Those spoken out loud and those we speak to ourselves. Those for God. Words, and the tongue that utters them, are powerful.
When we turn to the Bible, there are so many wonderful passages in both the Old and New Testaments that relate to the power of words and how we use them. Words are part of our everyday lives and their effect particularly resonates with me in my role as English Coordinator and Head of School. In James 3:1 -12 his argument moves from the generality of good deeds in chapter 2 to the specifics of the words that you speak. James reminds his audience that genuine faith yields to Christ’s lordship over your tongue. These verses set me on a quest to investigate about the power of words.
It would be nice if conversion resulted in a total makeover of the mouth, but it is not so! Although we become new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), we also carry around with us the old nature of the flesh, which wars against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). Our words are one of the major battlegrounds in the war.
James suggests the following four points:
1) To tame our words, we must recognize that we will be held accountable for what we say (3:1-2).
James says, “For we all stumble in many ways.” We are all prone to sin! One popular author I have read emphasizes that we should not view ourselves as sinners, but as saints who occasionally sin. Well, by God’s grace I am a saint, but I am a saint who stumbles in many ways, not just occasionally! James then zeroes in on the tongue, saying, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” Perfect does not mean sinlessly perfect, but rather, mature. We can never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but we can grow to spiritual maturity. One important gauge of that is our speech.
One way to tame the tongue is to recognize that we all will be held accountable for our speech. Jesus said in Matt. 12:36-37 “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the Day of Judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus was not teaching justification by works. But, like James, He was teaching that our words reveal our faith and heart. If we sin with our speech, we need to ask God’s forgiveness and also the forgiveness of who we sinned against. Genuine believers should have a sense of being accountable for their speech.
2) To tame our words, we must recognise their power for good or for evil (3:3-5a).
James uses two analogies here to make the point that the tongue is small, but mighty: the bit and the rudder. James’ point of comparison is not so much the matter of control (the tongue does not really control the body), but of the inordinate influence of such a small part. James is saying, “Don’t underestimate the power of the tongue, because if you do, you won’t be able to tame it.” There may be a comparison in the sense of influencing direction. If you control your tongue, it can direct your whole life into what is acceptable in God’s sight. If you don’t control your tongue, it will get you into great trouble!
3. Our words can be a humanly untameable source of terrible hurt (3:5b-8).
James uses two metaphors for comparison and contrast: a forest fire and tamed animals. In verse 6, James states directly, “And the tongue is a fire … " that is: the tongue is powerful and can taint every part of our being. If we do not use our words with great caution, we are like spiritual arsonists, lighting careless fires that cause widespread destruction. Most Christians would shrink back from ‘big’ sins like hurting children, or murder as being depraved. Yet we tolerate gossip, slander, deceit, half-truths, sarcastic put-downs, and other sins of the tongue as if they were no big deal. James says that all such sins, including the wrong things that we say, are sin.
James does not say that the tongue is untameable. He says that no one can tame it. It is humanly untameable. Only God can tame it. When the Holy Spirit controls your heart on a daily basis, over time the fruit of the Spirit will appear. These include love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, which all relate to the control of the tongue. Ultimately, destructive words are the tool of a sinful heart.
4. To tame our words, we must recognize that their inconsistencies are rooted in its source (3:9-12).
James points out a gross inconsistency that he no doubt had observed. Christians say, “Praise the Lord” in one breath, and in the next breath they say hurtful things about another person, made in the likeness of God. I don’t think any of us is free from this sin. James gets very direct in (3:10b): “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” Jesus also said in Matt. 15:18 “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.” The mouth is simply the opening that vents whatever is in the heart.
The point is that even if you control what you say, you often have a heart problem. If you want to tame your words, the place to start is with your heart. It is good to reflect on what James had to say in chapter one, verses 19 – 20: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.”
Head of Senior School