INTRODUCTION: In northern New Mexico, at around 5 AM on July 16, 1945, the still dark early morning sky became as bright as the noonday sun. In that one blinding flash, the Atomic Age had begun. The atomic fireball shot upwards at 360 feet per second. The characteristic mushroom cloud formed at 30,000 feet. All that remained on the ground at the blast site were chunks of green radioactive glass that had been created by the incredible heat of the explosion. What unbelievably destructive power as was later found out when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. On December 20, 1951, something else spectacular happened. In Arco, Idaho, the still dark sky was brightened with light as well. Yet this time it was brightened by light bulbs powered by the first electricity produced from nuclear energy. Today, 1/5 of America’s electricity comes from nuclear energy. Electricity that powers homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and churches. The uranium that is used in the nuclear reactor that produces that electricity is the same uranium that is used in the atomic bomb. So what’s the difference? It’s how they’re used. When used one way, atomic energy produces tremendous good. But when used another way, it produces the most terrible destruction imaginable. In our passage this morning, James talks about another extremely powerful object—the tongue. Like atomic energy, the tongue is capable of accomplishing great things. But it is also capable of accomplishing destruction. Therefore, it’s important for us to be tongue tamers.
Teachers (Vs. 3:1). One of the reasons James starts out talking about teachers and then goes into talking about taming the tongue is because that is important for any instructor. We are influencing people by our words/teachings. The title of teacher carries with it much responsibility because its main instrument is the tongue and the tongue is a monumentally important tool. However, taming the tongue is important for the rest of us too because on some level we are all teachers. We are all trying to impart our input on others, whether it be as a parent, friend, boss or co-worker. We all may not have the label of ‘teacher’ but we do carry the responsibility of teaching and therefore, carry the necessity of choosing our words carefully, knowing the weight they can carry. We are all influential to someone by what we say. People are listening to what we say. And we have to ask ourselves, as direct or indirect teachers, “do I want people repeating what they hear me say?” A little boy was leaving church one Sunday morning when he slipped a dollar bill into the pastor’s hand. The pastor looked at him confused and asked him, “What’s that for?” The little boy looked up at him and said, “Cuz I felt sorry for you and want to help you out.” That confused him even more, so he asked, “Why do you feel you need to help me out?” Then the boy said, “Cuz my daddy says you’re the poorest preacher he’s ever heard.” We need to choose our words carefully because of impressionable ears.
In Check (Vs. 3:2). How is it that taming the tongue renders someone perfect and having the rest of him in check? Like James said in 1:26 that if a person doesn’t keep a tight rein on his tongue his religion is worthless. The tongue holds so much power and influence. It is so unmanageable. How often do we have those slips of the tongue? We might be keeping ourselves in check in so many areas but find it so difficult to always watch what comes out our mouth. James is saying that if you are so disciplined as to never be at fault in what you say then you have already done well in taming everything else about you-because the tongue is the last beast to tame so once you tame it-you are tamed-period. If you can tame the tongue then the rest of your body will be in check. However, in controlling the tongue James is not advocating for a vow of silence. What he is doing is advocating for wisely chosen words. Prov. 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Let your words be few, but let there be words. Just let them be appropriately timed and not quick. The conqueror of the tongue is not the person who never uses words but the one who uses them wisely. Prov. 17:27a, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint.” We need to keep ourselves in check.
Small but powerful (Vs. 3-5a). One’s tongue can carry a lot of influence. Someone could have eloquent speech and refined rhetoric enough to inspire, motivate and persuade the masses. Charles Rann Kennedy, English playwright, wrote: “There is great power in words. All the things that ever get done in the world, good or bad, are done by words.” With a word things or people can be steered in a different direction. With words we can manipulate people into doing what we want them to do. We might not have the strength to force people to do what we want but with our tongue we can accomplish what we had no power otherwise to do. Our words can carry a lot of weight and can change the course of history. With my words I can win you over; with my words I can get you to do my bidding-with my words. Prov. 18:21a, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” For some people, their words carry so much weight that by their word a person’s life could be spared or it could be taken (Pilate and Jesus). “The tongue is only three inches long but it can kill a man six feet tall.” The tongue is small but very powerful.
Small but destructive (Vs. 5b-8). Prov. 16:27, “A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire.” How is the tongue destructive?
• Through cursing. This is especially true around impressionable little children. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve learned the art of holding your tongue around your kids. Why? Because they know the art of parroting. They repeat what they hear. If out of your mouth come cursing, out of their mouth will come cursing. Shaun’s example when he heard me say, “Oh, crap.” Poem, “I lost a little word just the other day, it was a very nasty word I hadn’t meant to say. But it was not really lost as from my lips it flew; my little brother picked it up, and now he says it too.” My tongue can be destructive because my poorly chosen words can negatively influence someone else.
• Through gossip. As one spark can spread and build into a fire that consumes acres of forest, so too one rumor can build into a fire that spreads and consumes many hearts. And once the damage is done, you can’t reverse it. A man in a small village had been found guilty of starting a malicious rumor about another man. This rumor was not only untrue, but had seriously damaged the other man’s reputation and family. As is often the custom in small villages, the accused was taken before the chief of the village who served as a judge and would hear the case and decide the man’s punishment if found guilty. After hearing the facts of the case, the chief found the accused to be guilty and was now preparing to sentence the man to his punishment. The old, wise chief handed the man a large bag of feathers and told him that his only punishment would be to place a feather on the doorstep of every person to whom he had told the rumor. The man was relieved at such a light punishment and quickly took the bag of feathers and set about his task. Four hours later, the man returned to the king with the empty bag and said, "I completed your task, sir. Is there anything else?" "Yes, the wise chief replied. Report to me in the morning and I’ll give you the second half of your punishment." The man reported the next morning and was instructed that the second half of his punishment was to gather all the feathers back up and place them in the bag. "But sir," the man replied, "didn’t you hear the storm that raged through our village last night? Didn’t you feel the force of the winds that blew? It would be impossible to know where those feathers are now." The wise old chief replied, "Ahh, now you see, my child, the damage that you have done. For although you told only a few lies here and there, the storm of gossip took hold of those lies and spread them far beyond your grasp to undo them. You can regret what you said, but you can never fully undo what you’ve said."
• Through demeaning others. We might never consider actually murdering someone but what we do is we commit murder with our tongue. We belittle and demean each other and kill them with words. With words we can attack our children and kill their spirit, we take away their hope. You’re a screw-up and you’ll always be a screw-up. You’ll never amount to anything. With our sharp tongues we kill our children, our spouse, those around us with hurtful words. They cut like a knife. We bleed until we are drained. Drained of joy; drained of hope; drained of life. Prov. 12:18a, “Reckless words pierce like a sword.” Washington Irving said, “The tongue is the only tool that grows sharper with constant use.” We need to stop speaking words of death and start speaking words of life.
• It corrupts the whole person. (vs.6b) As James said in verse 2 that if we keep our tongue in check our whole body is in check then the opposite is true-if our tongue is not in check but rather on fire, the rest of me will become consumed. Think about it. I remember in high school certain girls who were pretty and attractive until you heard them speak. Just by what was coming out of their mouths it rendered them completely unattractive. So it is with any of us. We can look like we’re all that but if we have potty mouths or ignorant speech we will be a major turn off to any sensible human being. The tongue is a small part of the body but it can corrupt the whole thing.
• Untamed (vs. 7-8). It’s amazing when you think about it. Dangerous animals have been tamed. Ferocious lions can be tamed to jump through burning hoops, grizzly bears can ride on horses, and huge elephants can do handstands. We have a remarkable ability to tame ferocious beasts but can’t get hold of our tongues. This shows me that there’s no way I will be able to hold my tongue apart from the power of God. I can try every way without looking to God and it won’t work. God wants me to understand that I can’t take my words lightly; they can be too volatile. My mouth is invariably out of control without God’s restraint.
Blessing and cursing don’t mix (Vs. 9-12). As oil and water don’t mix, neither do fresh and salt water. Natural springs still remain in the Middle East today. Some produce fresh water, and some produce salt water. However, none produce both. So when it comes to blessing and cursing, our tongues should not produce both. And as improbable it would be for you to find a fig tree bearing olives or a grapevine bearing figs, so should it be equally impossible to find a Christian with a poisonous tongue. What James is saying is that the tongue only reveals what is at its source. Jesus stated it very plainly in Luke 6:43-45. It is a matter of the heart. If I want to know what is inside of me, listen to what comes out of me. Unfortunately, although it is unnatural for the Christian tongue to provide blessing and cursing, it is ashamedly common. “Brothers, this should not be”. Yes, it shouldn’t be, but unfortunately, it is. Peter’s example. With his tongue he praised Jesus by saying he would be willing to die for him. However, just a short time later, he cursed him by denying that he knew him. We praise God on Sunday and then curse at him on Monday. We do the same with our fellow man. We tell him ‘I love you’ in one breath and then ‘I hate you’ in the next. My speech toward you is filled with flowers and flattery until you tell me something I don’t want to hear and them it becomes putrid and poisonous. Why are we like that? Because we’re driven by emotions? Because we’re two-faced? Because our heart is not right? No matter what the cause, it’s unnatural.
How can we tame the tongue?
• Be on guard. Prov. 21:23, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.” We need to learn to hold our tongue. There was a woman who had a very serious throat condition. The doctor told her that her vocal cords needed total rest ¬ she was forbidden to talk for 6 months! With a husband and 6 kids, this seemed impossible, but she did what she was told. When she needed the kids she blew a whistle. Whenever she needed to communicate she wrote things on pads of paper. After six months, her voice came back. When asked what it was like to communicate only in writing, she said this: “You’d be surprised how many notes I crumpled up and threw into the trash before I gave them to anyone. Seeing my words before anyone heard them had an effect that I don’t think I can ever forget.” King David, after seeing how his words got him in trouble wrote this in Psalm 39:1, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth.” While we might not be able to stop talking for six months, we can learn to talk less by putting a muzzle on the muscle in our mouths. If we’re going to tame the tongue, we need to be on guard.
• Be constructive instead of destructive. How can we do that? By building each other up. Eph. 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” It’s so easy to tear someone else down with our words. It’s much easier to say a harsh word than a kind one. Easier to criticize than to edify. Therefore, in order to tame the tongue I must refrain from spewing poison and instead speak kind words that will encourage and build up. 1st Thess. 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.”