The Monster in Your Mouth
Tonight I want to talk to you about a monster.
A husband and wife were discussing the pastor’s sermon on the way home one Sunday. This particular man was known to talk way too much and the pastor’s sermon convicted him about his bad habit. When he told his wife about his feelings, she asked, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” “Well,” he replied, “I guess what I need to do is to go up front and lay my tongue on the altar.” The wife was quiet for a moment, then she said, “Sweetheart, I’m not sure our old altar was built sturdy enough to hold a monster like that!”
Tonight I want us to talk about the monster in your mouth—your tongue.
I call our tongues monsters because of the way the Bible speaks in James 3:1-12. This is a warning passage, meant to flash in our minds like a sign on the road that says DANGER: SLIPPERY AHEAD. The warning is not meant to keep us from talking, but it is meant to warn us to watch our words, because they are powerful, they can be destructive and twisted. James warns us of the danger of a mouth not controlled by the Holy Spirit. Read with me in v. 1-5 and let’s see how you and I can beware the monster in our mouth.
Apparently the folks in James’ day struggled the same as we do to muzzle our mouths. A quick glance through the epistle reveals how often he hits on the subject:
Jas 1:19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…
Jas 1:26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless.
Jas 4:11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren…
Jas 5:9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned…
It’s a little comforting to know other Christians share this struggle. But it also makes the warnings here all the more urgent: beware the monster in your mouth. He outlines 3 dangers:
1. The monster in your mouth is small, but powerful. (v. 1-5a)
Some of the most dangerous monsters in the world are also the smallest—some of them so
small you can’t even see them. A virus so tiny it takes a powerful microscope to see can put you in the bed, or cripple your health, or even kill you. In the same way, your tongue is a small but powerful member of your body. The Bible says
Pr 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue…
That sounds pretty powerful to me! This is why James stresses the reality that your tongue is small, but powerful. He fleshes out this idea in several ways.
He begins with a warning to those who teach in the church in vs. 1-2. He’s not trying to discourage you from being a teacher, but he is stressing the fact that a teacher/preacher’s words carry a lot of impact. You influence a few people in a private conversation, but a teacher/preacher influences a larger group when he speaks to them. No matter how small your words seem to you, they are like stones ripple out into a larger influence. God holds the teacher/accountable for their words.
This doesn’t mean God demands perfection. James admits we all get tripped up in many areas, but our goal is to become a person who ….does not stumble in word….a perfect [mature] man, able also to bridle the whole body. (v. 2). He gives us three images to help us nail down this concept.
First in vs. 3 is the image of a bit in a horses’ mouth. John Macarthur writes:
This illustration is particularly appropriate, because the bit lies on top of a horse’s tongue, and when attached to the bridle and reins, it is possible for the rider…to easily make the horse obey. Even gentle horses, which have been ridden for many years, are not controllable without bits in their mouths.[i]
The teacher/preacher has to learn to control the small, but powerful monster in their mouth.
Secondly, in vs. 4 is the image of a rudder of a ship. The boats of James’ day were nowhere near as large as the ones of our day, and yet the rudder which controlled them was very small compared the rest of the vessel. This tiny rudder had the power to turn the biggest boat in any direction. The teacher/preacher has to control the direction in which the small, but powerful monster in their mouth leads others.
The monster in your mouth is small, but very powerful. Warren Wiersbe writes:
Never underestimate the power of speech. A judge says a few words, and a man’s life is saved or condemned. A doctor speaks a few words, and a patient either rejoices ecstatically or gives up in despair…I am told that for every word in Adolph Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, 125 persons lost their lives in World War II. [ii]
Never underestimate the small, but powerful monster in your mouth. James goes on to give us a second warning:
2. The monster in your mouth is destructive and wild. (v. 5b-8)
Some of you may have read the story of the famous naturalist and grizzly bear lover Timothy Treadwell. For 13 years, Treadwell camped in several Alaskan parks but Katmai National Park was a favorite, crawling and walking up close to bears and filming them. Often attempting to touch both cubs and adults, he would also try to communicate with them through various means. He seemed to believe he had a special relationship with the animals. But in October 2003, he and his girlfriend, camped near a group of bears, were killed and partially eaten by one of the grizzlies.
