Sermon of June 16 2013 – James 3
James 3: 1-12 ESV
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 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. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 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. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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,[a] and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
So far in our whirlwind journey through James we’ve looked at James’ view of God’s word and its effect on us, implanted in our souls, needing to be constantly received, so that we can be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. In James 2 we looked at how the ambiguity of human words has given people cause over millennia to question James’ theology when it came to how our souls are justified and reconciled to God. This cause, I have argued melts in light of James’ meaning and purpose behind those words.
Today, in James 3 our attention turns instead to our words.
At first this passage may seem simple in its message; be careful little mouth what you say. There is so much more going on here! Therefore, we are about to walk through the vivid imagery and metaphor in these 12 verses to discover the depth of James’ message. Then we’re going to look at this teaching in light of the entire book to see how James has weaved this message of the purposeful use of our words through all his blessings and admonishments in his letter.
James starts out by warning us of the difficulty in taming our tongues. First he speaks to those who would teach. He advises us that not many of us should be teachers because by our words we will be more strictly judged. (so that concludes the message today, let’s pray)
My wife will tell you I am fearful (in the good way) every time I get up to teach or preach. I check my scriptures over and over and make sure I’m reading them all in context. I consider my words carefully based on every theology I believe to be true. If I am not sure something is completely supportable by scripture, I will not present it as scriptural. I take seriously Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 18:6 and often picture a great millstone fastened around my neck sitting beside the sea. I take very seriously everything I say and yet, I pray for the Holy Spirit to correct my words where I stumble or misspeak for I believe my words will be judged with greater strictness.
As James speaks to those who would aspire to be teachers of God’s word, he starts with how important our words are, and that they consider careful consideration, and yet he makes the personal admission and reality check that “we all stumble in many ways.” Honestly, we will never have full control of our words. We could have a perfect grammar checker built into our heads, be a charter member of toastmasters, read how to win friends and influence people, even have a natural tendency to word OCD and still we will stumble with our words. As we mature in our faith, we will gain more and more control of our words, filtering them through the Fruit of the Spirit, acting them out as works of love, but, nobody is perfect. Taming our tongues is difficult, but this taming he is talking about is not just about the words we use, it is about being sensitive to using words that are necessary, using words that are gracious and caring, and sometimes remaining silent. The opposite can also be true. Taming the tongue can be about not remaining silent when words should be used. In light of this letter on active spiritual maturity, James is saying that bridling our tongue is the hallmark of spiritual maturity and we’re all in the same battle that nobody has perfected. It is a moment by moment battle in the heart for a sanctification that is so rooted in your innermost being that the grace we have received from Christ is reflected in the words we utter.
The imagery that James goes on to use shows the disproportionate power of the tongue. Bringing in the word pictures of a bridle on a horse or the rudder of a ship, James alludes to how relatively small objects have complete control. More so, these images don’t just talk about control, they speak to direction. In proverbs 4:23 we are told to guard our hearts as everything we do flows from them, and this is good advice. I believe in James’ word pictures, the heart is the power in the horse, or the wind in the sails of the ship. Our tongues have the ability to focus that drive, that power, that desire in a positive or not so positive way. The frightening thing is the disproportionate power the tongue has in shaping the heart. A rudder on a boat only needs to be 1% to 2% of lateral underwater area, and although I do not claim to understand exactly what the means, it does seem to be that straightforward. 1% is all it takes to steer the whole. One moment, one word, one percent has a great amount of ability to give direction from that moment on.
This leads us onto the latter half of verse 5; “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”
I find it a little ironic that in a section speaking about how careful we need to be with words because words have long lasting effects, James chooses to be quite negative in his descriptions. I can only assume it is with such purpose James does so. James must be trying to shock us out of our complacencies, thinking we have a good handle on our tongues, to show us how devastating a misplaced word can be. He must be once again imploring us to understand our need for God’s grace and mercy and asking us to be a good reflection of that grace and mercy in our speech. The tongue, you see, is a world of unrighteousness; it is set on fire by hell.
That seems like quite the overstatement. Let’s see if there’s any support for that position. Let’s start at … the beginning.
Genesis 3: 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Well there were a couple of sentences, from the pit of hell, which caused a world of unrighteousness and changed the direction of mankind forever. Our tongues can chart the course of an entire life, both ours and others. The internet is full of stories of the power words had to shape or crush children as they grew; I’m sure our congregation is as well. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can cost millions in counseling. Furthermore, you can destroy a person’s life quicker by words than you can by any other means. Careless words thrown around, or purposeful ones for that matter, do not even need to be true to quickly destroy all someone has worked tirelessly to achieve. One interesting exercise would be to think through the 10 commandments and see how many of them can be broken by the tongue alone, without lifting a finger or moving an inch. Three alone are obvious, but give it some thought, you might be surprised.
