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The Power of the Tongue
James 3:1-12 


In the previous section, James downplays the importance of our words in favor of our actions. Primarily because, it is our actions, that prove we believe what we say we believe. Lest we begin to think then, that our words are unimportant, James uses this section of his epistle to underscore the importance of our words. In verse one, he writes, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment." 

What teachers say is important-so important, that the very act of teaching invites a stricter judgment. There is power in the spoken word. Power to instruct, to inspire to encourage and to motivate. And James says, that believers will give account for how they exercise that power. 

Jesus had a lot to say about the consequences teachers will suffer who lead their students astray. In Matthew 5:19, He said: "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (NIV)

And in Matthew 18:6 he said "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." (NIV)

Teachers, be careful what you say, because you are influencing us. Your words make a difference in our lives.

Words are so common, and so easy to manufacture that the importance of a single word can easily be lost in the sheer volume of words spoken, read or heard in a single day. How important is a word? 

Ask a father who just heard his daughter say "I do" on her wedding day. Ask a mother who anxiously waited for her child's first word and heard "da da" for the first time. Do you remember the tension in the court room when O. J. was waiting the hear the word "not" before the word guilty?

Words can have powerful effects. When you consider that over a hundred lives were lost in WWII for every word of Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, you begin to envision the power of words.

Words can be used for evil, but they can also be used for good. I can still hear the resolve in President Reagan's voice when he said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these walls." And shortly thereafter, the world changed.

Words are important, whether spoken by our teachers or by us, they make a difference. James continues, [2] For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. [3] Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they may obey us, we direct their entire body as well. [4] Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder, wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. [5] So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! [6] And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 

We cannot let the relatively small size of the tongue lull us into believing its power is inconsequential. As a horse is controlled by a small bit and a ship is directed by a small rudder, and a forest fire is started by a small spark, so the tongue can create great problems or do tremendous good. It is small, but it is powerful.

The scripture uses dynamic words to describe the tongue, in Psalm 140:3, the Psalmist wrote, "They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent's; the poison of vipers is on their lips." and in Romans 3:13, the Apostle Paul wrote "Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips."Sharp as a serpent's tongue, open graves, viper's poison-these are vivid pictures of the negative potential of the tongue. We've all been on the receiving end of cutting criticism, destructive gossip, or demoralizing cursing. We've also seen the effects of lying, slander and a careless word.

These are destructive behaviors that the Lord hates. In Proverbs 6:16-19, the scripture says, "These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: [17] A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, [18] An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, [19] A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." (KJV)

Of the seven things listed here that the Lord hates, three of them are sins of the tongue: a lying tongue, a false witness, and one who sows discord. The Lord hates it when we lie, or when we say something untrue about someone else or when we speak divisive words.

These are destructive behaviors, but they are not the only negative uses of the tongue. Paul admonishes his readers in Ephesians 5:4 to avoid the use of obscenity, silly talk or crude jokes, he wrote, "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving."

Sometimes, we sinners can be rather subtle in using our tongue as a weapon. Some of us hide behind humor to shield any criticism we might receive for saying something. But Proverbs 26:18-19 warns against that practice. It says, "Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows [19] is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'" (NIV)

The uncontrolled tongue encompasses exponential destructive capacity. Can we bring it under submission?

James continues in verse 7: "For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the human race. [8] But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. [9] With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; [10] from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. [11] Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? [12] Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh."

James seems a bit pessimistic here, doesn't he? In all honesty, he has a right to be, because I've never met a person yet that was free from these sins. Have you? Can anyone here say you are always totally honest? Can you say you've never spoken evil about someone else or that you've never cursed?

James' teaching isn't encouraging. So what do we do? Do we give up and give in to every temptation to lie, sow discord, curse or talk about someone? Of course not, and that is exactly his point. Because the temptation is ever with us to do evil with our tongues, we must be on our guard and constantly submit this temptation unto the Lord.

Beside a churchyard, along a windswept hill in England is a cemetery with Arabella Young's tombstone. The elements have almost erased the inscription, but if you look closely and take your time you can read her epitaph: "Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, lies Arabella Young, Who, on the Twenty-forth of May, Began to hold her tongue." (Gregory, p. 64)

One day, our tongue like Arabella Young's will cease to move, but in the mean time, the question remains, what will we do with it? Will we use it to praise God, proclaim his Name among the nations, encourage the fainthearted, or tell someone that we love them? Or will we use it to curse, blaspheme, spread discord, rumors and gossip?

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that what we say doesn't matter. It does. The tongue may be small, but it is powerful. And what we do with it does matter.

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