Taming the Tongue

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!

My thoughts on James 3

How many times do you find yourself thinking: “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that to or about so-and-so” or “Maybe I could’ve worded that criticism in a kinder, more constructive way?” Perhaps snide comments you made out of spite or envy have gotten you into trouble. Well, you are not alone. I, too, have suffered from diarrhea of the mouth. We all have a sinful nature, a “restless evil” within us that poisons everything that we think, say and do. I’d wager that everyone on the planet has at some point in their life said things in a foul humor to someone else that they regret afterward.

Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:7-8 (EHV)

My friends, this is a prime example of how desperately we all need Jesus Christ. Our vilest thoughts are always seeking expression and often burst out of our mouths despite our best efforts to cage them. We cannot tame the sinful nature on our own. Only Jesus vanquished that ravening beast.

It’s bad enough to think nasty and hateful thoughts about others, but once you utter the deplorable words aloud to someone it is too late to call them back. You might regret what you said as soon as you say it, but the fact of the matter remains: you spewed forth vitriol with the intent to harm. Unless your companion is completely oblivious to reality you most likely – at the very least – hurt their feelings. At worst, you have irrevocably marred your relationship with that individual and their perception of you and by extension whatever group with which you are affiliated. We are judged by others based on our words and deeds among them. This is especially true for pastors of church congregations and anyone who is prominently in the public eye. James, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, points out this struggle:

3 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. To be sure, we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a fully mature man, able to bridle his whole body as well.

James 3:1-2 (EHV)

The words we use and the way in which we speak shapes our relationships with other people and their perception of us ever after. Furthermore, how we choose to wag our tongues reinforces the spirit or attitude in which we speak, feeding back into our own unique worldview. You’ve probably heard the phrase “garbage in, garbage out” right? Well, I believe when one constantly vomiting forth negativity one also has a tendency to feed upon the same. Even worse, we not only hurt ourselves and others by giving voice to our spitefulness but we damage our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit inspired James to warn us that if left unchecked we could lose our faith and our wagging tongues will steer us straight into hell.

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they will obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Although they are very big and are driven by fierce winds, yet they are guided by a very small rudder, wherever the pilot wants to go. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it also boasts great things. Consider how a little flame can set a large forest on fire! And the tongue is a fire. It is set among the parts of our body as a world of unrighteousness that stains the whole body, sets the whole course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James 3:3-6 (EHV)

The imagery James uses here isn’t accidental. The bits used to control horses – a large animal – are rather small pieces of metal. The rudder is a relatively small plank of wood but a single person can use it to steer a huge vessel in the water. And I think we all learned from Smokey Bear how a single small flame can set an entire forest on fire. James likens our tongues – our words – to a fire capable of raging out of control. We can all agree that words have more power than we’d like to think, sometimes. If left unchecked, our tongues can stain the rest of our members with unrighteousness through lies, sarcasm, ridicule, gossip, and approval of evil actions. Garbage in, garbage out, and garbage back in again in a vicious cycle.

It is difficult to think of our tongues “guiding” us anywhere, isn’t it? Don’t our brains consciously control everything that we say? Well, yes. But what James is really telling us is that we need to exercise self-control. And for that we need to ask God for help, because we cannot do this on our own. Not for long, at any rate…just up until the point that we have to interact with another person.

Indeed, every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is being tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one is able to tame the human tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who are made in the likeness of God. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 A spring does not pour out both fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree bear olives, my brothers, or can a grapevine produce figs? A salt spring cannot produce fresh water either.

James 3:7-12 (EHV)

Our words often show us to be hypocrites, don’t they? I praise God in a church service on Sunday mornings and not two hours later I’m cussing out someone for their failure to follow basic traffic laws. In front of my children, to boot! It is so easy to slip into unwholesome talk, diabolically easy when we are among those who thrive on malicious gossip. I have been guilty of feeling a delicious thrill when I heard some juicy, secret detail from someone’s life that really isn’t any of my business. Sarcasm is also one of my guilty pleasures; it is a popular form of humor that never seems to get old. Unfortunately, it is difficult to trust a sarcastic person because you can never be entirely certain that what they are saying is what they truly mean. But trust me when I say this: we as Christians have to maintain constant vigilance over our tongues and pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

13 Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but it is worldly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 In fact, where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who practice peace.

