The Untamable Tongue
July 16, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor
James 3:1-12 is written especially to teachers, a verbose and influential group, to whom James warns about the dangers of the use of the tongue. However, these same principles can be applied to all believers in our earthly struggle to get our total lives under God’s control.
A. The Warning: Be careful about taking the title of “Teacher”
In an unusual and unexpected command to believers, James exclaims, “Not many of you should become teachers…” In fact, those who teach,“will be judged more strictly”(James 3:1).Teaching is certainly a foundational need in the church, but James discourages the pride of taking the title of teacher too seriously, hypocrisy, and the misuse of their knowledge & influence. Teachers make their living by their tongues, & James warns the tongue can be very dangerous.
B. Reasons the tongue is dangerous
- The danger of difficulty. The tongue is very difficult to control, and exposes us to more judgment by God. It is so difficult that if you can master the tongue, you can master the “whole body”…anything! (James 3:2).
- The danger of directionality. The tongue is so powerful in its influence, so effective in its ability to control direction, that its words can change the direction of people’s lives…for the better or worse (James 3:3-5). As teachers and speakers, we have the power, with responsibility & accountability, to change lives.
- The danger of damage. The powerful tongue is capable of great damage with few words, from a spark to a flame of fire from hell (James 3:5-6). We need to be careful with our words, to everyone we come in contact with, especially in our families and our church.
- The danger of double-mindedness. With the same tongue, we might praise God and ignore/put down/curse others (James 3:9-12). Double-minded speech comes only from a double-minded heart (James 1:6-8).
C. Applications for us all: Parents&children/teens, husbands&wives, friends/acquaintances, whoever speaks with others.
- What goes for teachers, goes for the rest of us too – in the judgment and dangers of the tongue. The tongue is so powerful that even a few idle words can do incredible damage.
- What goes for the negative power of the tongue, goes for the positive too – The tongue can also be used to glorify God, and heal others by words of encouragement/forgiveness/praise/praying/apologizing, etc.
Prayer: Thanks to God that there is grace at the Cross, that through the Gospel we can speak words of healing to others around us, as individuals and as a church.
- Do you consider yourself to be a teacher? Why or why not?
- Physical pain can be remembered but not re-felt. Emotional pain can be both remembered & re-felt. Have you ever received pain/hurt from the words of a fellow Christian?
- Have you ever caught yourself or been caught (Pastor John’s example of the voice recording) in words that you are ashamed of?
- Have you ever tried to stop speaking negatively of others? How did that work out? If “no human being can tame the tongue”(James 3:8), then how can we hope to change our ways?
- What does it mean that “double-minded speech comes from a double minded heart”?
- Have you spoken words of healing to any in your small group since you met last time?
A couple of weeks ago it was the 4th of July. On the Sunday before the 4th, I mentioned in passing that the 4th of July is not really what you would call a “safe” time for my extended family in Kansas, because it’s a time when the whole family literally plays with fire! It’s kind of like the movie “The Perfect Storm.” There is this toxic combination of Calvin’s love of things that go “BOOM!,” a brother-in-law that likes to buy tons of fireworks and my nephew David, the Chemist. Anything you can find on YouTube involving fireworks, household chemicals, or stuff you can blow up they’ve probably done. Three stage artillery – they’ve done. Sparkler Bombs – not going to tell you how to make them, but they’ve done it. One year it was something with pool chemicals and brake fluid. The point at which they realized they had gone too far was when my young niece blew a divot in the yard because she accidently lit one of David’s home-made fireworks! Listen, we’re nice people in general There’s just not a lot to do in Kansas! My point is: The 4th is not a safe time for our family, because it’s a time when we play with fire and, as we all, know fire is dangerous.
Today James is going to talk about something he calls “a fire.” James calls it a “world of iniquity.” He says it “can take fire from hell and spread it throughout our body and the whole course of our life.” Today James is going to talk to us about the tongue – about the way we use our words.
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to James 3:1-12. This is a well-known passage in the book of James on the dangers of the tongue. This is a passage was originally written to teachers, but we’re going to see that it has application to all of us. Today as we look at this passage, we’re going to see three things:
- We’ll see a warning James gives about teaching.
