In my last few posts I’ve shared some practical insights from the book of James. We talked about how to handle problems, how to face temptation, and how to move from hearing to doing. In this post I want to tackle another hot topic from James’ letter: Words. The words we speak have the power to shape not only our lives but the lives of others too. Whether it’s fellow employees, our family, or our friends, words often set the temperature of our interactions.
The New Testament letter of James provides some important insight on the tongue and the power of our words. In James’ day, Jewish leaders often referred to the tongue as an arrow because it could kill or do great harm from a distance. James begins his discourse on the tongue with a warning:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)
Why would James start his discourse on the tongue with a warning to teachers? Perhaps it’s because teachers talk…alot. Saying something wrong with one or two friends is bad enough. But saying something wrong when you’re teaching an entire group of people is even worse. The larger your platform of influence, the greater potential good (or harm) you can do with your words. And when teachers misuse that platform, James says we “will be judged more strictly.” He wasn’t discouraging people from teaching, but rather putting the responsibility of teaching in context. James continues:
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. (James 3:2)
All of us know that none of us is perfect. So when James says, “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man…” he doesn’t mean that he’s a sinless person. The word “perfect” actually means “complete” or “mature”. The idea is that when a person is able to control his speech, he demonstrates maturity of heart. Jesus reinforced this same concept:
“How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded? It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words.” (Matthew 12:34, The Message)
From here, James offers a number of thoughts about the tongue by making four comparisons:
1. The Tongue is Like a Bit and a Rudder
James begins his comparison with these words:
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. (James 3:3-5)
In the same way that a bit controls the direction of a horse and a rudder controls the direction of a ship, the tongue controls the direction of our lives. And while that sounds easy, we know it’s very difficult. Why? Because your mouth gives voice to your nature. We all have a sin nature that wants to do its own thing, and our mouth fights continuously to verbalize whatever our sin nature wants to do. The tongue directs our lives.
2. The Tongue is Like a Fire
Not only is the tongue like a bit and a rudder, it’s also resembles a fire. James 3:5b-6 says:
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 person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
James begins with the word “Consider” which implies paying close attention to what he’s about to say. He wants us to consider the fact that the tongue is like a spark that gives birth to a huge fire. Fire can be extremely destructive. Consider the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
On the evening of October 8th, a fire started in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn. A news reporter embellished the story, saying that the fire started when O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern. While the cause of the fire is in question, the results are not. By the time the fire was contained on the morning of October 10th, it had destroyed 73 miles of roads, 2,000 lamp posts, 17,500 buildings, and $222 million of property. Approximately 300 people died and of the 300,000 inhabitants in Chicago, 100,000 were left homeless. What started as a small fire in a barn ultimately wiped out 3.3 square miles.
How could a fire burn for so long? Because fire has the ability to reproduce itself as long as there’s something to burn. James made a similar observation about the tongue:
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. (James 3:6)
How does that happen? Think about it! If a fire started in the kitchen of your home, and it was left to burn for a few minutes, it would destroy the entire kitchen before the fire department could arrive. But the damage would extend far beyond the kitchen. How? Because the smoke from the fire would permeate the walls of every other room in the house.
The tongue is the same way. As long as there’s something to talk about, something to gossip about, someone to slander, or someone to verbally assault, the tongue will continually reproduce destruction. The tongue is a fire but the smoke of the tongue’s destruction will permeate every other part of your life. That’s why James said, “…It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire…”
Here’s the point: Your ability, or lack of ability, to control the words that come out of your mouth not only impacts the condition of your life but also impacts the environment you create for those who you influence.
Tom Rath and Donald Clifton captured this truth powerfully in their book, How Full is Your Bucket where they explain the theory of the dipper and the bucket. According to Rath and Clifton, each of us has an invisible bucket that is emptied and filled by the words and actions of others, ultimately increasing or decreasing positive emotions. They also suggest that we each have an invisible dipper. With the dipper we can fill others’ buckets (with positive words and actions) or dip from others’ buckets (with negative words and actions). Interestingly, when we use the dipper to fill others with words of life, we actually fill our own buckets too. The point is clear: Your words, and the words of others, direct the relationships, productivity, and health of our lives.
Psalm 141:3 says, “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” The tongue may be difficult to control, but when the tongue comes under Christ’s control, we have, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the ability to speak words of life. It’s better to fight a fire with words of life than go around setting new fires.
3. The Tongue is Like an Untamed Animal
James’ discourse on the tongue continues in verses 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.
When James said the tongue is “restless” he used a word that means “unstable.” This is the same word that was used in James 3:8 when it talks about a “double-minded man” unstable in all his ways. James is saying that the tongue is double-minded…on one hand it wants to speak GOOD but on the other hand it’s like DEADLY POISON. Proverbs 18:21 captures it best: “The tongue has the power of life and death…”
4. The Tongue is Like a Split Personality
Finally, James concludes his observations about the tongue with one final analogy:
With the 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. (James 3:9-10)
In James’ day, devout Jews would repeat a specific set of prayers three times a day. Each of these 18 different prayers ended with the same phrase: “Blessed be thou, O God.” It didn’t make sense to James that these devout believers would declare God’s praises three times a day and then turn around and curse men.
To make his point, James said, “…and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.” James was saying that when we gossip about people, when we slander people, when we backbite people, and when we curse people, we are attacking GOD’S CREATION who was made in GOD’S LIKENESS. Genesis says that God created us in His image. By using our words to assault people, we are indirectly saying to God, “You messed up on your creation, and I’m going to make that point clear with my words.”
Not only was blessing God one minute and cursing people the next wrong, it’s not even natural. Verses 11 & 12 say:
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.
The obvious answer to all of these questions is “No!” And the same is true for you and for me today. If we’ve surrendered our lives to Christ, then out of our mouths should only flow words of life. Our tongue should lose its split personality and be used to build up the people around us.
So let’s bring this home:
- In your conversations with your spouse, are you speaking words of life or words of death?
- When you make posts on Twitter or Facebook, are you writing words that build up or words that tear down?
- When you talk to your fellow employees, do your words make your work environment more enjoyable or more frustrating?
- When you talk to your kids, do your words put emotional energy in their sails or do they drain them of hope?
To begin making a shift in your vocabulary, consider praying the following “Words of Life” prayer for the next seven days:
Lord, Proverbs 18:21 says that the tongue has the power of life and death. Today help me to speak words of life to the people I know and the people I meet, for all of them were created in your image. Guard my mouth so that I say nothing displeasing or dishonorable. Holy Spirit, give me the strength to tame my tongue and give me the help to speak wisely.
Question: What insights would you add about the words we speak?