James 3:10-18 (EHV)

Everywhere we turn – on the Internet, the television, the radio – we hear people saying nasty things about each other. Some of these nasty things might even be true. But in what spirit are these facts presented to the masses? Is it merely to entertain or provoke impassioned responses and thereby gain glory through a multitude of “followers” who “like” the information that one shares? Are people speaking out of a sincere desire to help or warn others of danger, or are they spreading negativity out of envy or selfish ambition? In this day and age, Christians – all of us, really – need to watch very carefully what we share on social media as well as the words that come out of our mouths.

And not just to save ourselves from looking like idiots. Although that might be a lost cause, in my case.

James might seem to dwell on the negative side of the tongue’s power, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s not all bad news. Never forget the power of God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit kindles saving faith in unbelieving hearts and nourishes the struggling saint-sinner’s soul. We are empowered by faith in Christ to use the power of words for good, too! We can encourage peace rather than saying things in order to get people riled up. Even when it is necessary to rebuke someone or speak on an unpleasant topic, we can do so discretely and with compassion, always keeping the best interests of others in mind. We can avoid perpetuating vicious rumors – no matter how juicy – and avoid those conversations whenever possible.

Or, when all else fails in a tricky social situation and you don’t know what to say, you can always fall back on my great-grandma’s advice:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Day of Pentecost

I apologize for the late blog post; yesterday I was attending the graduation party for a person very special to me.

The Holy Spirit descends

Thus begins the season of Pentecost, which is the non-festival half of the church year. The first Pentecost occurred 50 days (Pentecost comes from the Greek pentÄ“kostÄ“, meaning “fiftieth”) after Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter. Just before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples to stay in Jerusalem because He would send the Holy Spirit to them. Sure enough, the Day of Pentecost arrived, and with it came the Holy Spirit in a sound like rushing wind and tongues of fire hovering over the apostles’ heads! In addition to the physical sign, He enabled the apostles to speak in many different languages so that they could proclaim the gospel message to Jews from different lands. And not only this, but thanks to the Holy Spirit, the apostles were able to fully understand everything that Jesus had taught them. If you are interested in learning about this miracle in more detail, the entire account is recorded in the first few chapters of the book of Acts.

The Holy Spirit is a heart transplant surgeon

Oddly enough, the sermon for today’s service was not on Acts 2. This morning, the pastor preached Psalm 51. Now, in order to understand the significance of this psalm, you first have to read 2 Samuel 11, which is the account of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba (who of course gets pregnant), and after all his finagling fails, the king then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in order to cover up his first crime. In the next chapter, the prophet Nathan rebukes the king with an allegory. The end result is that David repents of his sin and goes on to write a beautiful psalm.

Verses 10-12 and 17 are particularly of note:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me from your presence

    or take your Holy Spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation

    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12 (NIV)

The sacrifices God wants are a broken spirit.

A broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17 (Evangelical Heritage Version)

The NIV uses the word “contrite” instead of crushed in verse 17. I used a different translation for the last verse because even though the message is the same, the imagery of a broken and crushed heart is much more profound. King David had committed horrible sins and he was sick unto death because of the guilt crushing him. Now, not everyone is guilty of such serious crimes as adultery compounded by murder, but this is how we should feel about any kind of sin. Even those sins that the world claims are “not so bad” or denies are actually sins in this enlightened age of secularized society. After all, nowadays it is okay to live in ways that God frowns upon because nobody appears to get hurt.

But David knew better. He knew the agony and torture of his guilty conscience. He knew that even above and beyond what he had done to harm Bathsheba and Uriah, that his sins hurt God.

Well, now that our hearts are pulverized beyond all recognition due to guilt and grief, how do we continue to survive? Even the most ignorant person knows that you can’t live without a heart! But who will give us a new heart? When one receives a new kidney, there is a chance that the donor is still alive. However, whenever a patient has a heart transplant, you know that the donor gave up their life in order that another should live.

This is what Jesus Christ did for us. He died that we might live. And this is where God the Holy Spirit comes in. He is the heart transplant surgeon. He replaces our broken and crushed heart with a newly created one…from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who died that we might live forever with Him in heaven.

On a more “earthly” note, my toilet gardens are blooming! Go ahead and laugh. If you have any comments, please post them.