So the tongue set the stage to bring sin into this world, and the tongue alone can be the ongoing source of that sin that separates us from God. It is a world of unrighteousness; it is set on fire by hell. It doesn’t take much time for a small fire to spread destroying everything in its path. Vast amounts of destruction can be caused by the tongue.
Tongues that were meant to express praise remain silent in worship or are deadened in praise. Tongues that were given to speak words of love that then speak words of flattery, lust, and adultery. Tongues given to speak the truth now tell fabrications, a little less than the truth. Tongues that were meant to give, now take, take, take. Tongues that were meant to uphold and edify instead gossip and slander. All too often when we gather and someone’s name comes up, the first words said are rarely the most edifying.
James continues on to describe the deadly inconsistency that plagues the tongue. “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God”. We bless God, but we curse His image. Bless and curse. These are not small words and we should not gloss over them. These are words that describe the serious covenantal purposes of God to bring judgment that leads to hell, or grace that leads to heaven. Here we are blessing God, then cursing those he created in his image. Obsequious on one hand, self serving on the other. (Oh wait, maybe the first one is self serving as well!)
By nature, our problem is that we are double minded; unstable in all our ways (James 1:8). We are like a spring giving out two kinds of water. We are like a tree giving out two kinds of fruit. We see a need to for a savior, prostrating to the one who can save us, but still want to be lord in our dominion, having others bow to us. We just miss the point that to lead is to serve, and that to be in charge is to be in charge not just of those around us, but also of that inside us, over our internal order. We are meant to be in control of our words, how we speak to each other and about each other.
Now as much as I may abhor apt alliteration’s artful aid, let us review what James is teaching us about the tongue before we go on.
James has addressed the difficulty in taming the tongue, the disproportionate power the tongue has in our lives, the destruction caused by the tongue, and the deadly inconsistency that plagues the tongue. The issue goes much further than the wisdom of Thumper’s father in “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” A mature faith as evidenced in a tamed tongue is much more than that, and James does not leave us without a practical guide; it’s just interwoven into the rest of his letter.
If we stand back from this passage and set it into the context of the letter as a whole, we can see that James doesn’t just try to admonish those areas so easily admonished, but he is constantly undergirding his teaching with wise counsel about how we may grow deeper in our faith and use our tongues well. Outside of this passage, there are numerous practical applications on how we can employ our tongues and lips and steer our hearts in a way that will both bring us closer to Christ but by their very nature express Christ to those around us. Follow along with me in James and I’ll show you those practical applications that can help us tame our tongues. Some may seem on the surface to be a stretch as a way of taming the tongue, but as Christians, we are a body, a community. We are to share our burdens with each other and support each other. How we depend on each other is need is definitely part of the taming process.
Let’s start in James 1.
James 1:5 says “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously…” So, one way to use our tongues is to ask God for wisdom.
In light of being a rudder or a bridal, I’m going to state these a little more purposefully and tied into James 3 so this practical application for taming the tongue becomes:
1) I will ask God for wisdom to speak out of a single-minded devotion to him. (1:5)
2) I will boast only in the exultation I receive in Jesus Christ and also in the humiliation I receive for Jesus Christ (1:9-10)
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away.
3) I will be slow to speak and quick to listen (1:19)
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;
4) I will speak impartially to both rich and poor (2:1-4).
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5) I will speak in the present consciousness of my final judgment (2:12)
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
6) I will not be dismissive with the words I employ (2:16)
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
7) I will only claim as done things and been places that which I have actually experienced (3:14)
14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.
8) I will not speak evil about another out of a heard of antagonism (4:11)
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
9) I will not boast about what I will accomplish (4:13) instead I will marvel about providences of God (4:15).
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit … 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
10) I will not grumble (The judge is listening) (5:9)
9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.
11) I will have total integrity in everything I say (5:12)
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
12) I will speak to God in prayer whenever I suffer (5:13)
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
13) I will sing praises to God when I’m cheerful
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
14) I will ask for the prayers of others when I’m in need (5:14).
14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
15) I will confess my failings and pray with others for healing (5:16)
16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
These 15 applications are only the most obvious. If you were to look more closely you may find many more.
The tongue is difficult to tame, disproportionate in the power it wields in our lives, highly destructive and is deadly inconsistent. Yet difficult to tame does not mean impossible, and it is a sign of our maturing faith, and definitely that faith acting in love that can ultimately bridal it. Throughout James we can find many examples of how this mature faith is lived out in the body and in our lives.
Ask for wisdom from God and for prayer from others if your tongue is a little unruly. I know I’ll be asking for help with mine.