What do you think is the most powerful part of the human body? Our bulging biceps? Our beating heart? Or our amazing brain? (Did you know, for example, that our brain processes 70,000 thoughts a day, or that our heart pumps two thousand gallons of blood every 24 hours?!)
Those bits of our body are amazing, but James tells us today that there is an even more powerful part than that – our tongues. The human tongue accounts for under 1% of our body mass, but punches well above its weight. Because we use our tongues to speak, and our words can have huge effects. Our words can be a powerful force for good or for ill.
In our reading today, James compares our tongues to some other small objects that can have a disproportionate effect.
- In verse 3 he says “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” A little piece of metal can make a huge horse change direction.
- Verse 4 says “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”. A small rudder can determine whether a whole ship stays afloat or crashes into the rocks!
- And in verse 5, James tells us that just a “small spark”, can set a whole forest on fire. A small cigarette or a match can create an inferno.
You see, small things can have big effects – including our tongues.
Whenever we open our mouths to speak (something we do on average 700 times a day) we are wielding a powerful force. Good words can lift our spirits, encourage us, inform us and inspire us. But bad words can break a heart, sow division, or drive us to despair. Friendships and careers, marriages and churches can all be damaged by bad words. Wrong words can be ‘weapons of mass destruction’.
Verse 1 today says people who use their tongue to teach have a particularly responsible job. We will be strictly judged for what we say. Teachers in schools, pastors of churches and parents of children have a huge responsibility to use our words well:
- School teachers and parents have the power to shape the lives of children with their words.
- And preachers and pastors have the huge responsibility of telling people about Jesus and explaining the Bible to them. So please pray for myself and Ken as we preach and teach here at St.Michael’s, for Gemma-Louise (our new Children’s Minister) and for all of our Sunday School team. May our words always be faithful and true.
But whether we are teachers or not, our words must be always be chosen very carefully. They can have a huge effect on others – both for good and for bad.
Our tongues need to be tamed!
I expect we all know the popular saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the trouble is, that’s not true – is it? Wrong words can be incredibly harmful, incredibly hurtful. We’ve all been hurt at some time by critical comments, harsh words, bullying and bad language.
So James says our unruly tongues need to be tamed – just like we tame wild animals to be pets at home or to perform in a circus. Listen to 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.”
Our tongues need to be brought under control. We need to make sure we say the right thing at the right time. As James says in verse 10: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” We should be consistently careful and wise in what we say.
But its incredibly hard isn’t it? We have all said wrong things sometimes, and we find it really hard to keep our tongue under control. In fact, James says its impossible for us to tame our tongue, doesn’t he? On our own we can’t always say what’s right, we don’t have the power to be perfect. Verse 2 today says we’re all “at fault” for some of the things we’ve said.
Our speech shows our heart
Human beings can tame roaring lions and birds of prey, but we can’t control our own tongues. That’s because the Bible says our speech shows our heart. To change our words, we need a change of heart.
That is the point James is making in verses 11 and 12 today. Listen to them again with me: “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.” What James is saying is that a plant produces its own fruit. A grape vine produces grapes, and a fig tree produces figs. You don’t see oranges on an apple tree, or plums on a pear tree. And elsewhere in nature, a salt spring can only spurt out salt water – it can’t produce pure water.
In the same way, our words are the ‘fruit’ from our heart – they ‘spring’ out from our soul. If we find ourselves speaking bad words, it shows that there is something wrong with our heart. To tame our tongues we need a new heart.
A fortnight ago I spent a couple of hours with a local plumber – we were trying to understand why there was no water coming out of that taps in our Chadwick Hall and Hedley Room! We had to follow the pipework all the way back to the blockage. We had to track the problem right back to its source to solve it. In a similar way, to tame our tongues we need to have a change of heart. We need to tackle the problem with our speech at its source!
Jesus himself taught this, just as James does. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 12: “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 recognised by its fruit. The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
There’s only one person who can perform the ‘heart surgery’ every human needs. And that person is God’s Holy Spirit. Whenever someone becomes a Christian and first puts their faith in Jesus, God’s Spirit enters their heart and begins to change it. It’s what Jesus famously called being ‘born again’.
And when God’s Spirit gets to work on our hearts, our words will change as a result – as our heart is transformed by God, so too our tongue will be tamed. In fact, some of the most visible ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in our lives will be a change in how and what we say. If we are eager to grow as disciples of Jesus (as I hope we all are) we should be eager and impatient to see improvements in our speech – as God’s Spirit gets to work.
Our speech should serve Jesus!
So before I finish, how do we use our tongues well? What does good and godly speech look like? How can we serve Jesus with our lips as well as our lives?
Here are three ways we can serve Jesus with our speech. Three things we can ask the Holy Spirit to train our tongues in. We can serve Jesus with our speech i) by praising God, ii) by encouraging each other, and iii) by sharing the Gospel.
Firstly, our tongues should be used to praise God. In verse 9 today, James tells us that when we “praise our Lord and Father” we are putting our tongues to very good use. Our first duty as Christians is to worship the Lord who has made us and saved us. We can praise him in prayer, and sing songs to God in gratitude for all he’s given us.
Secondly, we should use our lips to encourage our fellow Christians. The New Testament letter of Hebrews tells us to “spur one another on towards love and good deeds”, while Colossians calls on Christians to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” So I hope that when we gather together at Church on Sundays we don’t grumble or gossip, criticize or condemn, but try to encourage our fellow Christians. I hope we seek to spur each other on to keep living for Jesus and growing in faith.
Thirdly and finally, we should use our tongues to share the Gospel with non-Christian friends and family. The New Testament tells us to always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have. To always be willing to mention Jesus’ name. When you think about it, the most loving words we can ever share with someone are words about Jesus Christ. Words about the one person who can save us from sin, steer us through life, and grant eternal life beyond the grave.
So in the power of the Spirit, let’s use our tongues to praise God, to encourage one another, and to share the Gospel. But for now, let’s use them to pray: Lord Jesus, we’re sorry for those times when our words have been wrong, when we’ve sinned with our tongues. By the power of your Spirit, change our hearts, so that our lips may serve you as they should. In your name we pray, Amen.