Taming the Tongue


For Meditation

“Words are things. I am convinced. We must be careful about the words we use, the words we allow to be used in our homes. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally, they get into you.” Maya Angelou 

I think James would agree with Maya Angelou. Words are powerful things. They get into us. They do things to us. We must be careful about the words we use.

If you ask the question, what is James 3 really about, there is only one answer: the power of our words.

As we have discussed the last few weeks, James believes that Christian faith is transformational, and the source of that transformation is the Word of God. And now in Chapter 3, James argues that words are the most transformational force in our spiritual lives. In fact, he says words are so powerful that if we can master our tongue, then we master everything. 

If we seek spiritual transformation, then we have to wrestle with our words. If we do not, James insists that we will not experience the fullness if life offered us in the Gospel of grace.

One of my professors used to say that “Words are stupid little things, until they are joined with other words to convey meaning.” So how is it that stupid little things, like words, contain such spiritual power?

First, we do well to recognize that words are things.

The Gospel of John Chapter tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was God. The Word was with God.” In Genesis, God defines the nature and purpose of everything in creation with words. Let us make mankind in our image. Psalm 33 tells us that by the word of the Lord the heavens were made. Throughout the entire Old and New Testament, God defines and redefines his covenant relationship with his covenant community with words. Words like the promise to Abram, the Ten commandments, the Law, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Last Supper.

James 3:1-12

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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.

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.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Words are important things because the God of Scripture is a communicating God and we are communicating beings made in his likeness.

Second, it is important to understand that words are not just things. Words do things.

When God created everything from the formless void, He used words. Light. Day. Dark. Night. Sky. Land. Heavens. And it just was. Unlike the other Gods of the Ancient Near East, the Lord doesn’t require complex rituals to summon his power. He just says the word, and things that were not, burst into existence. When God created human beings he used words. “Let man us make man in our image, in our likeness.” Shortly afterwards, Adam partners with God in his dominion over creation by using the creative power of words to names all of the species of creation.

Because we were created as image bearers of God, and redeemed as children of God, our words have tremendous power. With our words we can bless God. With our words we can curse people who are made in the likeness of God. James even says that our words can be so destructive, as to taint the very body of Christ. 

Third, words reveal the deepest truth about us.

James reveals that all efforts to transform our own speech, to harness our words for good, are doomed to failure. “No human being can tame the tongue.” The tongue is the death of transactional Christianity. We cannot burn with anger, malice, jealousy, but say the right words and avoid exposure. What is on the inside, James says, will get on the outside through your words. And when it does, it will destroy others.

And in response to this, James, says “My brothers, these things ought not be so.” This is not the way that things should be.

Our speech does not need to be rehabilitated. Our speech needs to be transformed by God himself. We need Gospel transformation, new tongues, new minds, new hearts and a new language.

As you prepare for worship this week, reflect on the following questions as you feel led.

1.    Are there ways you dismiss the power of your words? Are there ways you condone harsh or critical or unclean speech? Take some time to ask God why you feel the need to avoid the consequences that your words have on your spouse, children, colleagues, friends etc.?

2.    Make a list of the messages you have most internalized over the years, positive or negative. The ones that have been seared onto your soul.

1.    Take some time to ask God to tell you what he thinks about those words.

2.    Ask him to take the messages that are false, to cleanse you from them forever.

3.    Ask him what words of affirmation or comfort that he wants to speak to you today. Write them down and cherish them this week.

3.    What are the things have you said in your life that you are most ashamed of? How have you most wounded someone else with your words? Perhaps something said to a spouse, a sibling, a friend in anger? Perhaps words spitefully withheld, a blessing or affirmation that should be given to another?

1.    Confess the sin in those wounds, or withheld blessings to God

2.    If so led by the Spirit, confess those sins to the ones you wounded as well.

3.    If you need the help of friends to ask forgiveness for your words, invite a trusted friend to listen to you and pray with you and discern how to do so with grace.