A couple of weeks ago we saw how James speaks about three marks of true religion:
- Controlling the tongue
- Showing care to orphans and widows
- Growing in holiness
Today we look at the first of those three – controlling the tongue - because it seems slightly odd.
Why does James mention controlling the tongue, when there are so many other things that could have been said? Why is it so important?
Of course, James has got nothing particular against the tongue. It is a big muscle that is used for tasting, chewing and swallowing. It is also used – and this is what James is really on about – for speaking.
And in these verses, James gives us several reasons why we should control the tongue
1. The tongue, the spoken word, is incredibly powerful
At the very beginning, when the beginning began, and time came into being, God – we are told – spoke a word: ‘Let there be light’. And there was light.
It was God’s spoken word which brought creation into being. It was his spoken word which gave life to human beings.
And this is the word that James has spoken about which has given new life, spiritual life to you and me.
In 1.18, we are told that we are given birth by the word of truth
In 1.21, he speaks of the implanted word, that has come into us, that has power to save our souls.
God’s word is an active word.
John describes Jesus as ‘the logos’ of God – the word of God, the reason of God. But when Jerome came to translate ‘logos’ from the original Greek into Latin, he used the word ‘verbum’ – from which we also get our word, ‘verb’. And it is a wise translation, because the ‘verb’ is a doing word, and the Logos, the Word, the verbum of God is a doing word.
The spoken word is incredibly powerful.
I know it can send people to sleep, but it is the word which wakes people up. It brings life to people. Paul talks about how blessed are the feet of those who preach the good news – who tell people about Jesus Christ, so that they can hear and choose to receive this word – and discover new life.
And James writes of how the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse.
I know little about horse riding, but I understand that the horse is controlled, directed, by the thing in its mouth, pulling it in one direction or another.
Or the tongue is like a rudder. I occasionally sail small dinghies. But I’m not a great sailer and usually have mishaps. On two or three occasions now my rudder has fallen off. Which is a bit of a problem. You are rather helpless. Fortunately, I sail in a narrow estuary, so I simply end up stuck on some mud bank.
The rudder is rather important – it controls the direction of a small dinghy. It controls the direction of huge ocean tanker.
The tongue, James says, makes great boasts. It does major stuff.
Words shape how we see reality. For those of us from the West, inclusive language has been a real political power battle. But it is important, because it shapes how people see things.
I remember about 30 years ago hearing a friend preach. In his sermon he used an illustration of an engineer, and in the illustration he spoke of how ‘she’ made a decision. I remember being caught up short – because I had never really heard anybody talk of an engineer as a ‘she’. You sort of assumed that they are always going to be a ‘he’. So a word changed a whole set of assumptions that I held.
And speeches and oratory are important. They can inspire, move people to tears, whip up crowds to violence. Think of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar; think of Abraham Lincoln, Pushkin, Churchill. Words have shaped nations, defined how people think about themselves and given them self-understanding
And later James writes of the power of words addressed to God. The words spoken in prayer: they bring healing, forgiveness and they can do great things.
So the tongue, the spoken word, has enormous power
2. The tongue can do great damage
James speaks of how the tongue can be like a tiny spark that sets a forest on fire.
We have a saying: ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words they cannot hurt me’.
It is, of course, not true.
Again, words shape how we see reality.
Think of the words that we use for other people, how we separate people who are like us (nashi) from those who are not like us. It is interesting that those of us from the UK who are here like to call ourselves expatriates. We call those who come and live in our country migrants.
Alison says that the big word that she hears in the playgroup where she helps is the word ‘mine’. If you say that something is mine, then I am saying it is not yours, and I am claiming control over it.
It is my toy, my possession, my church, my right.
And that little word can do such great damage.
And there is the damage that is caused by the lies, the fake news, the one-sided news
And then there is the vindictive, cruel word: the spoken word that can destroy a person, rip a person’s reputation into pieces; that can ridicule, humiliate and crush
I read of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went with a colleague to the ladies toilets, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You can guess what happened. Out of one of the cubicles came Beth. She rushed out, and left the place of work immediately in floods of tears. She didn’t come back the following day; she didn’t come back at all. The woman who tells the story says that it is one of the most awful moments in her life. She tried to get in touch with Beth but she wasn’t able to. And she finishes off by saying, ‘And I am a Christian; I am someone who calls Jesus Christ Lord’.
