Proverbs 15:4 “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”
With ease, words spill from our lips, once out, their impact inevitable, cautioning us to speak with intention for good and for the glory of God, to build and not to tear down.
Today we delve into James 3:1-12, a passage that teaches us the power and influence of the tongue and cautions us against words that can undermine our message of the love and saving grace of Christ.
James 3:1 “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
James begins with an instruction that being a teacher of the word is something that is not meant for everyone. We know that not all are called to be teachers of the word, but James’s words allude to those wanting the position of the teacher for the sake of its position rather than it being a platform of service for the Lord and to the people.
Ephesians 4:11-12 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Those that teach are to equip and build up, not to gain position, power or feel pride. We understand that James refers to those who take on the role of teaching the word in a more formal capacity as their words have influence over many. But for each one of us who might play a smaller role within the church of a bible study leader or in some form teach the word, be it to family, friends, or on social media, may we remember that our responsibility to share the word should always remain in alignment with scripture and it must be exercised with a caution to practicing what is preached and should never be callously regarded. James’s words remind us that we are never to covet the position (teacher of scripture) for self but rather in service and for the glory of God.
And why does James caution us so, the latter part of that verse gives us the answer, because those who teach will be judged more strictly. James’s warning is not to make one fearful but to make one reverent of the responsibility of carrying the message of Christ.
James 3:2 “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.”
Is anyone never at fault – no. We all stumble. This verse reminds us that the easiest thing to do is to stumble in our speech, either about ourselves (boatful or prideful), or about others (gossip, slander, criticism, insensitive words). We all stumble, but we are to press on to a better walk with Christ. For those who sit under the teaching of someone – remember that they too will stumble, so more than critical, hurtful words, words filled with grace and prayers require to be extended.
James then goes on to use three metaphors to describe the tongue’s controlling influence.
James 3:3-6 “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.”
Three small things – a bit, a rudder and a spark, that control large things – a horse, a ship and a forest fire respectively. Similarly, the tongue, small in size, has the power to lead the whole person towards a certain direction, as Proverbs 18:6-7 says “The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. The mouth of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives.”
As the tongue can have such influence over our whole self, it would also mean that when our tongue in controlled, we are able to exercise more control over our whole self (verse2). James writes in verse 8 that although man has managed to tame many animals, the tongue remains untameable. Only by the grace of God can the tongue be tamed. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that self-control is a fruit of the spirit. According to James, when we apply self-control to our words, they have a trickle-down effect to other areas of our lives.
We have seen that the tongue can be powerful and destructive, but James also teaches us that the tongue can be inconsistent.
James 3:9-12 “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 salt water 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.
Is there a disconnect between our words of worship on Sunday in church, in our bible study groups, among Christian friends and the words that come out about others behind their backs. Is there a disconnect in how we talk about our saviour and the very ones he came to save? These above verses in James teach us that just controlling our speech alone on the surface is not what God is after, but to reflect on the content of our heart, because out of the overflow of our heart words will flow (Luke 6:45). If our worship and our words do not meet as one, pleasing to the Father, then a reflection of what lies within is needed.
Proverbs 12:18 says “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Words can hurt but they can also heal. We have a choice in how we use them. In our own strength we will falter, but with the power of the Spirit we can exercise control over our words and grow in self-control and spiritual maturity.