The Tongue: Friend or Foe?


Text: James 3

Reader: Ceres Guerrero

There’s an old joke about a ship that, sailing past a deserted island, spots a man who has been stranded alone on that island for several years. When the ship lands, the captain goes ashore to rescue the man and he notices 3 huts. The captain asks the castaway, “Why are there three huts if you are living here by yourself?” The castaway points to one and says, “That’s my house.” He points to the second hut and says, “That’s my church.” The captain, confused, interrupts, “But, what about the third hut?” The castaway replies, “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to until some words were exchanged.”

Sadly, the Bible contains too many examples of churches being places where “words were exchanged”. But our passage today will remind us that we can say “some words”, or use our tongues, our speech, for both good and for evil. Perhaps no more explicit and direct portrayal of the power of language and the sins of the tongue can be found than in what we will read today. We have already heard James address the topic of our tongues, our words:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. (James 1:19)

The formula of being quick to listen and slow to speak seemingly leads to less anger. Well, we all know that to be true. Back to James:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

Ooh, that is a strong statement, and James will build on it in chapter 3. The thing to remember was the historical context behind James writing his letter was that several thousand Christians, though not the apostles, had been forced to flee for their lives from Jerusalem, with zero days’ notice, as religious refugees. They settled in Judea and Samaria, Phoenicia, Antioch in Syria, and across the Sea in Cyprus.

As they fled, those Christians were leaderless, penniless, and no doubt fearful and stressed. The fact that James writes to them about their tongues and words gives us a clue that probably, just as in the castaway story I began with, in those scattered churches, ill-advised and harsh words had been spoken. James writes, reminding them about the power of the tongue, specifically the destructive power of negative, unwise words, but he also talks about the healing power of positive, Godly words. Earlier, James had written that “religion God accepts as pure and faultless” involves keeping a “tight rein on our tongues” and the doing of good deeds such as looking after orphans and widows. The people James was writing to were Christians, so he was not saying that doing good deeds would save them, but that, as people who had, in their conversions, been transformed by Jesus, good should flow out from within them. Building on that thought, we will now here James equates Godly, positive words to good deeds and negative words as a kind of bad deed. James starts chapter 3 by admitting that he was concerned about some of the people in those scattered churches who had stated that they wanted to be the teachers/pastors of those churches. James was concerned because their words, the things they said, were not a good witness to others.

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:1,2)

The lifestyles lived, and words spoken, by church leaders James sets against the sobering truth that leaders “will be judged more strictly”. Why is that? Because what leaders’ model and say informs others as to how they can live or what they can say. People who speak in an ungodly manner cannot be allowed to be leaders in churches. James’ concern expressed here is not just for leaders, but for everyone – “We all stumble in many ways” – which means that “we all stumble with verbal recklessness” – and the tongue is a very powerful tool, as James goes on to illustrate.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (3:3-6)

A thing so small exerts a disproportionate influence when compared to its size. A horses’ bit, a ships’ rudder, a tiny spark causing a destructive forest fire, a body’s tongue. The word James uses for “hell” is the same one we heard in earlier sermons both Jeremiah and Jesus use, namely “Gehenna”. Gehenna was an illustration of what hell was like. It was a valley and garbage dump outside Jerusalem which burned with perpetual fire underneath its surface. It smelled horribly for not only was it Jerusalem’s garbage dump but it was also a type of crematorium for it was used as an offering place in which the ancient Israelites placed their young children into burning ovens. Those children were offered as burnt offerings to the pagan gods Molech and Baal in a vain attempt to please and appease them. The implication in James’ usage of Gehenna for hell and using it in relation to our bad words is that such is inherently connected to evil and spiritually wickedness. Can the human tongue ever be tamed?