At some point Timothy Treadwell lost sight of the fact that these weren’t teddy bears, they were wild grizzlies, monsters who can and will kill you.
James warns us not to forget how destructive and wild the monster in your mouth is. Again, he uses images to get his point across.
In vs. 5b-6 He pictures the tongue as a spark that ignites a forest fire. Where I come from, in GA, there are a lot of pine trees. Some folks grow pine trees to supply the nearby paper mills, so you can imagine how thickly they are planted together. During one especially dry season, there were a lot of fires near us, and many houses—including our own---were often in danger. Some of those fires were almost impossible to stop, once they got going. How did they begin? With just a spark.
James says the monster in your mouth is as destructive as that fire. He goes so far as to say in vs. 6 the monster in your mouth …is set on fire by hell! Our words are one of Satan’s favorite tools to do his work. He loves to use careless words to destroy families, friendships, reputations—even churches. It only takes one wrong word, said to the wrong person, at the wrong time, and you’re looking at destruction that may never be undone.
In vs. 7-8 James pictures the tongue as a wild animal that cannot be tamed. His list is not literal; he’s not saying there are no animals that can’t be tamed. He’s making a comparison: you can tame almost all animals, but no human being can fully tame their tongue. It can get loose from you, if it is not reined in.
I found this out in a rather humorous way a few years ago when I went to the dentist and they had to work on my some of my back teeth. I don’t do dentists very well, and so I get a little nervous sitting in that chair, waiting to be picked on, scraped, or drilled. My nerves show up the worst when they ask me to hold my tongue still. I couldn’t do it! You should have seen the dentist and his assistant, trying to hold down my tongue, while I helplessly sat there consumed with embarrassment. I literally couldn’t tame my tongue.
You need help taming the monster in your mouth, too. Your tongue is too destructive and wild for you to control by yourself. You need help taming this monster because it is too destructive and wild for you to handle.
Oddly enough, in October 2003 another animal attack took place not in Alaska, but Las Vegas, where Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy fame, was attacked and seriously injured by a tiger while performing on stage. The tiger became startled, bit Roy and dragged him off stage. In this case, Roy survived.
James says Beware the monster in your mouth: it is small, but powerful, destructive and
wild. But then he gives us one more warning:
3. The monster in your mouth is twisted and perverted. (v. 9-12)
I’ve discovered since I became a parent that if I listen to myself, I don’t always make
sense. Some examples:
You yell at the top of your lungs Didn’t I tell you to quit hollering?
As you administer a spanking, how many times do I have to tell you not to hit other people!
If you cut off your foot with that lawn mower, don’t come running to me!
James reminds us in vs. 9-10 of a more serious way our words get twisted and perverted by the monster in our mouth.
We sweet talk Christ and bad mouth our neighbor. We praise the Lord in church and put down our spouse or kids. We speak so spiritually on Sunday, and talk like the devil’s own demons on Monday-Friday. We flatter to the face and stab in the back. There is a sinful inconsistency to our words that doesn’t really make much sense.
--it’s like a spring that spouts refreshing water and bitter water at the same time, or a
--fig tree that sprouts olives or a
--grapevine with figs on it or a
--fresh water spring that tastes like seawater.
None of these things are possible, but it’s important to remember why they’re not possible: because they each come from different sources. The springs flow from a common source that either produces bitter water or good water, not both; either fresh water or saltwater, not both. The seeds are the source that determines whether the tree is an olive tree or a fig tree or a grapevine. In each case the source produces the results.
