiah. When God called Jeremiah and appointed him as a prophet, his response was, “I’m only a child, I don’t know how to speak.”
“Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me, “I’m putting my words in your mouth.”Jeremiah 1:9
One writer said that God Sanctified Jeremiah’s mouth at that moment.
“This very day I appoint you over nations and empires, to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”Jeremiah 1:10
He wasn’t going to accomplish that by force, but by faithfully speaking God’s word.
Do you remember Isaiah when God commissioned him? He had that excellent vision of God in heaven. As he tried to take in all that he was seeing, he cried out,
Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!Isaiah 6:5
You can’t be in God’s presence and not be changed. Isaiah says that one of the seraphs took a coal from the altar and touched his mouth and told that his guilt is taken away, and his sin was atoned for.
When God called Ezekial, He told him that he would be speaking to the Israelites. It didn’t matter whether they listened or not, but they would know that a prophet had been in their midst. To prepare him for this ministry, God gives him a scroll and tells him to eat it.
That was three of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament, and how did God start them out? He sanctified their mouths, and He gave them the words they needed to speak. It all started with their mouths.
Jesus spoke about this issue of words. A passage that might normally miss out on seeing His words of warning if found in Matthew 12
Therefore, I tell you that people will be forgiven for every sin and insult to God. But insulting the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Human One will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven, not in this age or in the age that is coming.Matthew 12:31-32
Either consider the tree good and its fruit good, or consider the tree rotten and its fruit rotten. A tree is known by its fruit. Children of snakes! How can you speak good things while you are evil? What fills the heart comes out of the mouth. Good people bring out good things from their good treasure. But evil people bring out evil things from their evil treasure. I tell you that people will have to answer on Judgment Day for every useless word they speak. By your words you will be either judged innocent or condemned as guilty.Matthew 12:33:37
We might generally miss out on what Jesus has to say because we know this passage talks about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. As vitally important as that is, we might miss out on what I think is the key sentence, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” We do really discover the character of a person by the words or conversation which reveal what they are made up of. “Ultimately, our judgment will be on the basis of our own words, a disclosure that will either lead to our being justified or being condemned.”
God the Holy Spirit as He does that work of transformation within us will produce a Godly transformation in the words we speak. I’ve met some Christians that while in the church where what seemed to be some of the most Spirit-filled people I’ve ever met, but, I’ve seen them in action at a board meeting or outside the church. They are some of the most critical or hurtful in the way they talk to or about others. It is a reminder that I need to pray for them that God would indeed transform them. Our words reflect who we are on the inside.
Paul talks about this issue in the 1 Thessalonians 5. He said, “So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.” That’s God-honoring speech. But Paul knows that just being positive in our speech all the time is not always going to cut it, so he lays out some particular examples for us to use.
warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone.”1 Thesselontians 5:14
He said to warn those who are idle – we don’t want to encourage them. We need to confront them lovingly. We have to love them enough to speak the truth in love to them, even if it makes them angry. Why? We want to see them repent, to see healing in their life.
The writer of the Proverbs said, “Wholesome speech is a tree of life” (15:4). In this situation, we don’t do the person any favor by keeping silent, the rest of that proverb says, “but dishonest talk breaks the spirit.”
Paul said to encourage the timid. They don’t need to be criticized; they need encouragement. Proverbs 12:18 says, “Some chatter on like a stabbing sword, but a wise tongue heals.”
He said to help the weak. How can we help someone weak in the faith? We can provide that help by providing them the instruction and guidance to move them from their point of weakness to the position of victory over that weakness. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God gave me an educated tongue to know how to respond to the weary.” (50:4).
Gary Thomas, in his book Holy Available, said,
all of our words must be seasoned with grace-filled patience. How much havoc we unleash when our expectations for our spouses, our children, our coworkers, or our fellow drivers amount to perfection! People will regularly disappoint us. If our hearts aren’t ready for this, we’ll speak only with angry exasperation, our negative words tearing down people for their humanness, instead of using our tongues to cultivate redemptive transformation.Holy Availabe – Gary Thomas
The one thing that Paul didn’t say was to keep silent. Indeed, there are times that we need to stay quiet, but in the examples Paul listed, we need to speak out of a life that has been transformed by the Holy Spirit.
If we see someone who is making bad choices, we need to confront them lovingly. Sometimes we don’t want to say anything because we don’t want to “rock the boat.” How much better it would be if we did rock the boat of a brother or sister in Christ rather than remaining silent while we watch their lives spiral out of control.
“Because words have power, you reset a room’s climate every time you speak. Do you negativity pull everyone down? Is your tongue so busy trying to win approval that you refrain from speaking the hard word? Are you so eager to spout your opinions that you can’t hear the needs of others?
Is your tongue being transformed?”
Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming. The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.1 Thessalontians 5:23-25