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7,8)

James says here that the human tongue cannot be tamed, but later he will qualify that and show how it can be tamed. First, though, he points out the incongruity of how human tongues can be used to do evil or to praise God.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:9-12)

James is on a bit of a rampage here. Clearly, he is alarmed about things being said in the churches he was writing to but he makes the point that the tongue can be controlled, depending on it being connected to/planted in God. The source from which speech flows determines if one’s words are good or bad. If you have a fig tree, don’t expect it to produce olives. If you have a grapevine, don’t expect it to produce figs. And, if you have a pond spring or pond full of salt water, don’t expect it to produce fresh water. If you want olives, you must plant and then cultivate an olive tree. If you want figs, you must plant and then cultivate a fig tree. And, if you want fresh water, you must dig down until you find fresh water and then fill your pond with that good water. The only hope for obtaining a good and Godly result with your tongue, your words, is to start them in a good source: God. By connecting one’s life with God, by planting oneself in God, we can speak words that build up, are positive, life-giving, and Godly.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from

wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)

If your words are “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” it is because you are not connected to the right source, to God. If you want to be righteous, positive, and one who builds up others in your words, you can do so – if you are connected to God. When we turn to God, His wisdom will flow to us and out of us. Words of purity, peacefulness, gentleness, respectfulness, a submissive attitude that honours God and others, mercy and good fruits, impartial/unwavering, sincere, unhypocritical words will flow from us. Note that James is not offering a new set of skills. What he is saying is straightforward and simple: Who do you want to serve? God or evil? What do you want to have come out of mouth? Words from heaven or from Gehenna? The issue is how connected we are to the Lord.

At the very end of his letter, in the final two verses of chapter five, James states that our Godly words, combined with good deeds, have the power to do good, specifically, James’ mentions, to restore a wayward believer, one who has strayed, back into the faith.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19,20)

Who are we? Well, we should be connected to God, but, you may recall that in the first chapter of his letter, James reminded his readers that when they had come to faith in Jesus, the Lord transformed them.

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all he created. (James 1:16-18)

Like the prophet Isaiah, who had his mouth and lips cleansed from sin by God, and was then told that because he was now a new type of person, he could use his mouth, his tongue, his words, for good, for the spreading of God’s words. God asked, “Who will go for me?” Isaiah answered, because he had been transformed, “I will go. Send me!” Likewise, James reminds us that Jesus transformed us at our conversion. He has done a cleansing of our mouths and hearts, and so we are fully ready to go and speak for him and to serve him and to speak Godly words, have Godly tongues, at all times. When we came to him in conversion faith, Jesus cleansed us and made us a “first fruits of all he created”. Being Christ’s first fruits is who we really are.

The ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, told a helpful fable to illustrate this point. He wrote: Once upon a time, a donkey found a lion’s skin. He tried it on, strutted around, and frightened many animals. Soon a fox came along, and the donkey tried to scare him, too. But the fox, hearing the donkey’s braying voice, said, “If you want to terrify me, you’ll have to disguise your bray.” Aesop’s moral of the story was this: Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.

Our words will either say that we are Christ’s “first fruits”, the very best of his crops, or we can be fools braying like a donkey pretending to be a lion. We are better than Aesop’s braying donkeys. We have been transformed by Jesus. We are his first fruits. Praise the Lord!

So, I ask, is your tongue your friend or your foe? Does it build up others? Does it glorify God? Does it witness to who you are: a follower of Jesus Christ? His first fruits? Do your words sound like a person belonging to Jesus? At the end of the day, spiritual maturity is proven in our words, what we do with our tongue. It is as simple as that!

Aesop, in his fable, was correct in that our speech and the type of wisdom that governs our lives displays who we are. But Aesop’s solution to a bad tongue lay in admitting who you really are. James built on that but saying that actually the solution is laying claim to who we are in Christ. The control of one’s tongue is impossible apart from God. No human can control their tongue fully unless God is involved. Redeemed speech, wise words, wisdom itself, only come from the work of the Redeemer, the Redeemer being Jesus. So, let us connect ourselves to Him. If we slip up on occasion and Gehenna sourced words come from our mouth, the Lord, our Redeemer Jesus, can overcome that and restore us into being the kind of person we really are and should be. For His glory, I pray this. Amen!

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