Ever say something and immediately wish you could retract it? I can think of several times. In fact, the longer I think about it the more examples come to mind and the more I’m embarrassed. The insensitive comment. That joke which inadvertently offended. The rash promise. The harsh line that didn’t need to be said. The times of silence when words could bring healing comfort. We’ve all been there which makes our next lesson from the Letter of James all the more real and relevant.
By way of reminder, we’re using James’ introduction as our outline. “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James 1:2–4, NLT) For each topic, we’re looking for the trouble, the joy, and the endurance. But again, James doesn’t teach in a straight line but bounces between topics as his letter unfolds. It’s no surprise then when he doesn’t identify the trouble, the joy, and the endurance concerning the words we speak in that order.
The Trouble With Our Words
James wrote, “Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.” (James 3:2–12, NLT)
Let’s summarize – yikes! (Okay, take a breath it will be alright). We’ve all done this right? If you haven’t then step forward and tell us how it’s done. Oh, and let’s get one thing clear. Words are more than just the sounds that come from our mouths, we communicate in many different ways. What we write, our facial expressions, our tone, and emphasis, our body language, even our actions declare blessing and cursing.
So we have this problem. But it’s not a control problem, a habit problem, an upbringing problem, or a wrong thinking problem. It’s a heart problem. Jesus taught, “For whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” (Matthew 12:34, NLT) That’s why Political Correctness and all the other variations of thought police will utterly fail, it’s a heart matter, not a head matter. But hey, exchanging hearts is what the Good News of Jesus is all about. Ezekiel prophesied, “And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart,” (Ezekiel 11:19, NLT) This newness of life is described over and over again throughout the New Testament.
James doesn’t provide us an “if you control your tongue this will be the joy” kind of statement but we can infer a few things. In the long passage above James says, “Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.” One joy is simply knowing that we all make mistakes but as we grow in Jesus these will happen less. Another joy is in using our words as a barometer of spiritual health. Are we growing towards Jesus or away from Jesus – our words are one indicator.
Earlier in the letter, James says, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” (James 1:19–20, NLT) We’ll return to this in the endurance section but there is a piece of joy here as well. We all know that our hearts are most exposed when we are angry, the words that spill out are often hurtful and defensive. Human anger does not produce or demonstrate the righteousness of God no matter how justified we feel. But responding with grace, mercy, patience, and love does produce or demonstrate the righteousness of God at work in our lives. There is great joy to be found there.
While James’ doesn’t say much about the joy of controlling our words he does say a lot about doing it. The most obvious is the verse above “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Be quick to listen. If we want to be heard we must connect better with the other person. You may have the right answer but they may have a different question or concern. We should be deliberate in our words. Even a two-beat pause to consider the words we’re thinking of saying will prevent many tongue sparked flames. And of course, we should be slow to let emotions, especially anger, drive our words. Emotions are valuable but not always very wise. The best way to avoid being led by our tongue is to be led by our ears. Listening to what others are saying and to the Holy Spirit.
There is one more verse concerning our words from James’ letter. “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.” (James 1:26, NLT) The word “religious” has gotten a bad rap in modern evangelical circles. In part, it’s because we see religion as a definition of belief instead of its original meaning of how we worship God. The word religion also conjures up images of ritual and rites which seem to have little to do with our relationship to God and others. James goes on to describe pure and undefiled religion in terms of seeing to the needs of widows and orphans along with “keeping oneself uncorrupted by the world.” The centerpiece in this is controlling our tongue.
Let me put this in modern terms. If we claim to worship God in spirit and in truth but don’t control what we say, we are fooling ourselves, wasting our time and breath. We need to be vigilant in this. Singing a few worship songs on Sunday morning does not make up for the bad things we’ve said at home or at work or our unspoken curses. Following Jesus, even in what we say, is our full-time enjoyment (not a typo, I really mean enjoyment).