And there is the gossip (and yes, we can dress it up in Christian terms), the backbiting, the swearing and profanity, the cruel unthinking comment: ‘you are so stupid’. Jesus warns his listeners that before God we will be held accountable for simply calling another person, ‘a fool’.
And the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used, when we are silent when we should be speaking out.
Many of us here will have been hurt badly by words – but if we are honest we will know that we have also used words to hurt other people.
3. The tongue, James tells us, is a window into our heart – it shows us that we desperately need God
We cannot see into a person’s heart. We cannot see the things that motivate them. But we can hear the words that they speak.
And the problem is that the tongue betrays us.
Some of us are very good at putting on a persuasive show – and then suddenly the tongue betrays us. Out splurge our inner thoughts. And the problem is that when they are out, they are out. You can’t put words back in. As I said a couple of weeks ago, they are like toothpaste in a toothpaste tube: once it is out, you can’t get it back in!
Baxter, a C17th preacher said, and it is a brilliant comment, “One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”
James describes the tongue 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’ (v6).
It is a world of iniquity: an agent of the sinful world among the different parts of our body. It is a fifth columnist living in you. You put up a good front and suddenly out comes the muck
It is set on fire by hell: all the anger, rage, fear, resentments, prejudices. That is the fuel which is deep within us – and it comes out through the tongue. Jesus speaks about that. He says it is not the stuff out there that comes into us and defiles us. It is the stuff that is in here which defiles us.
It stains the body. Imagine a bride in a stunning white dress. And there right on the back is a massive ink stain. That, says James, is what the tongue does to us.
Recently there have been a number of cases where people have been completely undone, their reputation ripped to pieces, because of things that they have said which have been recorded, or messages that they have tweeted.
It sets on fire the cycle of nature: It leads to more of the same. I say something that comes from the pit that is in me. And you respond with something that comes from the pit inside you – and the cycle escalates. James speaks about this in the next few verses. And we end up with people and communities and even brothers and sisterss not speaking with each other, hating each other, at war with each other. I think of Northern Ireland. I think of the Ukraine.
The problem is that: ‘no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison’ (v8)
Let me be clear about this:
If we remain silent – which is often a good thing – we still will not be able to control the tongue. Our inner pit will out!
There is a story told about a man who entered a silent monastery. He was allowed to say one sentence to a gathering of all the monks once a year…
If we cut out the tongue – not recommended – it will change nothing. We’ll still think the muck.
And James writes that even if we become religious we won’t tame the tongue.
Yes, we might come to church to praise God – we might praise the One who is good and beautiful and true, who loves us, who has given us life and who has created all things. We might pledge our faith and obedience and allegiance to him, our desire to serve and follow him.
And then, at coffee or later in the afternoon, we curse somebody: we make fun of them, mock them, put them down, speak bad of them – even though they are, James points out, created by God and made in his image.
With one breath we declare our love for God – and with our next breath we deride the person that he has made
I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. They agreed to confess their most besetting sins. The first said, ‘I have a problem with the women’. The second said, ‘I have a problem with drink’. The third says, ‘I am an incurable gossip’!
So what do we do? How do we control the tongue?
Because if we don’t say something about this, it will be a very honest but depressing sermon! Is there no hope?
1. Remember the power of words – to do good or to do harm.
2. Guard your tongue as best you can.
There are the bits of wisdom that we can hold on to:
· If we can’t say anything that is good or helpful or that builds people up, don’t say anything
· Count to 10 before you respond
And those of you who are good with words need to be particularly careful.
I thank God that I am not particular quick with words. I always think of the thing I could have said, the response that would have cut them dead, about 2 hours afterwards. I think if only I had said that.
But while I would love to be quick with words, I thank God that I am not – because it often means I don’t say what I should not say.
3. Know that you will make mistakes.
Only the perfect person will not make mistakes with their speech, and you are not perfect. So when you make mistakes, and it is when, repent, say sorry – to God and to the person you have offended - and call out to God to have mercy and to change your heart
4. Don’t aspire quickly to become a teacher (and James 3.1 is speaking specifically to those who would teach the Christian faith), even if you have an ability to teach.
I would probably say a person should not aspire to become a teacher until they have messed up big time, until they have become acutely aware of their own fallenness, brokenness and sinfulness, of the pit that is deep in their heart - but who have also become aware of the astonishing acceptance, forgiveness and mercy of God
Oh, and one final thing
Come to church next week – because the next verses offer a little bit of hope!