THE GREAT INCINERATOR
September 13, 2009
For the third week in a row, we are back in the epistle of James. Last week I noted that this whole epistle is an effort to move beyond that vague kind of faith in Christ that has no real or specific impact on how we actually live. For example, last week James looked at how we treat people differently based on very superficial, external differences. It turns out this is due to some very perverse motives we all carry around inside of us. Today he is concerned with how we speak. And not surprisingly, he begins with those who would be teachers within the Christian community. Let me begin with chapter three, beginning with verse one:
(1) Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
For many people there is something very attractive about having the chance to stand up and be the teacher, to have their point of view be heard, to “have the floor” and control the discussion. What such people often forget is that teachers also live in glass houses; the way they live is watched much more closely by those they teach for the simple reason that people instinctively hate a hypocrite. We expect our teachers to walk their talk, and if they don’t—well, heaven help them!
But what’s even more sobering, we often forget that all teachers are continually held accountable by God for the very things they teach. Knowing the truth is not good enough. It is only living the truth that matters in the end. And because teachers are constantly advising others on how to live, God holds them to that very standard. Scary thought.
But James’ concern with teachers also provides him with a wonderful segue for addressing how we all talk in general. We have all been guilty of pontificating on subjects when we probably should have held our tongue. And we have all been guilty of using subtle forms of ridicule, slander, rumor and innuendo to undermine those we dislike or who disagree with us. In short, as James wisely notes, if we could catalogue our daily sins, the most difficult to control (and yet the most insidious) is our speech. And so he writes in verse two:
(2) 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.
We all make mistakes, but our speech is unique in that it’s actually a reflection of our true self. Consequently controlling our tongues is no easy matter, since it requires self-control on a much deeper, more comprehensive level. Indeed, James makes it clear that to never sin with our tongues would require a level of maturity that would include all the members of our body.
And to illustrate this, he gives us two vivid metaphors:
(3) 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.
Here his metaphor is positive---if we can control our tongue we can control our entire body. But this requires the kind of self-control that is the possession of the spiritually mature. In other words, it sounds simple enough, but just try to control the tongue, and you will discover that there is a dark side to it also, as we read in verse five:
(5) 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.
This is the negative side of the tongue---if we do not control our speech, it can becomes a spark that ignites a tremendous fire. How many times within a local church is a storm ignited by some ill-chosen words from someone in leadership? Or how many times has someone’s feelings been deeply hurt—sometimes for many years—by thoughtless gossip or false innuendos? But there is more bad news on this dark side of our words:
(6) The tongue also 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.
Here the metaphor changes from the impact the tongue has on others to how it shapes and controls us. Words have a creative power that, once spoken, can take on a life of their own. They not only hurt others, but they commit the speaker to a position or a course of action that in their more sober moments he or she would never take. Things become intensified and exaggerated, so that the speaker feels this need to stand by what he’s said for fear of looking stupid. This whole cycle is not fueled by the Spirit of God, James tells us, but by hell—by the very opposite of God.
All of which should make us wake up and realize what a major struggle we face when we try and control our speech, as we read next:
(7) 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.
This verse is the balance to verse 2, where James told us that to never stumble in what we say would require a perfect person. And the obvious point is that you never reach a point where you can say, “There now, I’ve got this whole problem my tongue under control.” You cannot domesticate it so that nothing but sweetness and goodness come out of it. James is reminding us that at every moment of every day, we are all capable of saying the most outrageously hurtful things. Even those among us who are known to be especially generous and kind in their speech can suddenly say something that shocks us all, especially the speaker!
Or how about your own behavior? Haven’t you ever been in the middle of a very affirming and spiritual and thoughtful conversation with someone, and then suddenly something really dumb comes out of your mouth and you are just as shocked as the person you a speaking to?