If a cup is filled only with good water, it cannot spill even one drop of bitter water, no matter how badly it is jarred.—Oswald Chambers [iii]
This is James’ subtle reminder that our words come from a hidden source, which the Bible identifies as your heart. Jesus uses a very similar illustration in
Lk 6:43-45 43“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. 45A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
The problem with the monster in our mouth goes deeper—all the way to our hearts. If our hearts are twisted and perverted by sin, then our words will be too. We’ll talk one way to God, and another way to everybody else. We’ll be sweet and nice to some people, and sour and ugly to others. Our words reveal our hearts.
John MacArthur writes:
The tongue is you in a unique way. It is a tattletale that tells on the heart and discloses the real person. Not only that, but misuse of the tongue is perhaps the easiest way to sin. There are some sins that an individual may not be able to commit simply because he does not have the opportunity. But there are no limits to what one can say, no built-in restraints or boundaries. No wonder God put the tongue in a cage behind the teeth, walled in by the mouth![iv]
Beware the monster in your mouth—it is twisted and perverted, revealing the dark side of your soul.
If we take James’ warning seriously, we have to ask another question he does not address: what can I do about the monster in my mouth? How can I use its power for good? How can I tame its wild, destructive nature? How can I straighten this twisted perverted monster out? Let me offer you some answers from another passage in the Bible: Eph. 5:17-21.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit is the only way you and I can muzzle the monster in our mouth. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is simply submitting to His control over our lives.
I don’t want to chase a rabbit here, but I want to remind you that the Holy Spirit is not an it—He is a Person. He’s the third Person of the Trinity; He is God Who takes up residence in your life when you are saved. You don’t have to pray for Him to enter your life—if you are a Christian, He is already a part of your life. To be full of the Holy Spirit means to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, to depend on His power to help you live right, to practice surrendering to Him.
How do you do all this? Through the usual ways: through reading the Bible, where you hear the Spirit speak to your heart, and through prayer, when you speak to God about what’s on your heart. The Holy Spirit speaks to you and ministers to you through other believers, which is why coming to church is so important. All of these are interactions between you and the Holy Spirit, where the more time you spend with Him, the more you submit to Him. Being filled with the Spirit even tames the monster in your mouth.
It’s similar to how a person’s speech often changes when they move from one place to another. A Yankee moves to the Deep South and before long they finally figure out how to properly use the word ya’ll. Or somebody from my neck of the woods moves to the Arkansas hills, and they start talking a little slower. If I moved up north, I guess I’d start calling my beagle a dahg. Your speech is affected by the people you hang around.
This is also true when you hang around God. He can help you tame that monster in your mouth as you are filled with the Holy Spirit.
A true story: A preacher was walking with a close personal friend who was a number of years older than he was. As they talked the name of a common friend came up, and the younger preacher said something unkind about that person. It was sarcastic. It was cynical. It was a put-down. The older friend stopped, turned, and faced him. With deep, slow words he said, “Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not say a thing like that about a friend.”
He could have put a knife into his ribs, and the pain would not have been any less. But this preacher says since then, there have been ten thousand times in the last twenty years he has been saved from making a jerk of himself. When he has been tempted to say something unkind about a brother or sister, he hears his friend’s voice say, “Gordon, a man who says he loves God would not speak in such a way about a friend.”
God’s Spirit can tame the monster in our mouth, can change it into an instrument that glorifies God and blesses the people around us. He will give you the power; you and I must put that power into practice.
Tonight you may need some help with the monster in our mouths. Will you come to the Lord and admit your need, repent of your sin, and receive not only His forgiveness, but His power to muzzle your mouth for the glory of God?
[i]John MacArthur, James (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1998), 153.
[ii]Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, "An Exposition of the New Testament Comprising the Entire 'BE' Series"--Jkt.
[iii]Bruce B. Barton, David Veerman and Neil S. Wilson, James, Life application Bible commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers
[iv] MacArthur, J. (1998). James (electronic ed.). MacArthur New Testament Commentary;Logos Library