- We’ll see the reasons for that warning.
- We’ll see how this applies to all of us.
As we prepare to look at God’s word today, let me just ask you a question: How have you used your tongue this week? I know you just used it to praise God. Have you used it to encourage those in your life this week? What kind of words have you spoken to your children today? Or to your parents? Or your spouse? Or to those gathered to worship? Were they words that moved them toward faith, hope, and love? Or were they other words? Maybe words that put people in their place. Words that kept them from inconveniencing you from hurting you? How have you used your tongue this week? James says this:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his 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. And the tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man 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 men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
– James 3:1-12
The first thing James is going to do today is give us a kind of unexpected warning a warning that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the passage, and the warning is this:
The Warning: Be Careful About Taking the Title of “Teacher”
James gives us an unusual command at the beginning of this passage:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers – James 3:1
“Not many should be teachers”: In the Greek, this is literally a command. By the way, this is the only command in this entire passage. In a book that has more commands per verse than any other book in the Bible, on average a command every other verse and in a passage that is famous for discussing the tongue, the only command is “let not many of you presume to be teachers.” It is an unusual command.
It’s an unexpected command. I would think we would want as many teachers as we can get to spread the gospel, wouldn’t you? I went to Africa as a missionary to train as many teachers as I could. We can always use more teachers here at the Church at Perry Creek – in our small groups, in our children’s ministry, and to work with our Youth. We WANT teachers! So does James really mean this? Does he really want very few of his readers to be teachers? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, I don’t think James means that we should never teach. Teaching is and always has been a foundational need for the growth of the Church. Teaching is encouraged in Scripture. It is the only spiritual gift that is listed in all five of the places in the Bible where spiritual gifts are listed – the only one. Scripture tells us that all of the Elders in the church are to be “apt to teach.” There are passages like Hebrews 5:12 where the writer says “by this time, you guys ought to be teachers.” Scripture doesn’t discourage teaching – quite the opposite. So on the one hand “no” James isn’t prohibiting or discouraging teaching.
Rather what James is discouraging is the pride of taking that title of “Teacher” on themselves too easily. He’s warning them against assuming the title of “Teacher.” In Jewish culture and in a Jewish church like the one James is writing to, that title “teacher” would carry a great amount of weight. It would almost be equivalent to the title “Rabbi.” There would be honor there would be influence there would be a certain amount of notoriety if you were given that title “teacher.” James says and Jesus says the same thing: don’t be too quick to take that title of “teacher” on for yourself.
It reminds me of the Independent Baptist Denomination I grew up in. Pastors would just sort of start calling themselves “doctor” when they had no doctorate. It was the strangest thing, but I think they just wanted the respect of that title “Doctor.” James’ point is that James is not so much that he’s prohibiting the activity of teaching he’s not really saying that no one should teach. Rather, he’s saying that we should think twice before we take on that title.
Reasons for the Warning
In the second half of the verse James explains why we should be hesitant to do that. Look at what he says:
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, (why?) because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
– James 3:1-12
Literally, the Greek says “we teachers will receive the greater judgment.” In other words, we’re going to have it tougher when we stand before the Lord. We’re going to have more to answer for.
There are several reasons for that. There are several reasons teachers are going to receive the greater judgment:
- Teachers’ judgment will be greater because they have more knowledge.
- Teachers’ judgment will be greater because they have greater capacity for hypocrisy. You stand up and tell people how to live their lives week in and week out there’s a great tendency to hide your sin a greater capacity for hypocrisy.
- Teachers also have greater influence. They can lead people into error.
There are lots of reasons that we should be hesitant to call ourselves “teacher” – lots of reasons why we will receive the stricter judgment.