Which is why James said what he did back in verse two. By the way, the Revised Standard Version is probably a better translation of verse 2. The NIV translates it, “We all stumble in many ways,” which sounds like James is saying that we all stumble in a wide variety of ways (which is certainly true), but the text actually employs a simple adverb that means “frequently.” That is the sense, not just that we are creative in how we sin, but the fact that we sin a lot. And because we sin a lot, we need to always be vigilant—especially with our mouths.
I mentioned last week that all sin has a certain shocking irony to it, and the same holds true in our speech. James captures this well beginning with verse nine:
(9) 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.
I think this becomes especially apparent when Christians operate in the secular world. I was deeply grieved during our presidential campaign last year to hear highly respected, well-known Christians spreading some of the most hateful, slanderous misinformation in order to defeat a particular candidate they happen to dislike. But if we truly believe that all people are made in God’s image, how in heaven’s name can we trash talk them in the manner in which we do?
Some of you might be thinking, “But Mike, you’ve painted such a bleak picture of how our tongues control us. So what practical steps can we take to control our speech?” Fortunately, very early in this same epistle James has already given us some wonderfully practical advice. Let me read to you from chapter one, beginning with verse 19:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
By telling us to be quick to listen, he is making the common observation that our natural propensity is to be quick to talk. We all like to hear our own voices. We all like to give our opinions, even when they are half-baked, ill-informed, and even full of malicious untruths. And so James wisely suggests that if you want to control your tongue, develop the habit of being quick to listen rather than quick to talk. Minimize your speaking and you at least give your tongue less space within which to do its damage.
But he actually means more than simply “putting a lid on it.” When he says we ought to first be “quick to listen,” he means actually listening. If we all became better listeners, we would all become more informed, more empathetic to what other people are actually trying to saying and consequently what they are feeling behind their words, which in turn would make us more discerning as to what the actual facts of the matter are. People who listen well are usually very wise people. They do not live at the superficial level of appearances but take the time to discern what is really going on in any situation.
Next, James tells us that not only should we be quick to listen, but “slow to speak.” He doesn’t mean we should “speak slowly,” as if everyone around us were hard of hearing, but he means don’t open your mouth until you have carefully considered whether you have something meaningful, helpful and true to say. If you listen to conversations that go on all around us, it is surprising how little of it is actually positive or helpful. So much of it is laced with chatty, gossipy, opinionated misinformation. James is not discouraging the profound human need for interacting with other people—on the contrary, the scriptures are full of admonitions as to how we need to encourage, praise, challenge, and generally love one another with our words. But by telling us to be “slow to speak,” James is saying that our speech should not be impulsive but thoughtful.
Finally, he tells us to be “slow to anger, for the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God.” This last admonition may seem out of context since we are talking about our speech, but in fact he is touching at the very source of so much of our destructive speech. Jesus once said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Ultimately the only way we can ever control our tongue is by allowing God to work on our hearts, for what unleashes most of our venomous talk is precisely the angers and hurts that we carry around inside of us all day long.
Have you ever noticed that there may be a person or point of view that invariable causes you to flare up and say things you never intended to say? And what do we do? We say to ourselves, “I just need to make a rule with myself that whenever that person or topic comes up, I just need to keep my mouth shut.” And what happens? The next time the topic comes up we say something hurtful. You see, we are working the problem from the wrong end. We first need to address the anger in our own hearts, and then we can better control the words that come out of our mouths.
And anger is truly at the heart of so many things that control us. Anger is caused when we feel we have lost control, and people or things we dislike seem to be running rampant. But such anger is ultimately unbelief—it forgets that God is ultimately in control of everything and he is always working out his perfect will. We can disagree with what is going on around us, and even disagree strongly. But anger is when we have crossed the line and lost faith in God. We have become convinced that since things are out of control, we have to take control. And it only creates death in the end.
Jesus was so right. “It is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.” It is upon the heart that we must allow God to work first and foremost. Be quick to listen—yes—and slow to speak—yes. But more than anything let God work upon the inside of you so that the sweet water of his grace might pour forth from your mouth.
May our Lord have mercy upon us all. Amen
© 2009 Valley Covenant Church