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The Power of Words

February 21, 2021

Ron Loge shared this prayer with me a few weeks ago and I thought it was so good that I wanted to share it with all of you. Here’s how it goes:

Dear Lord, so far today, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped and I haven’t lost my temper. I haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that Lord. But in a few minutes, I’m going to get out of bed. And, from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help. Amen.

Pretty good, right? That’s an honest, accurate, humorous little prayer there. And I thought it was fitting given our scripture and topic today as we look at a passage that is often known as the taming of the tongue, a passage about our speech and the words we choose. And if you’re anything like me, it’s an area of our lives that none of us have mastered perfectly, like not even close, right?! Maybe for those first few seconds before we get out of bed we’re doing just fine, but yet Lord knows, after that, we’re probably going to need a lot of help.

As many of you know, we’re in the midst of a sermon series on the New Testament Book of James, and now being in chapter 3, we’re at about the halfway point, in a series that we started shortly after Christmas and will run up through Easter Sunday. And when it comes to the subject of taming the tongue and the words that we choose, this is a theme that James has touched briefly on in previous points in his letter.

In chapter 1, James shared those famous and easier said than done words, when he said, “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” and then shortly afterwards, James, included the ability to bridle or control one’s tongue as one of the core characteristics of true religion. And here now in chapter 3, James goes into greater detail and devotes his full attention to the subject itself. And in using some vivid imagery and analogies from everyday life, James wants to help us see the incredible power and impact and influence the tongue has.

First, James us to help us see the outsized influence of the tongue. In verses 3-4, he says this,

3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.

Here James uses two different images to communicate one point.

In the first, he reminds us how a horse, a majestic creature, a half ton of raw power can be guided, and its movement influenced by something as small as bit placed in their mouth.

And in the second, he reminds us how a ship, even one the size of the Titanic, is guided and its movement influenced by one of the smallest parts of the ship, a tiny rudder. And using these two analogies, James says,

5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

James’s point is that just as a bit or rudder, though small can have a profound influence on a horse or a ship, so too does the human tongue, one of human body’s smallest organs, have on us.

And when James says that the tongue boasts of great exploits, he means to communicate that the tongue can boast about its tremendous accomplishments, it’s outsized influence, it’s remarkable potential and achievements.

That is to say, if you were to get a bunch of tongues around a campfire, (a deeply weird image, I know), think about all the stories they could tell, think of all the accomplishments they could boast about, think about all the things they could take credit for.

For example, the tongue can heal marriages, and yet it can also destroy them.

The tongue can start wars, and yet it can also end them.

The tongue can unite churches, and yet it also divide them.

The tongue can be used to promote the truth or spread falsehoods.

The tongue can be used to build people up, or tear people down.

The tongue can be used to move us and others in the right direction or the wrong one. It can be used for good or evil, it can accomplish the best and yet also the worst, and sadly, so many of the sins we commit and so much of the brokenness of this world can be traced back to sins of the tongue.

Overall, the tongue, though small, has incredible power and impact and influence.

In addition, James, using even more imagery, compares the tongue to a fire, where towards the end of verse 5 he makes this observation, saying,

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

Here especially, James’s point is simple and for us as Montanans who live in a region where forest fires are prevalent, we’re reminded of a truth that we know all too well - that the smallest of sparks can lead to the greatest of fires, and that with the tongue, just as it is with a match or lighter, it doesn’t take much to cause great destruction or harm.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, my family and I went to the wedding of an extended family member, and during, I think it was the rehearsal dinner, one of the bride’s family members said, for reasons we don’t really need to get into, said something that was incredibly offensive and hurtful to my grandfather. The comment itself may have lasted six seconds. But yet, the damage was done, and sadly, some of those relationships within the larger family were never fully reconciled, not even 10 years later when my grandfather past away. That is just one example of the level of destructive power that words can have, how a small spark, how words that went on for mere seconds can do so much damage, and I imagine you too could sadly share stories of your own.

James says the tongue “sets on fire the cycle of nature,” it’s admittedly a strange phrase, yet the idea is that the tongue not only has the potential to destroy or corrupt a person’s life, but yet even more, as I just illustrated, a community or family.

Overall, the overarching point seems to be this: The tongue is like a bit on a horse, like a rudder on a ship, like a spark in a forest. Though it may be small, though it may start small, it has incredible influence and power and impact, sometimes for better, yet sometimes sadly for worse.

And having articulated just exactly how much power and influence the tongue can have through all this vivid imagery, James highlights one of the problems that he sees in those he’s writing to and with us as well:

9 With it [that is, the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

Here James highlights our incredible and wild inconsistency when it comes to how we steward and choose our words. How sometimes we use it for good purposes, where he says, “we bless the Lord and Father,” and yet somehow, at the same time, “curse those made in God’s image.”

Which is not only wildly inconsistent, but yet also makes no logical sense whatsoever - that we would bless God and then turn right around and curse those made in God’s image, whom our God created and dearly loves. It would be the equivalent of loving and adoring and speaking highly of your friend, and then turn right around and disrespect and mock their spouse. You see, to insult and mistreat the one, is to insult and mistreat the other.

And so James says, 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

He’s effectively saying, brothers and sisters, choose the better of the two. Be consistent in a good way. Don’t simply use the tongue to bless the Lord and Father, but also use it to bless those made in the likeness of God.

After all, James says, 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?

Here of course, the answer is no. It’s impossible, it would be contrary to its very nature for a spring to produce both fresh and brackish (salty). And so, so too should it be impossible and unnatural for blessing and curses to come out of the same mouth.