The main reason that James warns us here is what he’s going to talk about in the rest of the passage and that is this: We shouldn’t be too quick to take that title of “teacher,” because teachers make their living with their tongue and the tongue is dangerous. The Reason: the tongue is dangerous. When you think about dangerous jobs, forget “Deadliest Catch,” forget working at a nuclear reactor, forget juggling with chainsaws. James says the most dangerous thing you can make your living with is your tongue. James says the tongue is dangerous. In the rest of this passage, James is going to tell us why. He’s going to give us a list of four dangers of the tongue four reasons the tongue can expose us to greater judgment. Danger number 1 is:
The tongue exposes us to greater judgment because it is so difficult to control. James says this:
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
– James 3:2
Basically James is saying here that the tongue is so difficult to control that if you can master the tongue you can master anything. Not stealing, not killing, not committing adultery are child’s play compared to controlling the tongue. Quantum physics is nothing compared to the tongue!
As I was thinking about this verse, I asked myself “what is the hardest general thing I ever tried to master? In my life what would that be?” The answer was obvious to me – nunchaku. You know: nun-chucks are two sticks with string between them. I tried that in high school. Bruce Lee just made it look so easy, but those suckers are just hard to master. It’s painful when you haven’t mastered them. I pretty much beat myself senseless all throughout high school. My elbows were constantly black and blue. I hit myself in the temple one time and just about went out cold. Probably the worst thing I did was throw a soccer ball in the air and try to pop it really hard with the nunchaku. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me at the time, but you know you throw a nice bouncy ball right about the level of your face and hit is with a flying stick and you know what happens? Kawhap! My attempt to master nunchaku was very difficult and painful!
But as silly as that was, I’ve caused myself far more pain in my life because I couldn’t master my tongue. James says that’s far more difficult. He warns those who would take the title of teacher. Be careful! Because when you teach, you use a tool that is so difficult to master that if you could master it you could master anything. So danger #1 is difficulty.
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
– James 3:3-5
James gives us three examples here of the power of something small to influence or direct something big. In verse 3, he says think about the horse. Horses are big and powerful. They kick and bite. To tell you the truth, horses kind of scare me. James points out a principle: control the mouth – control the horse.
Then in verse 4 he says think about ships: “big ship, big wind, small rudder.” The principle’s the same: control the rudder – control the ship. It’s always amazed me that if you really know what you’re doing and you have control of the sail and the rudder you can sail a ship directly into the wind. It’s the same principle again: controlling the small thing gives you control over the direction of the big thing.
Then in the first half of verse James gives a pun: “The tongue also is small, but it boasts of big things.” In all three of these word pictures, James is saying that the tongue is so powerful in its influence, so effective in its ability to control direction that controlling it is like controlling the bridle on a horse or the rudder on a ship. The tongue is directional.
That’s exactly what teaching is all about giving direction to people’s lives. Possibly the most influential class I’ve ever had was a class called “Teaching Process” taught by a guy named Howard Hendricks. He turned my ideas about teaching upside-down, because he taught me that the test of my teaching was not my expertise or my ability to impress. The test of my teaching was the changed lives of my students, because teaching is directional.
It’s a beautiful thing when a teacher understands the power he or she has to give direction with their words. Here James is acknowledging that power. He’s saying “Be careful. The tongue has a powerful influence! If you are a teacher, you can change people’s lives and you will be held accountable.” With great power comes great responsibility.
Parents you are teachers. Whether your kids are young or old, have you thought about the power you have to set the direction of your child’s heart with just a word? With just a word of affirmation that says “I’m proud of you I appreciate you. You are loveable.” Or just a word of unkindness, a word of shame, a word of dismissal?
I’m 50+ years old. Parents, do you have any idea how my heart still leaps when my father says “Son I’m proud of you?” Do you have any idea how powerful that is in shaping the direction of my life? Parents, do you have any idea how many people that are sitting here today would give anything to hear those words from their father or mother?
The tongue is dangerous (1) because of its difficulty, and (2) because of its directionality.
Now, the third reason the tongue is dangerous is this:
James warns his readers that the tongue can do great damage:
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. And the tongue is a fire, it is a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
– James 3:5-6
James now moves from simply saying that the tongue is powerful to saying that it’s power can be used to do great damage. He points out that the tongue is like fire: a little spark can do a lot of damage.
