In today’s passage, James talks to us about our words. It’s the longest passage on speech in the whole of the New Testament. We saw that James spoke about the importance of works in the Christian life in Day 4 of Preaching Hour. Works don’t earn you salvation, instead they prove real faith. James speaks about the importance of words. Again, your words don’t earn your salvation, but they do show real faith.
What you do and what you say show that your heart has been changed by Jesus? As we look at this passage, James will tell us about three things ― The power of our words, the danger of our words, and the healing our words.
B. Three Things about our words
1. The power of our words (verses 3 to 5)
In verses 3 to 5, James gives three metaphors about the power of our words.
‘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.’
Even though a person is physically much smaller and weaker than a horse. Once a bit is put into its mouth, the rider is able to turn the whole animal; or a rudder, which is tiny compared to the rest of the ship, is able to manoeuvre the whole vessel; or a tiny spark is able to set a whole forest on fire. So it is with the tongue, even though it’s very small compared to the rest of the human body. It’s able to exert incredible influence.
Think for a moment about the impact of words in your life. Words have the power to completely shape your self-image. What we think of ourselves is so much the accumulation of all the things that people have said about us? It’s not hard to recall those words, even though could have been said many years ago. Maybe from a parent, or friend, or teacher, or colleague. That were so crucial and foundational to you, they’re part of your core memories and have shaped you.
Words shape our self-perception for better or worse. In workplace, affirmation or criticism will affect your happiness in your job; at home, the encouragement words from your family members. Words also shape our relationships, marriages are made and can be broken on words. Those two little words that you say in your wedding vows, ‘I will’,
have the power to bind you together for the rest of your lives through all sorts of hardship and pain.
On the contrary, words also have the power to drive relationships apart. The cutting remarks to your spouse, or child, or friend; words that you cannot take back;
the broken promises, that introduce doubt and betray trust or when lies are spoken
and straight away there is a barrier in the relationship.
The implication of all this is that words demand great care from Christians. It is because our words will either convey the truth, or obscure it, or even deny it. Our words have an incredible impact on the spiritual health of those who hear them. There is a strong expectation that you’ll teach the truth clearly. And what you know, you’ll put into action.
Increased knowledge brings increased responsibility. James wants us to take our words seriously. You are God’s instrument to speak the truth into someone’s life. Our words influence people’s direction and even their future.
2. The danger of our words (verses 6 to 10)
James tells us about how our words lead to danger, he mentions about three kind of dangers. Firstly, he says our words are destructive, in verse 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.’
James is extending the metaphor that he used earlier about the spark. He said before that the tongue is like a spark which can cause a fire. But here he’s saying the tongue is itself a fire that causes incredible destruction. Think about what James is saying about the tongue for a moment. First of all, he is saying that it’s ‘a world of evil among parts of the body’. The tongue has a capacity for destruction that nothing else in the body has.
James also says the tongue can affect your whole life, from birth to death, through the ups and downs of life, the tongue can blaze away. James gives us a picture of an uncontrollable spreading fire in forest with a small spark. That’s the kind of destruction that James says our tongues can cause in our lives. Break up in marriages, ruin careers, develop conflicts or decades of bitterness can all just start with what seems like a harmless, carelessly spoken word.
The second danger is that our words are uncontrollable. In verse 7, ‘All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison’
Earlier James used the metaphors of a bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder on a ship.
These conjure up expectations of control and discipline. But according to James, in reality, the tongue is different. It’s impossible to control and discipline. We can’t tame our tongue like we tame all kinds of animals and birds. It’s restless, ready to break out at any time.
You might have had those times in your life when you’ve resolved not to speak in a particular way. To train yourself, to get your words under control for the sake of your own good and that of others, however, sooner or later you repeat to make the same mistakes.
The third danger is that our words are inconsistent. We can be aware of God’s greatness, his glory, everything that is lovely and true about him. We pray and sing praises to him in churches, but then as soon as we leave, we can use our words to bring people down. It is completely inconsistent for people who have become followers of Jesus; what you did is contradictory to the way that God has treated you.
Therefore, our words are destructive, uncontrollable, and inconsistent. We can’t confine it to just the words that come out of our mouths, but what we write, what we communicate online through social media.
Social media has diminished our ability for measured conversations, it’s too easy to drag people down from the anonymity of a keyboard or to rush to the echo chamber of a particular news outlet or media platform where people agree with you. We’ve lost the ability to listen patiently to people with whom we disagree or to understand those with different perspectives.
We need to hear what James writes earlier in chapter 1, ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry’, ‘Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.’.
3. The healing of our words (verses 2, 8, 11 & 12)
How we can heal our words? Did you see the problem that we’re faced with?
We begin to see the solution in the last few verses. From verse 11, ‘Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. Look at that phrase, ‘Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?’ It’s the teaching from Jesus.
In Matthew 12, Jesus says, ‘Make a tree good and its fruit will be good or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers (he’s speaking to the Pharisees here), how can you who are evil say anything good?
Jesus is saying that your words always reveal the true character and condition of your heart. Your words aren’t a technique problem; they’re a heart problem. Your heart will determine and control your words. A good tree good bears good fruits and a bad tree bears bad fruits, for a tree is recognized by its fruits.
The bible often talks about how everyone has something in their heart that will not just determine what they say, it will determine the entire direction of their life. Jesus used the phrase, ‘Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks’.
The only way that your heart will be filled with God’s presence and with His love is that you turn your eyes upon Jesus and what he has done for you. Jesus went to the cross for us, He bore our sin willingly and patiently, without complaining, not speaking words of anger against the injustice that he was facing. Jesus was the only one person who ever completely tamed his tongue, whose every word, every utterance was perfect, His words are to heal, not to destroy.
In Jesus, we find forgiveness for all our sins, including all our broken words; In Jesus, we have the sure hope of hearing one day in heaven, those incredible words from our Father, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’; In Jesus, we find the strength and grace, to forgive those who have hurt and wounded us with their words.
We won’t find perfection in our words this side of eternity, however, to be a Christian, it means to love God with all your heart. That will affect how you treat those around you and how you use your words whether to heal and build or to wound and destroy.
Let’s think about, how you’re using your words? How you speak to your spouse and children? How you’re speaking to difficult persons in the workplace? Are you a person who genuinely tries to speak the truth in love?
New affections in our heart bring new speech. Jesus says ‘Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks’.
Lord, we want to confess brokenness from our words, that our words reveal our broken hearts, so often we use our words destructively. We use our words to tear people down rather than to build people up. With our words, we can praise you, but we can also dishonour people who have made in your image. Lord God, we ask for your forgiveness. Thank you for your son Jesus Christ, who went to the cross to forgive our sins, who with His last word ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. It is finished.‘. His work of salvation was done on the cross. Lord, give us a vision of your grace and your mercy that overflow at the cross, may that overflow our hearts, so that our words might be full of grace. Convicted those area in our life where we need to change, help us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with those people that we have hurt with our words. Lord, help us be people of peace, of encouragement and of grace and of wisdom with our words. So, in all things we could point people to our Saviour Jesus. In His name we pray. Amen.