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The Power of the Tongue

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“The Power of the Tongue”

James 3:1-12

May 31, 1998

Scripture Reading

James 1:1-12


“The Killing Spree”

Kim Hill’s song, “Words”, is played as a lead in and conclusion to the drama.


The truth is, it’s not just in the Twilight Zone that our words have the power to destroy. It happens in real life, too.

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey tells the story of a Chicago family across three generations. The story begins with a little girl named Daisy. She was the 8th of 10 children and her father was a drunk. Eventually, the family ran out of money, and Daisy’s father ran off her mother. In time, all of the children moved in with their mother. Daisy was left to live alone with the alcoholic father.

The one defining quality of Daisy’s life became her determination to be different from her father. And she was successful in one area - she never touched a drop of alcohol. But in almost every other way, she was very much like him. She would lie on the couch with an ice pack on her head and scream at the children. She would say cruel things like, “Why did I ever have you stupid kids anyway. You’ve ruined my life.” Some nights she would whip all of them because she was convinced that even if she didn’t know about it,  they must have done something wrong.

Well, one of Daisy’s daughters, Margaret, made the same vow Daisy made when she was a little girl.. She vowed to be different from her mother. But, like her mother, she too failed. She screamed at her children. She beat them for good measure just to make sure they hadn’t gotten away with anything. Her son, Michael, was especially difficult for her to take. He was a child of the 60’s. He wore his hair long, listened to rock music, and even smoked a little pot. She did everything she could to straighten him out the way her mother straightened her out - by the sheer force of her will. But nothing worked. Finally, one day, in a fit of rage she said to her son, “I never want to see you again as long as I live.” And without another word, Michael walked out of the house. At the time of the book’s release, 26 years had passed, and they still had not spoken to one another.

What’s amazing about this story is not only the graphic illustration of how words can destroy relationships, but how they can cause a cycle of destruction to be to be born. James says, “the tongue can set the course of our life.” And it can also set the course of lives around us.

The Power of the Tongue

There is tremendous power in the words we speak to others.

When we were children we tried to deny that power. Or at least the adults around us tried to convince us that we should and could deny it. They taught us that little limerick:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

But folks, the little limerick was a lie. A broken bone takes about six weeks to heal. Sometimes, the wounds left by words are still there at the end of a lifetime.

I remember sitting in a Youth Group meeting one night, and listening as the Youth coordinator talked about his life before and after salvation. He focused particularly on the change that resulted in his family life. Most of what he said was good and strong. But then he began to talk about his oldest daughter who was present in the meeting. He talked - in front of her and all her friends - about how lazy and rebellious she was. And then he made this comment: “You see, that’s a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. This daughter was born before we became Christians. Our younger daughter was born after we became Christians. And the difference between them is like night and day.”

It didn’t surprise me at all to observe years later that the relationship between this man and his daughter was still strained and difficult. Nor did it surprise me that her relationship with God was not what it should have been. In a sense, her father spoke a word of prophecy over her by implying that she would never measure up because she was born prior to her parents conversion. And ten years later, she was still living under that prophetic word.

I suspect that a number of people in this room have had similar experiences. And probably all of us know someone who has had a similar experience. And we see the result:

n      A man driven to get ahead and obsessed with success because his father told him as a child, “You’ll never amount to anything.”

n      Someone else desperate for approval and acceptance because she never heard the words, “I love you,” at home.

n      Someone else tormented by perfectionism because no matter how hard they tried, they could never do it quite well enough. They would bring home a report card with 5 A’s and a B, and the only comment the received was “What happened in that class?”

Now, I don’t mean to imply that we are prisoners of other people’s words. Certainly, God can heal us and set us free, and certainly, we have the responsibility of letting God heal us and letting go of the hurt.

But there is no question that the tongue and the words that come firing out of it can be deadly, at least in a spiritual and emotional sense.

James’ Plea

And this is what James is concerned about in our passage today. He has been talking about the practical aspects of the Christian life. He has been making the case that the way a Christian lives should be consistent with what he says he believes and what he has heard from the Word of God. Now James tackles one of the most practical issues of life - an issue that every one of us can relate to: the use of our tongue. And the result is the classic passage in the Bible on the use of the tongue:

I spent a lot of time this week trying to figure out how I would preach this text. I tried structuring it this way and that way, and nothing quite seemed to work. And then I finally figured it out. I was trying to make this passage much more complicated that it really is. James’ message is very simple: “Beware the power of the tongue. Don’t underestimate it. It may look small and insignificant, but it is one of the most powerful members of our body.”

