Taming the Tongue (a sermon on James 3:1-12)

When I was in one of my early parish appointments, in rural Saskatchewan, Marci and I used to run a little youth group in our home on Sunday evenings. Usually about six kids came out; they were all related to each other, and the truth is that we weren’t actually that much older than them. A couple of them weren’t too happy about being there, but their parents insisted, so along they came! But the nice thing is that we’re still in touch with most of them, and we see them from time to time when we visit Saskatchewan in the summer time. Most of them are still active Christians, and of course parents too (in a couple of cases, parents of married children, which tells you how we are!).

A few years ago when we were back in Saskatchewan we were visiting with a couple of people who had been in that youth group. One of the girls – now a mother of four herself – said, “And where would we be today if it hadn’t been for that youth group? We certainly wouldn’t be following the Lord”.

That’s the sort of thing that sets you thinking about ‘influence’ – the way your words and actions can have an effect on people that you don’t even realize. Today our reading from James is talking about the tongue, so I want to focus in for a few minutes on the Christian teachers we have in our lives and how they influence us.

When I was thirteen my Dad asked me a question that changed the course of my life. He had been lending me Christian books to read, and one of them had gotten me very curious. One night at our youth group meeting he said to me, “You’ve never given your life to Jesus, have you?” I knew he was right, and later that night I prayed a prayer committing my life to Christ. That was the beginning of my conscious Christian journey, and it all happened as a result of Dad’s question. Words can be very powerful.

In my late teens I went off to Toronto to train to become an Anglican evangelist. I was feeling a bit apprehensive, because lately I’d been beginning to suspect that, although I had a very lively experience of Christianity, I couldn’t really give a reason for it – an intellectual case that would stand up under fire. Again, my Dad helped me out. In the airport in Vancouver we stopped in the bookstore, and Dad bought me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, with the recommendation that I read it. Most of you will know C.S. Lewis as the author of the Narnia stories, but you may not know that he also wrote some excellent books explaining the Christian faith. I read Mere Christianity and it was exactly what I needed. I know it had an influence on me, because I lent it a few years ago to a United Church minister, and when he gave it back to me he said, “Do you have any idea how much this guy has influenced you?”

These are just a couple of examples of the way the words of wise Christian teachers have had an enormous influence on my life. Words can have a great effect for good, especially when they’re backed up by the way the person lives their life. And the opposite is also true, of course: the words of an evil person can have great effect for evil. Adolf Hitler was a powerful speaker and he used words to tragic effect; more than fifty million people died in the Second World War because of the power of his oratory. Or think of the way the words of some parents haunt their children their whole lives long, leaving a legacy of despair and hopelessness because all the children experienced was criticism and judgement, not encouragement and hope.

In today’s reading James says ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1). I note in passing that, in the original context, when James talks about ‘teachers’ he’s talking about those who teach the Christian faith in the community of the Church. It may well apply to schoolteachers too, but the original text wasn’t talking about them.

It’s easy for us to see why James was so concerned about this. A word or two in the wrong direction and someone’s life can be sent down the wrong path for years. One sermon challenging a central Christian belief, and a whole church can be led astray. One word out of place in a pastoral conversation, and a vulnerable listener can be encouraged to make a disastrous move that will affect the rest of their life.

This is the power of the tongue – or the pen or the keyboard, for that matter. Controlled by God’s Spirit, harnessed for good, our words can have an incalculable effect for good. But when they’re out of control, or used for unscrupulous and selfish ends, they can result in great evil. That’s why James teaches us that the control of our tongue is one of the most important parts of our Christian discipleship.

Where did James get this idea from? Well, from his brother Jesus, of course! Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:34-37:

“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”.

Jesus, of course, speaks these words to all of us, not just ministers and Christian teachers, and James broadens it out to apply to all of us too, in verse 2 of our reading for today when he says, ‘For all of us make many mistakes’. He goes on to use several illustrations to make two points: that the tongue is powerful, and that the tongue is hard to control.

The first illustration is of the horse; look at verse 3:

‘If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies’.

The horse is powerful and fast, but it can be controlled by using a very small instrument – the bit and the bridle. Once in place, the bit and bridle can be used very effectively to guide the direction the horse takes. And to James, the tongue is like a bit and bridle: using it, we can guide the lives of others and have an enormous impact on them. The tongue seems so small and the crowd seems so huge, but watch them as they are swayed by a powerful speech! And one person’s life can be marked forever by a few words said to them by another person.

The second illustration is of the ship; look at verses 4 and 5:

‘Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great exploits’.

The ship travels all over the world carrying cargo and passengers. If James thought the ships in his day were large, imagine what he would have said today about supertankers and aircraft carriers! But the direction of the ship can be set by one person using a comparatively small tool – the rudder. James imagines the rudder getting big ideas about itself – ‘boasting of great exploits’, as he says. People are sometimes aware that they have this power, and boast in it; Karl Marx famously said, ‘Give me twenty-six soldiers of lead and I’ll conquer the world’ – referring to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in the printing press, of course. Sounds like he was ‘boasting of great exploits’ to me!

These first two illustrations emphasize the power and influence of the tongue, but James goes on to give us two more that underline how difficult it is to control it. The first one is the illustration of a fire:

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. (vv.5b-6).