When I was abducted in Zimbabwe by the War Vets, one of the things they told me was that they were going to ruin the life of the farm owner where they abducted me, because he wouldn’t negotiate for my release. They said they were going to drive him off his farm and that he would spend the next night in a hotel. That’s exactly what happened. Know how they did it? They didn’t have to fight. They didn’t have to put themselves in harm’s way. They didn’t have to confront him or take responsibility. They just waited for a little bit of wind and they lit a match. They burned the place down. He lost all his cattle, because they had no grass. He couldn’t move them. He lost all the wildlife on his land, and he lost his farm. All because of one little spark – one little flame.
James says “the tongue is a fire.” He’s saying the tongue is capable of that kind of damage with just a little word.
One of my fellow Pastors in Wichita was just obsessive about the need for us to mount cameras in our Children’s ministry. Finally, one day I asked him “Doug, why are you making such a big deal out of this?” He said at a church he had worked at previously, there was a man who had worked faithfully in the children’s ministry for twelve years. Someone got frustrated with him and sort of made a back-handed allegation that he had behaved inappropriately with one of the kids. Doug said “I knew before I even asked him about it that that was a lie, but I asked him anyway. He was hurt. Then someone on staff talked to a lawyer who said ‘even though it’s not true you have to put him out of your children’s ministry.’ I’m not saying we shouldn’t speak up if we see something questionable. We should. But this wasn’t that. The shame and hurt that that man felt was so intense that he left the church and the faith and never came back. All because of one little comment.
We have to be so careful about our words, especially in the church. How many churches have been ruined, because someone felt slighted – someone’s pet ministry was threatened, someone’s preferences weren’t followed, so they just started a little spark of gossip. What started out as a little spark grew into a flame of discontent that spread through the whole church and sidelined it from doing ministry. How many times has that happened?
How many times have I seen marriages ruined by words? A couple has a fight. A husband or wife feels unappreciated, and they decide to speak against their spouse to their friends, or family or people in their small group. They just let it rip and have a little gripe-session about their spouse. When they are done, they tell themselves that it was just a little spark they just needed to let off a little steam, and now they feel better, and it’s over. But it isn’t over, because you didn’t just let off a little steam. You started a conversation about how awful your spouse is. The next thing you know people are waiting around the water cooler every morning for the update: What stupid thing did he/she do this time? After a while you create a web of discontent around you that reinforces the conflict in your marriage. Then when you’re ready to stop it and think positively about your spouse they’re not ready to let you. They are convinced that you deserve better. The marriage is shot because of little words. What James is saying is that the tongue has the potential to do that kind of damage with just one little word! James says:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
– James 3:6
Notice this is the opposite of sound, godly teaching. In sound teaching, we take truth from God and it changes our life then we share it with others until our whole world is impacted by that truth. But here the tongue is set on fire from hell and spreads that un-truth and pain and condemnation, not just to us but to everyone we come into contact with.
James is warning us again think twice about taking that title of “teacher” to yourself because the same tongue you teach with, can do incredible damage: (1) difficulty, (2) directionality, (3) damage and now lastly (4) double-mindedness
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man
– James 3:7
It was a great point of pride in the Greco-Roman world that they had captured and tamed all kinds of beasts. James reminds them “when it comes to the taming of wild animals you have a ‘been there done that’ attitude.” Look at:
but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
– James 3:8
“No man can tame the tongue.” Why not? Because it’s double minded. The word “restless” in the second part of verse 8? In the Greek, that is the same word that was used way back in chapter one to describe a man with a double-minded faith. Remember there James said “he is a double-minded man unstable in all his ways.” Here he uses that word “unstable/restless” to describe the tongue.
Notice something: we’re right back at faith again. James is saying that that double-minded faith that expresses itself when we face trials, when we try to put the word into practice, when we mistreat the poor also expresses itself through our tongue.
James gives an example of our double-mindedness:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
– James 3:9-10
We bless God and curse our brother with the same tongue. We try to obey the first great commandment (love the Lord your God) while ignoring the second (Love your neighbor as yourself). Our tongue expresses our double-minded faith. James closes the passage with three examples. He says:
Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water
– James 3:11-12
James is basically saying just this: Not only does nature show us that double-mindedness is wrong – you don’t get two kinds of water from one spring – it also shows us that like produces like. If you have a fig tree, you get figs. If you have a grapevine, you get grapes. If you have a salt spring, you get salt water. Double-minded speech can only come from one place: A double-minded heart.
