The uncontrollable tongue!
James has already spoken about the tongue
1:19: ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’
1:26: ‘Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.’
But now he expands on what he has said.
He starts by talking about teachers, about people who use the tongue to teach of Jesus.
He challenges a church where people were pushing themselves forward to be teachers. Everybody wanted to be up at the front, doing the ‘limelight’ jobs. I don’t think that that is an issue here. In fact I think we have the opposite problem: we actually need more people who are willing to be teachers – teachers of children, teachers in our groups, teachers here in church. We need people who are prepared, before God, to give themselves to this work, and to choose to place themselves under the stricter judgement
But I guess that there is a point: don’t assume that you can become a teacher. The teaching ministry has to be received and acknowledged by others. It needs to be tested. And part of that testing is submission to the church.
And James warns us that those who teach will be judged more strictly.
The world certainly judges us more strictly.
If a vicar falls it is front page news. Journalists love it. Particularly if they are hostile to Christianity
And if a politician, especially a politician who has taken a moral stand, falls – they are murdered by the press. John Major’s government came unstuck when, having said that they were going to promote family values, several of their ministers were caught having affairs. Since then, no politician has dared to make family values a platform on which to stand.
What are the qualifications for being a teacher?
So is James saying that those who teach must live better, even perfect lives?
Are they people who need to have learned how to control the tongue?
And the answer that James goes on to give is not what we would expect.
He doesn’t say ‘Yes’.
Instead he goes on
1. to speak about the power and influence of the tongue
He talks about how with a bit we can control a horse
He talks about how a rudder can control a ship
He talks about how a spark can set a forest on fire
And he talks about how the tongue sets the body on fire.
We see that.
We boast about something – why? Boasting is the language of hell and the devil. It is about setting myself up as bigger than I really am. And when I boast about what will happen in the future, I am setting myself up as God. We boast because we want to somehow prove ourselves, to tell the world we are someone. But the boast catches us. We need to live up to it, or lie, or make excuses why what we boasted about didn’t happen – and that usually involves blaming other people.
2. He speaks about the fact that nobody can control the tongue
He says that if we have controlled the tongue, we would be perfect.
If you can control your tongue, you can control every part of your body.
He describes the tongue as a wild beast that cannot be tamed. We can tame birds and beasts. We can put the fiercest beasts: lions, rhinos, crocodiles, komodo dragons, rattlesnakes in a zoo. We can put eagles in aviaries and killer sharks in aquariums. We can often make them work for us. But we cannot control the tongue.
Isn’t that interesting? We can control the natural world, but we cannot control sin. It’s too big for us.
I’m sure many of you will have heard of the tube of toothpaste assembly. We squeeze the toothpaste, and once it is out, it cannot go back in. So it is with words. We speak the words and once they are spoken, they cannot go back in. I read recently of the testimony a woman who had a break in a work, who went to the ladies with a colleague to do what ladies do, and – she said – she started to slag off a colleague, Beth, who wasn’t particularly popular. You know 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’.
I like the story of the three vicars going on a long train journey. 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’!
It comes out of our mouth: 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’, the comment that is designed to cut someone down. As I’ve said before, I thank God that I am not particular quick on my feet with words. I always think of the thing I should have said about 2 hours afterwards. But I thank God for that – because it often means I don’t say it. The unnecessary comment, the labelling of someone so that you can dismiss them – whether that is to do with their sex or their age or their colour or whatever.
Interestingly the tongue can be just as devastating when it is not used in the right way. We are silent when we should be speaking out; we do not sorry; we do not confess Jesus as Lord.
It comes out when we preach: Baxter wrote – 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.”
And the tongue, it is dramatic language, says James, is ‘a restless evil, full of deadly poison’. We can use the venom of a deadly poisonous snake for healing. But when the tongue is unrestrained it is the agent of death.
I saw a sign on a strip of highway once that I would like to have copied on my gravestone. It said, "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."
3. He talks of the inconsistency of the tongue
And he is clearly talking to Christians here: ‘With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings’
There are times when we can express the most wonderful things; we praise God; we praise other people. With our tongues we build people up, we allow people to see the world in a completely new way. And yet in the next breath, we blaspheme, we tear people down and then crush them, we mock people, we tell jokes at their expense, we insinuate things about them – so that we feel better about ourselves.
And James says, ‘This is not right’.
So it is very interesting.
Having just told us that not many should presume to become teachers, and that teachers will be judged more harshly than others, he then goes on to say that we all stumble (v2), and that no human being can tame the tongue (v8).
So what is it all about?
Well I do not wish to anticipate the next few verses, but I think that there are two essential qualifications if someone is going to become a teacher in the church
1. They must be aware of their own weakness and sin
If a person thinks that he is able to control his tongue, then he should not be a teacher – because James has just told us that no one can tame the tongue.
And please do not expect your teachers to be perfect, or nearly perfect. That way is the way to disaster. It is the way to disaster for the teacher – the expectations are just too high. It is also the way to disaster for the people, because you are going to be let down. If you expect your teacher to always say the right thing, to never lose their temper, to never say something rashly, to know what to say in all situations – you will be extremely disappointed.
James is emphasizing the fact that we are all messed up.
And the teacher needs to be incredibly aware of that fact.
said, ‘What you are must always displease you, if you would attain that which you are not’. St Augustine
And that ties in with some words in the next few verses: they talk about deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. And in verse 14, James writes, ‘But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth’
The point about a Christian teacher is that they are not perfect, that they will never fall. The point about them is that they are someone who realizes that they are far from perfect, and that they may well fall. The point about a Christian teacher is that they must first be a repentant sinner.
2. They must be aware of the source of wisdom
In v11 James says that fresh water and salt water cannot flow from the same spring; that a salt spring produces salt water and not fresh water; that a fig tree produces figs and not olives.
He is actually saying the same thing that Jesus said in Mark 4: ‘What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts, come evil thoughts, etc. All these evils come from inside and defile you’.
He is beginning to say that we need to get the source right, to get the heart right. That is why he goes on to talk about the wisdom which comes from heaven, from beyond us. It is a wisdom that is given to us if we ask God to give it to us. In James, wisdom is really another word for what other writers call the Holy Spirit.
So the teacher needs to be someone who is not perfect, but who knows where the source of perfection is. They should be someone who is always pointing people to Jesus Christ the Son of God. Because it is as we go to him, we will be changed.
Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, said, “I saw a sign on a strip of highway once that I would like to have copied on my gravestone. It said, "End of construction. Thank you for your patience."
So to summarise: James warns us not to presume to become teachers because there is a stricter judgement. But he goes on to say that we all stumble, and none of us can control or tame the tongue.
He speaks of how the tongue has so much influence, of how it cannot be tamed, of how it is utterly inconsistent.
And he hints that the secret to controlling the tongue is to begin to get the heart right, the source of our life right. And we do that as we seek Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and cry out to him to have mercy.
I hope you find this not too condemning, but actually quite liberating – whether you are a Christian teacher or not.
You do not need to be perfect.
You do not need to have tamed the tongue.
But we can change, and we do need to be seeking the one who did control his tongue, who is perfect and who offers to us the gift of perfection. Evangelism, as someone has put it, is one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread.