THEME: Controlling our speech
TITLE: “Tongue Traits”
TEXT: James 3:1-12
One of the popular ads during the 2011 Super Bowl broadcast was titled “Reply All” by Bridgestone Tires.
Two men are working at their computers in an office cubicle.
One sends an email to the other that triggers a smile followed suddenly by alarm.
“Rod, you sent this email ‘Reply All’. You clicked on ‘Reply All’.”
Rod panics because he has just sent a message to most of the people in his world, a message that was intended for his friend only.
Rod panics and sprints down the hallway, screaming at the top of his lungs.
He runs through a meeting room grabbing laptop computers away from those seated at the table.
This is what you have to do if you send a private email accidentally to most of the people on your contact list.
[Video “Reply All” by Bridgestone Tires]
Like Rod with his email, have you ever communicated anything that you later regretted?
Have you said anything you wished you could take back?
Let’s take a look at some traits of the tongue.
THE TONGUE IS VERY SMALL BUT VERY POWERFUL. (VV.1-4)
James 3:1 = Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
James expresses a concern.
The concern has to do with those who desired to be teachers in the scattered Jewish Christian congregations.
It may have been a common practice for many of the believers to seek to become teachers.
So James warns that they should stop becoming teachers in such large numbers.
It is possible that some who were not qualified were coveting the prestige of teaching.
James warns them that teachers will be judged more strictly.
It is apparent from the phrase “we who teach” that James includes himself as a teacher.
The judgment of teachers will be especially strict because greater responsibility rests on teachers.
The reason for this is that the teacher’s essential instrument is the tongue.
And the tongue, which can be so easily misused, has great influence.
The teacher carries a great responsibility because the tongue is the most difficult member of the body to control.
James 3:2 = We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
The word “stumble” translated from the Greek word ptaio actually refers to acts of sin.
Remember James 2:10: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
James is saying here in verse two that we all sin in many ways.
If anyone could be found who never sins with his tongue, he would never sin in any other way, either.
Since sins of the tongue are the hardest to avoid, anyone who could control his tongue would surely be able to keep his whole body in check.
He would be able to keep his body from being used as an instrument of sin.
We have all heard the old saying, “If you can’t find anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
In an article for Salon.com, Lauren Frey Daisley tried to follow that advice for one month.
She titled her article “My Month of No Snark”.
“Snark” is a slang word that combines the words “snide” and “remark” and it refers to sarcastic comments.
Some people are masters at making snide remarks.
Daisley went to visit her aunt who had Stage 4 breast cancer.
After visiting her aunt, she thought back on the 30 some years she had known her aunt.
In those 30 some years, Daisley had never heard her aunt say anything unkind about anyone.
Daisley began to wonder how holding her own tongue would alter her relationships.
That’s when she began her month long campaign to practice kindness in her speech.
She found it very difficult to live without snark or making snide remarks about people.
Daisley wrote in her article: “It’s so much cooler being sarcastic.”
When we are sarcastic we are sending the message that we are so above this scene or circumstance.
When we are sarcastic we are also sending the message that we are so much above other people.
After Daisley’s month long experiment, she found that remaining snark-free required a great deal of discipline.
James 3:3 = When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
When God created mankind, he gave men and women power to dominate and subdue the earth.
This is why no matter how dangerous an animal is, when it sees a human being, it initially is afraid until it gathers courage to attack.
Another power that God gave to men and women is the power of the spoken word.
James illustrates the powerful influence of the tongue by the practice of putting bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us.
A very small bit “can turn the whole animal.”
I remember riding horses growing up, sometimes with a saddle and sometimes bareback.
I rode horses that responded only by pulling on the reins using the bit in their mouths to turn them.
But some of the horses I rode were trained to respond to the rein touching the side of their neck.
We called those horses neck reined horses.
Instead of yanking on the bridle bit, you simply touched the horses neck with the bridle rein.
I think there are times in our lives where we need the bit in our mouth for us to change the direction of our lives.
Other times, we may respond to a gentle touch of the rein on our neck when we are walking in the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit.
For a horse, a gentle touch of the rein on the neck is a more pleasant experience than the use of the bridle bit.
The same is also true for us.
The next illustration of the influence of the tongue is the rudder of a ship.
James 3:4 = 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.
Three factors made ships of that day difficult to control:
The ships were large.
They were driven by strong winds.
They were steered by a very small rudder.
The rudder was just a small blade extending from the rear of the ship.
Compared to the size of the ship and the power of the wind, the rudder was a very small part of the ship.
Yet it guided the ship wherever the pilot wanted to go.
Two US Navy aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the Dwight D. Eisenhower each weigh over 91,000 tons.
It’s amazing that something that weighs 91,000 tons will float on the water.
They are over 1,000 feet long.
They have a speed of over 30 knots with their nuclear-powered 280,000 horsepower reactors.
Over 6,000 men and women are stationed on each.
The total cost of the Eisenhower commissioned on October 18, 1977 exceeded $2 billion.
As large as these two ships are, they are both turned by one man at the helm controlling a rudder 1/1000th the size of the ship.
A tiny rudder controls the course of these great ships.
THE TONGUE IS VERY SMALL BUT VERY DANGEROUS.
James 3:5 = 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.
Like horses’ bridle bits in v.3 and the rudders of ships in v.4, the tongue also is a small item compared to the rest of the body.
Yet, like bits and rudders, the tongue exerts a powerful influence.
The tongue has the potential to sway multitudes of people.
It can alter the destinies of nations.
The tongue has the potential of having a positive influence.
An example might be Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address.
The tongue also has the potential of having a negative influence.
An example would be Adolph Hitler and his speeches leading to WWII.
The destructive potential of the tongue is graphically pictured by a forest fire.
Like Smoky the Bear, James calls attention to the fact that a large forest can be set on fire by a small spark.
The smallest match or spark can grow exponentially into a blaze that destroys thousands of acres of forest, killing countless animals and often destroying human lives and property.
On October 8, 1871, at about 8:30 in the evening, an oil lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn was kicked over by her cow as she was milking.
The small flickering flame started a small amount of hay on fire.
But the fire spread until all the hay in the barn was on fire.
Before long the building next to the stable was also on fire.
And then the next building and the next and the next.
The fire spread over the river to the main part of Chicago.
The fire spread until within a territory one mile wide and three miles long, there were only 2 buildings standing.
That little flame from that lantern grew and burned over half of the city of Chicago.
17,500 buildings were destroyed.
300 people died.
125,000 were left homeless.
The fires in California are usually started by one of two ways.
One way is arson.
The other cause is usually when the Santa Anna winds start blowing down power lines.
When a power line goes down there is usually a spark and it only takes one spark to start a fire in such a dry climate.
Fire will burn until it runs out of fuel.
To stop the fires of gossip and slander, we have to remove the fuel of wrongly used words.
Proverbs 26:20,21 = Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
James 3:6 = The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
The inflammatory tongue has turned brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and nation against nation.
The tongue is referred to as a world of evil.
It is as though all the wickedness in the whole world were wrapped up in that little piece of flesh.
There are few sins people commit in which the tongue is not involved.
James describes the tongue’s influence as both destructive and as corrupting “the whole person.”
We have been talking a great deal about that piece of flesh in our mouths called the tongue.
The truth is when we sin through the use of our tongue, there is much more involved than just a piece of flesh.
There is behind the action of the tongue an intelligent, communicating mind.
This intelligent, communicating mind uses the tongue as an instrument.
So the mind corrupts the whole person.
But the corrupting influence of the tongue reaches out in widening circles because it sets the whole course of his life on fire.
Finally, at the end of verse 6, James traces the inflaming nature of the tongue back to its source.
The tongue is “set on fire by hell.”
It is a way of saying that it comes from the devil.
The word “hell” is actually translated from gehenna which comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew name of the valley of Hinnom.
The valley of Hinnom was a spot just south of Jerusalem where the rubbish of the city was deposited and burned.
This continual burning of rubbish became a figure for eternal punishment.
James 3:7,8 = All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
The writer James shifts from discussing the power of the tongue to discussing the perversity of the tongue.
One’s inability to tame the tongue shows the perversity of the tongue.
At creation God gave man the responsibility to rule over the animals.
All kinds of animals have been tamed and trained by people but the tongue no one can tame.
Because of the Fall, mankind has lost dominion over himself.
Verse 8 says that no man can tame the tongue.
That means that no one can by himself or herself subdue the tongue.
This doesn’t mean that God cannot bring it under control.
Those who know Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.
The tongue can be controlled by the indwelling Holy Spirit if we allow the Spirit to have His way in our lives.
III. THE TONGUE IS VERY SMALL BUT VERY REVEALING.
James 3:9,10 = With the same tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
The perversity of the tongue is revealed through its inconsistency.
We use the same instrument to praise God and to curse people who are made in God’s image.
This should not be.
James is speaking to Christians.
He is addressing them as “brothers.”
It means that these brothers, these Christians that James is addressing are not allowing the Holy Spirit to have His way in their lives.
If we cannot go 24 hours without drinking alcohol, we are addicted to alcohol.
If we cannot go 24 hours without smoking, we are addicted to nicotine.
Similarly, if we cannot go 24 hours without saying unkind words about others, we may have a “snark” addiction.
When we have a “snark” addiction, snide remarks are a part of our vocabulary.
James 3:11,12 = Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
James again turns to nature for his illustrations.
He asks “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”
He may have had in mind the Dead Sea which contains salt water.
James concludes his discussion of the tongue by going behind the physical organ of the tongue to the real source of speech.
He asks “Can a fig tree bear olives?”
No! A plant produces according to its nature, whether figs, grapes, or any other fruit.
In the same way “a salt spring” cannot “produce fresh water” because it is not a fresh water spring.
Therefore, out of the mouth of one who has a clean heart come good words.
But out of the mouth of one who has a sinful heart come sinful words.
Proverbs 10:19 = When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. NIV
This is what Jesus said:
. . . I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. Matthew 12:36,37
Gossip is much too common.
Here are some suggestions for avoiding gossip:
Watch out for places and situations where gossip usually takes place:
With close friends.
At the family dinner table.
In small, unstructured Bible studies.
With a group after church in a home or a local restaurant.
Do not allow gossip to go unchallenged.
Most of us are afraid of offending the gossiper.
Some ways to challenge the gossiper include:
The constructive approach: “Now, how can we help this person?”
The subtle approach: Smile and say, “May I quote you on that?”
The Matthew 18:15 approach: “Have you gone to this person privately?”
The concerned approach: “If so and so knew we were talking about them in this way, they would be really hurt!”
When talking about others, we need to always ask ourselves, “Are we gossiping?”
Are we talking about ways we can help this person?
As we mention this person are we lifting them up or tearing them down?
Would we be comfortable if this person were to walk in on our conversation? Would we stop talking?
4. After talking about this person, can we now pray for this person?
God didn’t place other people on this earth for our entertainment, but for our love.
May God help us be more sensitive to others and avoid the sin of gossip and slander.