James on the Powerful Tongue
Well, even though strictly speaking this is about gossip it is likely we will detour into other areas. In fact, we begin our detour today! It’s hard to separate the sins of the tongue from each other, as they are all very much intertwined. As we begin to take a look at this, I will be drawing heavily on some previous writings I did concerning the Book of James. In fact, it is more or less a rerun of the material, but I think we will find it useful.
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
Taming the The Tongue
James apparently had strong feelings about the role of the tongue, or the words we speak, in the life of the believer. He actually mentions it in every single chapter of his book, in fact. He mentions it in the following passages: 1:19,26; 2:12; 3:5,6,8; 4:11; and 5:12.
Reading what James has to say about our speech and we can see the idea of the tongue not only being the reflection of what is in our hearts, but also representative of the depravity of our nature.
Also, since James’ primary objective with his Epistle seems to be to teach believers how to behave, it follows in line that one of his lessons here is that the ability to control one’s tongue is a mark of a mature believer.
Let’s just take a look at some of the thoughts God shared with us regarding the tongue in His Word for today’s devotional.
When Paul was illustrating to us all our fallen condition, in Romans 3:13-15, he listed 5 organs of the body which are common vehicles for sin: throat, tongue, lips, mouth and feet. It seems very significant that four of the five have to do with our speech!
The tongue is described using many words in Scripture: wicked, deceitful, perverse, filthy, corrupt, flattering, slanderous, gossiping, blasphemous, foolish, boasting, and many others.
Jesus even had thoughts about our tongues
Matthew 12:36,37 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
Our words are similar to a sound wave broadcast into the air. Eventually, that sound wave will reach the far parts of space in a never ending journey; not only that, but the trip cannot be cancelled. Once that sound wave or our words start their journey, they cannot be brought back to the source and packed away.
What do our words say about our walk with Christ? If our words are a reflection of our heart, then what do we reveal about our heart when we speak?
The Tongues of Teachers
Why does James lead off a passage detailing the misuse of the tongue, and our speech, with an opening sentence about masters, or teachers? That is a good question, so let’s explore it briefly. There are several possible applications of this teaching.
Teachers shall receive the greater condemnation. Teachers should be persons of great Christian maturity, and the ability to speak proper things in a proper way is a sign of that maturity. Anyone who places themselves in that position will be held to a high standard of judgment for the things they say while in that position. Here is a good illustration of this principle.
Luke 12:48 But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
Why then, this initial mention of the responsibilities of those who teach to bridle the tongue? It seems pretty straightforward. If the tongue in and of itself has great power when used just by one person to another, how much more powerful is a misused tongue in the mouth of a person influencing many?
Does this teaching apply to all of us? Primarily, this is directed to those holding positions of responsibility, such as pastors, evangelists, preachers, and teachers. But, on the other hand, don’t we all teach somebody? Parents teach their children. Believers teach nonbelievers. Mature believers teach newer believers. Every single one of us has a circle of influence, whether large or small. We need to ensure that we mature in Christian behavior in such a way that our use of our tongue causes no harm, but only good.
The Power Of the Tongue
What I am about to say is simply the thoughts and opinions of one man, but this is simply one of the most vivid and descriptive passages in all of God’s Word. As we have covered, James is teaching the point that one of the ways we illustrate Christian maturity is by learning to control our tongue. He has also made the point earlier that by controlling our tongue, we can control the entirety of our bodies.
This seems rather like the two greatest commandments, the ones given by Jesus to the questioning Scribe in Matthew Chapter 22. When the scribe was attempting to trip Jesus up by pinning Him down to stating one commandment as more weighty than another, Jesus neatly rolled them all up in two simple directives: Love God above all else, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The reason He did this was to show that by doing these two things, all other requirements would naturally follow as an outflow.
The tongue is like that. We can see in Verse 2 of our passage James stating that if a man can learn to control his tongue, he can control his entire body. James doesn’t seem to mean this in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical sense regarding the whole of our behavior. In other words, if what issues from our mouth tends to be God-honoring and God-exalting, then likely the rest of our behavior will be as well. Then he moves on to show two very clear examples of the smallest of things exercising the greatest of control.
The first example is that of a horse. It’s quite amazing, really that an animal weighing in at over a half a ton can be easily controlled by a 100-pound rider simply through a tiny metal bit in their mouth. Likewise the direction and course of a large ship can be controlled by no more than a small rudder which is only a fraction of the size of the ship.
Our tongues and our speech are like the bit or the rudder. They are only a small part of us physically, but they can and do turn us in whatever direction they point. If our speech is Christlike, then we will be likewise Christlike. If our speech is the opposite, then our behavior will be as well.
A Controlled Tongue Shows Maturity
As I was preparing this Devotional, I received in my Blog feed a wonderful poem written by blogger Gloryteller. Rather than write anything on this issue today, I am including his poem as a powerful illustration of words, the tongue, and their proper role in the lives of mature Christian believers.
A Farmer of Words
I want to be a farmer of words
I want to nurture words
I want to plant them in good soil
Grow them until mature
Make them fruitful
Pick them and harvest them
Squeeze out their nutritious juices
Prepare them deliciously
Give them to those in need of
A good word
I want to begin a culture of