James 3—the Power of the Tongue
In my favorite old TV series from the fifties, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is always getting himself in trouble. At the end of most episodes his wise wife Alice always asked him how he ever got into such a mess, and he replies, “Because I’ve got a big mouth!” There is a lot of truth in that for all of us, because in our pride we are prone to brag about ourselves and/or criticize others. Ben Franklin once said, “A slip of the foot you soon recover, but a slip of the tongue you may never get over.” We are all aware of the lusts of the flesh, but a subtle deceptive lust was voiced by the great theologian Augustine, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” We all want the last word in any discussion, and we all have a desire to be proven right about everything we think. In James chapter 3, he personifies the tongue as representative of the depravity of the inner person. It provides the easiest way to sin. The mouth is innately uncontrollable and untamable. It is inconsistent with who we want to be and who we claim to be.
Jesus’ Teaching on What we Say
In Matthew 12:34-37, Jesus admonished the Pharisees for the evil things they said about Him. The importance of what you say is emphasized by Jesus’ teaching that “every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment.” Another important point He made was that “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart”. He was saying that the evil things they were saying revealed the evil in their heart. Later in Matthew 15:7-20, the Pharisees get cross ways with Jesus by asking in a critical way why Jesus and His disciples did not do the washing ceremony before they eat. They had developed a tradition of making a great show of washing themselves ceremonially before eating, but Jesus did not conform to their tradition. In answer to their question, Jesus gathered the multitude around Him to teach and correct the Pharisees. He told them that it wasn’t the food that they put into their mouth that made them spiritually clean or unclean, but “what proceeds out of the mouth that defiles the man”. In further explanation He taught them that the food that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated; but the things that you say come from your heart, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, thefts, false witness, and slander.” In Mark’s account the author adds that Jesus also declared all foods clean, meaning that the New Covenant of Jesus ended the Kosher eating laws of Moses.
The Importance of Teaching the Truth
In James’ epistle, he continues in chapter 3 to go over the tests of faith in the Christian’s life. A very important issue is what you say, how you say it, and why you say it. Typically in the world, many of the things people say are intended to deceive. Usually people have a personal agenda that dictates what they say. Car salesmen tell us their cars are the best, people on trial always say they are innocent, and sports fans yell out that their team is number one. Closer to home, all of us brag about our children, and we all think our kid should get more playing time on whatever team they are on. Yet in the spiritual realm these “agendas” should be dropped. The clearest example is the teachers of God’s Word, and in James 3:1, he wrote, “Let not many of you become teachers…knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment.” It is of the utmost importance that your ministers and teachers take great care and effort to teach the Word carefully and correctly, and out of the proper motivation. Obviously, the negative example of this, or we could say the “how not to teach”, is the televangelists who have an obvious agenda of inducing people to send in money. The accountability of teachers is great because they are entrusted with the Word of God, and to improperly use that stewardship for personal gain or selfishly in any way will incur a stricter judgment.
In James 3:2, he makes it clear how difficult and important it is to say the right thing and have a godly motivation in everything we say. James wrote that all of us “stumble” to varying degrees. By this he is stating that we all are sinners, and we are all selfish, but the mature believer is able to “bridle” or control the tongue.
Six Images of the Power of the Tongue
In James 3:3-12, the author uses six metaphors to make his point of how important it is to control what we say. The tongue is a relatively small thing but has amazing power to direct, control, and destroy. The first image is the bit that we put in the horse’s mouth to direct it. The bit is but a few ounces, but it directs a 1000 pound animal. In the same way, our tongue weighs about four ounces but directs humans weighing hundreds of pounds. Large ships are directed by small rudders. These huge ships that weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds are steered by a small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Both the bit and the rudder have the power to direct just like the tongue is able to direct large people and large numbers of people.
In verse 5-8, a tiny spark can set an entire forest on fire or start a fire in a large building that destroys everything. I read somewhere that for every word Hitler spoke, hundreds of lives were lost. The tongue has the terrible power to destroy like nothing else on earth. In verses 7-8, he says that the human race has the power to control every species of dangerous animals, reptiles, and birds; but no one has been able to tame the power of the tongue. Throughout history men like Hitler have caused wars, and closer to home, we all struggle in our relationships to have peace because of the hurtful things that are said.
At this point, James stops to make the observation about the inconsistencies of what we say. With our mouths we bless God, and then turn around and curse men. God has given all believers a stewardship to love each other and we believe that, but we are easily provoked to curse each other. So far today I have already cursed a guy who cut me off on the Toll Road and a guy who stole a parking space from me, and it is just 10 am. How many times have we all gone to church Sunday morning and sincerely worshipped and praised God, but on the way home argued intensely with each other about where we’re going to eat lunch or what we would do that afternoon? In verse 10, he delivers his conclusion that “these things ought not to be this way”. This is his comment about the inconsistency of what we know we should say and do versus what we really say and do. One of the great negative examples of this in Scripture is Simon Peter in Matthew 16:16-23. Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He is, and Peter correctly said that Jesus is the anointed one of God, and the Son of God. Then Jesus told them He would be crucified to take away the sins of the world, and Peter defied Him by saying no way we will let that happen to you. Jesus then admonished Peter by saying “Get behind Me Satan…for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Paul said it well in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are in opposition to one another”. We will always have a certain tension between our selfish desires and the will of God. This is why this issue demands so much of our attention and effort, and of course this is James’ purpose to get us to evaluate ourselves and work on growing spiritually.
The last two images James uses to make his point are the water fountain and the fig tree. When you are thirsty and go to a fountain for a cool refreshing drink you expect cool clean water, but what would you think if it was bitter and dirty? If you saw a fig tree from a distance, wouldn’t you expect to find figs on it? What if it had olives? His point is that all of nature is consistent except our big mouth (as Jackie Gleason would say). If our tongue is inconsistent, it reveals the true nature of the heart.
The tongue is you in a very unique way. We are all constantly apologizing and saying things like excuse me or “I beg your pardon”. Many of us respond verbally without thinking. Most people are proud that they say exactly what’s on their mind. I remember way back 40 years ago when Monday Night Football had Don Meredith and Howard Cosell as commentators. Cosell took great pride in spouting out outrageous critical comments, and one night when Meredith called him out on something, Cosell said “Just telling it like it is!” To which Meredith responded, “You have a toupee, false teeth, a face lift, and a name change, but you are telling it like it is?” What we say betrays or confirms who we really are. Other sins are restrained by opportunity, but there is no limit to the damage our tongue can do, therefore it is imperative that we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit who is guiding us to observe and obey the Scripture which says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word which is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)