 Here in Alberta we’re used to watching forest fires each year and we know how hard they are to control once they get going. And we know that the tongue is like a fire. How many times has someone started a piece of gossip about someone else, and the next thing you know, it’s spread, as we say, like wildfire, and perhaps an innocent person’s reputation is ruined forever. Or someone in one part of the world makes incendiary comments on a blog post, and the next thing you know people in another part of the world are rioting and killing. There’s a ‘Pandora’s Box’ effect about speech, isn’t there? Once a thing has been said, there’s no calling it back.

The tongue is like a forest fire, but it’s also like a wild animal. James exaggerates slightly at the beginning of this one! Here’s what he says:

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (vv.7-8).

Of course, there are many species of wild animals that can’t be tamed (anyone tried taming a mosquito?). But the point James is making is clear: taming the tongue is more difficult than taming a wild animal. Anyone who’s seriously tried to do it knows how difficult it is. If you’re in the habit of being argumentative, or judgemental, or gossiping, or critical, it’s very difficult to get out of that habit and learn to use your power of speech positively rather than negatively.

Nowadays, of course, there’s a whole school of thought that says we shouldn’t even try to control the tongue. We’ve been told by pop psychology that if we have these feelings of rage or frustration or vengeance, we should just ‘vent’ and let it all come out; if we don’t, we’re told – if we just bottle it up inside – it will eventually lead to violence, either toward others or ourselves. Millions of people around the world now use Facebook for just this sort of venting. Are you angry because you got cut off in traffic? Post a nasty comment about the other driver on Facebook – addressed to him, of course, even though he can’t read it – and you’ll instantly feel better (although your Facebook friends might not!).

Well, there may be some truth in this, but there’s something else we might want to think about too. We’re given the impression that there’s a finite load of resentment or anger down there, and if we just vent it, eventually we’ll come to the end of it. But what if that’s not the case? What if there’s an infinite supply? What if getting into the habit of exploding with rage at people just increases our propensity to do so? What if speaking out in anger just makes us a more angry person?

Remember what Jesus said in the quote from Matthew I read earlier?

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure”. (Matthew 12:34b-35)

What comes out of your mouth, in other words, is a reflection of what’s in your heart. James says much the same thing in the verses at the end of our reading:

With (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (vv.9-12).

It might seem as if  James is completely negative about the tongue, and we might even be led to believe that it’s impossible to change it and use it for good. Certainly he wants us to know how hard it is. Habits dig deep grooves in our brains, and once they’ve been dug, it’s hard to change course and dig new ones.

Hard, but not impossible. Alcoholics do learn to stop drinking. Anger management classes do help people to stop expressing their anger in inappropriate ways. And the Spirit of God can go deep down inside us and heal that poisoned well, so that what comes out is not abuse and hatred, but love and compassion.

It takes two things to tame the tongue: a decision on our part to recognize the problem and do something about it, and the help of God’s Holy Spirit.

James is not wasting his breath. He wouldn’t be writing these things to us if he thought the situation was hopeless. He’s writing to challenge us, to lead us to recognize the problem and to come to a genuine repentance. And once we do that, we can put steps in place to begin a process of change.

Let me give you what I hope is a rather humorous illustration: the year I gave up swearing for Lent. I should explain that I don’t think that swearing is actually a very serious issue – certainly not on the level of vengeance or selfishness or conceit or lust – but I was getting a little tired of my potty mouth. I’d picked it up in the Northwest Territories, where the locals seemed to think those words were just part of ordinary English, and I’d gotten used to it. But in the Lent of 2006 I decided I wanted to change direction, so I gave up swearing for Lent.

At the time Marci and I were in the habit of going to a local pub on Monday nights for an open stage, and I decided that every time I broke my resolution I’d fine myself a dollar off my Monday night beer money. Of course, the other musicians there knew I usually had a beer, so they noticed the first week when I had coffee instead. One of them asked me what was going on, and when I explained it to him, he burst out laughing! For the rest of Lent he watched me like a hawk each Monday night; “Pretty rough week, was it?” he’d ask if he saw me having coffee!

Well, I can’t claim that I entirely eliminated the habit, but I certainly got a little more control over it. And in the same way, it is possible for us to put a framework in place in our lives that will help us change the way we use our tongue, for good and not for evil.

But we can’t do it by ourselves. Remember, Jesus told us that the trouble is within, in the heart. So let’s close with some words he spoke about how the heart can be cleansed and redirected. These words are found in John 7:37-39:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’.

The Holy Spirit can fill us and cleanse the poisoned well within, so that what comes out is no longer poison, but living water. So this week, let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us, and help us to get control of our tongue, so that our words are a blessing, and not a curse, to the people around us.


2 thoughts on “Taming the Tongue (a sermon on James 3:1-12)

  1. Leslie

    Years ago I spent two weeks in the home of a Calgary-based family friend who was recovering from open heart surgery. He made his living in the oil patch and consequently had a steady stream of visitors from said industry stopping by to wish him well. When I got back home my language…oy vey. It cleared up quickly. The help of God’s Holy Spirit, indeed.

    All in all, it opened my eyes to the creative grammatical (dareIsay linguistic) uses of a word where the exact same expletive could be a noun…verb…adjective…gerund. God bless them all…

    Cheers to you and Marci, Tim.

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