James explains in this passage four dangers of the tongue – four reasons it can bring about stricter judgment for those who use it to teach:
- It is difficult
- It is directional
- It is damaging
- It expresses a double-minded faith
If you’re a teacher, James doesn’t ask you not to exercise your gift. But he does want us to be aware of the dangers of the tongue and not to take that title as a privilege.
That’s James’ word to teachers. Now I want to talk to the rest of us. It’s true that the only command in this passage relates to teaching, but there is something here for all of us today. Let me just give you a couple of thoughts on how this passage applies to all of us
Two Application Thoughts
1. What goes for teachers goes for the rest of us too.
Just as the tongues of teachers can be difficult, directional, damaging and double-minded, so can yours. It’s not just teachers that will be judged. We are all going to be judged by our words. In five separate passages, James warns his readers about their speech. Jesus tells us in the gospels that we will be judged not only for our words, but for our idle words – the words we speak casually, because those are the ones that reveal our true character.
An interesting thing happened to me about two years ago. I can laugh about it now, but when it happened I just wanted to crawl into a hole. I was having a bad morning. I had woken up grumpy and picked a fight with Kelley. Then I had to talk to someone on the phone that I really didn’t enjoy. I finished the call, hung up my phone, put it in my pocket and I decided to apologize to Kelley. I went into the bedroom and said “I’m sorry I was so short-tempered sweetie. It’s just so-and-so really frustrates me!” I started really complaining about this person. Not cussing, or lying but really having a good go at them. Saying things I would never say to them. I’m about four minutes into this tirade when I hear a little you know electronic voice from my pocket. I look at my phone, and I have just left this person a four minute voice-mail of me gossiping about them. Four solid minutes. And you know, your mind races. You think “did they listen to it? can they understand it? what did I actually say? are there any flights to Siberia?” Finally, I decide maybe they didn’t get it and it will all blow over.” Then a day or two later I get this text thing on my iPhone “so and so kept a recording from you.” Never seen that any other time. So I bought the person lunch, and they said they didn’t listen to the voice mail and said “I need to beg your forgiveness anyway” That was not fun.
When that experience was over, there was one thing that stuck out in my mind more than any other: If it hadn’t been for hearing that little voice in my pocket, I would never even have thought twice about that conversation. I wouldn’t have thought about the words I had spoken. I wouldn’t have thought about how negative they were. I wouldn’t have thought of how ashamed I would be for those to be shared in another context.
We all have moments like that! Everyday moments where our tongue exposes us to greater judgment. Let me ask you again today: how are you using your tongue? Parents are you using your tongue to show your children that they are valued or that they are a disappointment? Do you teach them to be kind or critical? Are you teaching them to tell the truth well or to blame others? Husbands and wives do you use your tongue for the good of your spouse? Do you build them up? Do you help them see the truth about themselves? Do you build their faith? Or are you tearing them down are you leaving them to find encouragement and faith and love on their own? Teenagers, are you using your tongue to express respect for your parents?
The tongue is incredibly powerful, not just for teachers but for all of us. One little word can do incredible damage. So what goes for teachers goes for all of us.
2. What goes for the negative power of the tongue goes for the positive power, too
We’ve touched on this a little bit. It’s true that the tongue can be an incredibly destructive force. It can cut people to ribbons. It can express our hatred and our anger and our double-mindedness. But the tongue can also glorify God. The tongue can speak words of incredible healing. Words like “I’m sorry.” Words like “I love you.” Words like “I forgive you.” “I’m praying for you.” Or even “Christ died for you.” Today I want to encourage you to ask yourself a question: Who is God calling me to heal with my words this week? Is it a parent? Your spouse? Your kids? Is it someone you saw on the way to your seat today? Who do you know that needs a word of encouragement or forgiveness or apology or prayer? Who is God calling you to speak to today?
As we pray we’re going to take a moment to be quiet before the Lord. To pray and to ask God to bring to your mind the healing words you might need to say and the person you need to say them to maybe you need to put out a fire. I’m just going to ask you today to ask for the Lord to reveal that to you. Who do I need to speak to? What do I need to say?