He uses three images to illustrate the power of the tongue:

·        He says the tongue is like the bit in a horses mouth. Though it’s relatively small it can be used to control the whole animal.

·        In the same way, a rudder, even though it’s small and hidden from sight, can steer a huge ship, even in the midst of high winds.

·        Finally, he says the tongue is like a fire. With one little spark, it can destroy an entire forest.

It’s that last image that stands out. It’s the one that James expounds on the most because it illustrates so graphically the destructive power of the tongue. In the same way that a single spark can set off a forest fire, a single word can wreak havoc in another person’s life.

Now, we have our ways of trying to deny the power of the tongue:

·        We smile and throw in the little disclaimer at the end, “I was just kidding,” and we think the words will fall harmlessly to the ground.

·        Or we backtrack and after the damage has been done, we say, “Oh well, I really didn’t mean it. It just kind of popped out.” And we assume all will be forgotten.

But deep down, we all know that the disclaimers don’t erase the damage. We all know what it’s like to cringe inside and wish that we could turn back the clock just a few seconds in order to grab those words on their way out and stuff them back in there. But we can’t turn back the clock.

There’s a story of man who came to a priest and confessed that he had slandered against a neighbor. He asked the priest what he should do, and the priest told him to put a feather on the doorstep of every house in the city. The next day, the man came back. He said he had finished the task and wanted to know what else he should do. The priest said, “Now, go back and retrieve all the feathers.” The man was astounded. He said, “That’s impossible. The wind has blown them all away.” The priest said, “That’s right. And it’s the same way with your words. Once they are spoken, you can never retrieve them.”

·        How many times have you wished you could take back something you said to your children?

·        How many times have you wished you could take back something you said to your parents?

·        How many times have you wished you hadn’t joined in the feeding frenzy of the grapevine as someone’s reputation was destroyed by gossip?

·        By the way, we Christians sometimes have our own version of the grapevine. You ever had someone tell you something about someone else in the church and then follow it up with a statement like this: “Now, the only reason I’m telling you this is because you need to be praying for them.” Now, that’s not at all to speak against the sharing of legitimate prayer requests. But we need to be very careful about our motives. Gossip is still gossip, even if we spiritualize it. And if we are not 100% motivated by love and concern for the other person, that’s exactly what we’re doing.

We’ve all been there, and we’ve all wished we could take back the words. But we can’t. That’s why James is so passionate in his plea to guard our tongue. And James is not alone.

The book of Proverbs, the “wisdom” book of the OT, has no less than 53 references - almost two per chapter - to the tongue and the way it’s used.

It’s also a common theme of the Psalmist. My favorite is Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” If we were to put that in contemporary English it would read, “Lord, put a trap on my mouth, and send an angel to keep it shut.”

In the NT, gossip and slander are often mentioned in the same breath as murder or adultery!

The Bible addresses the use of the tongue so often and with so much passion because it has so much power. Proverbs 18:21 says: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

A Hopeless Cause?

Now, we may be tempted to think that controlling our tongue is a hopeless cause. In fact, James almost seems to say as much. In verses 7-8, he says, “Man has tamed all kinds of animals, but no man can tame the tongue.”

And back up in verse 4, he says that anyone who can control the tongue is “a perfect man.” But we need to understand what James means by the word “perfect.” The greek word is “telios” and telios does not mean perfect in the absolute sense - which is the way we usually use it. When we use the word “perfect” we are generally thinking of something that’s flawless. “Telios” refers to absolute perfection, but something which is “mature” and “complete.”

That’s why James can say in the same verse, verse 2: “All of us stumble in many ways, but if any many is not at fault in his words, he is a perfect man.” He is saying, “All of us sin. And only the most mature can keep from sinning with his words.”

But clearly James is calling us to that place of maturity.

How can we keep our tongue from evil?


Grow - submit it to the Holy Spirit

Refuse to participate in gossip

Determine to use the power of our tongue for good

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