Now, we’ve kind of raced through the scripture here, and that’s in part, because it’s important that we give our time towards more direct application:

As I shared, James, as he shines light on this incredible inconsistency we have in using our tongue for both blessing and cursing, is imploring us to live in a way that is consistent with our identity in Christ and allegiance to Him, that we would not only bless the Lord and Father, but also bless those around us as well.

And in considering how we can grow in this area of our lives, it’s worthwhile to consider more specifically the various ways in which we curse or hurt one another with our words, and then to also highlight the ways in which we can bless, one another with our words.

So, first let’s identify the negative, and then move to the positive.

When it comes to the misuse of the tongue, or cursing as a general category, we may be tempted to think of it simply in terms of most notorious of four letter words as what we need to stay away from, but of course, we can do so much damage in so many other ways.

When I was a kid, I’m going to say 2nd grade, I came home from school one day and was telling my mom and brother that the word on the playground that day was that someone had said the “s-word,” but yet, I didn’t hear it and I didn’t know which s-word they were talking about, which led my little brother and I to speculate that night at dinner what it could be. And our best guess was that the s-word must be something terrible like “shut up” or “stupid.” And I think my mom looked over at my dad that night, and gave him a look that said, “Alright, we’re doing okay. That could have been a lot worse.”

The point is this: Our misuse of the tongue goes far beyond cursing in the traditional definition of the word, and truth is, we can do just as much if not more damage with words like shut up and stupid when used at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong person.

And so we misuse the tongue and can effectively curse our fellow brother and sister, when we engage in gossip, when we say something about someone behind their back that we would never dare or be willing to say to their face.

We misuse the tongue when we flatter one another, when we say something to someone that we would never say behind their back, that is, saying something that we don’t truly mean or believe in, but yet simply say to them for purposes of flattery or to get in their good graces.

We misuse the tongue when we insult one another, when we harshly and publicly criticize one another, when we use sarcasm inappropriately, when we use humor as a cover up, when we say something mean or offensive or in jest and try to cover it up by saying, “Oh, I was just kidding of course.”

My goodness, you and I know all too well, whether it be on the speaking end or the receiving end, there are no shortage of ways in which we misuse and fail to tame the tongue.

And though as difficult as it might be, it probably wouldn’t hurt for each of us to ask someone that we know and love or someone that knows you well, ask them, “Where do you see me get in the most trouble or cause the most trouble when it comes to my words?” Or maybe ask, “In what situations, in what contexts – home or work, spouse or kids, when stressed or anxious, might I have a ways to grow?” Maybe ask someone to lovingly and gently help you better see where in which you most struggle with your tongue.

In addition, maybe there are a couple strategic things you can do: For example, if you’re a morning person, maybe you make a rule of not sending out emails after 9pm, as otherwise things often go badly. Or maybe you have a tendency to bottle things up and then explode like a ticking time bomb – maybe you need to practice getting ahead of conflict early and often so that things don’t get to that point.

In the end, there are no shortage of ways that we misuse and fail to tame the tongue, effectively cursing those around us.

But yet, but yet, I don’t want you to miss this and I think James doesn’t want you to miss this either – the tongue and the words we use can also be an incredible, powerful, life changing, transforming force and catalyst for good as we use our words to bless our Lord and Father and bless one another.

With our tongue, we bring people words of encouragement, we put wind in people’s sails, we lift people up when they’re feeling down.

With our tongue, we remind people that they are not alone, that they are seen, that they are noticed and loved and cherished and made in the image of God.

With our tongue, we extend words of forgiveness when people hurt us, we speak words of healing, ones that foster reconciliation and mend fences and restore relationships.

With our tongue, we can speak gracious and loving critical feedback, in a way that says, “I believe in you, I’m cheering for you and I’m on your team.”

With our tongue, we can speak the words of scripture and the truth of God’s promises to one another when we are prone to forget.

With our tongue, we confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. With our words and with our voices, we praise him through singing and through our prayers.

Friends, God gave you a voice, go use it for good! With our tongue, we have the power, the ability to make someone’s day. And so, my challenge to you this week, whether over the phone, or text or face to face, is go find one person and whether it be using 2 words or 2,000, whether it be 2 seconds or 2 hours, go use your words for good.

And I’ll finish with this:

I want to share with you a couple more verses from our passage, two that we haven’t looked at yet. James says,

7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue.

Eugene Peterson, in his message translation puts it in this memorable way: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.”

James is giving us an incredibly sobering and humbling truth: You can’t, at least not fully, at least not perfectly, tame the tongue. Lord knows, I was putting my foot in my mouth as soon as I could speak, and the reality is, should the Lord give me so many years, I’ll be putting my foot in my mouth at 85 too.

And yet, here’s the good news. For reasons I can’t explain, our translation misses something in verse 8. In our translation it says, “No one can tame the tongue.”

When in reality, the original language reads more like this –

“No one is able to tame the tongue – among humans.”

Do you see what James is getting at here? He’s being a little sneaky as he does it, but he’s trying to get us to this place where we would begin to realize that when it comes to the tongue, we need supernatural help, for only God can truly tame the tongue.

In fact, James wants to use our failures and misuse of the tongue and use it to help us more clearly see our need for God, our need for the grace of Jesus and for the transforming power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

James said in chapter 1 that true religion bridles their tongue and now in chapter 3 he says no one can tame the tongue. No one, among humans that is.

And so in moments of need, we pray, “Lord, I have no idea what to say or how to say it. Lord, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, give me the words, your words, life giving words.”

And when we mess up, we again use our words to pray, “Lord, forgive me. Shower me with your grace.”

When it’s all said and done, may we echo Paul’s words, using our tongue, to say:

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:24-25)

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