"The Tongue's Arson"

James 3:1-12 Oct.18, 2009


One of the biggest things that puts people off organized religion is hypocrisy. Yet it's one of the easiest things to spot; people can tell from miles away if we're not acting in a way that's consistent with what we say we believe, if there's a gap between life and lip.

A man sat through a church service then on the way home fussed about the sermon, he fussed about the traffic, he fussed about the heat, and he fussed about the lateness of the meal being served. Then he bowed and prayed. His son was watching him all the way through this post-church experience. Just as they were beginning to pass the food the boy asked, "Daddy, did God hear you when we left the church and yuou started fussin' about the sermon and the traffic and the heat?" The father sort of blushed and said, "Well, yes, son, He heard me." "Well, Daddy, did God hear you when you just prayed for this food right now?" And the man stammered, "Well, yes, son, He...He...He heard me." "So, well, Daddy, which one did God believe?"

We can smile or chuckle at that, but we may also recognize ourselves there. Out of our mouths pour complaints and criticism one minute, then half-hearted praise the next. We lack consistency, integrity, our Christianity isn't very thorough.

Bishop Lahey has been a prime example of a higher religious figure in the news lately who hasn't been very consistent. A couple of years ago he presided over a Catholic church settlement to victims of sexual abuse, then a few weeks ago he was caught disembarking at the Ottawa airport with child pornography. Worse than that, the consistency of the church is now questioned because a complaint about Lahey showing porn to boys 20 years ago when he was a priest apparently was not acted on.

Several passages written by the apostle James in his letter to the early church show he's eager for a thorough-going consistency in those who call themselves Christians. 1:21, those who accept God's message planted in them are to get rid of filth and evil; v22, the message is to be obeyed, not just listened to. V26, if you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you're just fooling yourself, your religion is worthless. Beginning of chapter 2, you can't clai to believe in Jesus and yet show favouritism: that's not being consistent. 2:14, what's the use of saying you HAVE faith if you don't prove it by your actions? Then over in chapter 4 verse 8, "Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, you double-minded [NLT you hypocrites!]." You can't be double-minded, you can't have it both ways and still be consistent. And 4:17, "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins." So, in various places throughout this letter, James takes aim at hypocrisy and inconsistency: faith has to be reflected in life if it's to be real.

In chapter 3 he spends considerable time emphasizing one area in particular - our speech. Notice how he describes the issue of inconsistency here in vv9-12: "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. [NLT This is not right!] 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."

If you were to go out in the hall and get a drink from the fountain, you wouldn't expect it to be refreshingly cool at the start then brackish or boiling before you stop. You expect the flow to be steady, reliable, consistent. If you have an apple tree in your yard, you would think it very strange if one year you went out at harvest and here it had grown bananas! Or when your normally gorgeous potted amaryllis blooms, wouldn't it be a bit strange if it puts out a daisy? You'd think, "Plant, you have a problem! You're severely mixed up." So as we look at the issue of how we Christians talk, its within the broader context of the whole matter of consistency - does our behaviour adequately match our professed belief?


The problem is, we're in a potent predicament: we have a very unwholesome member on board. See how James describes the tongue in vv6-8. "The tongue is...a fire": v5 describes how a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. Our tongue can be that small spark. A little word slips out at the wrong time, to the wrong person, and causes BIG problems - leaving us scrambling to perform damage control.

The book of Proverbs also associates fire imagery with the tongue. Proverbs 16:27, "A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire." Later in chapter 26, "Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, "I was only joking!" Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife." (Pr 26:18-21) Have you ever known someone with a sharp tongue, who, when you saw them coming, you sort of said to yourself, "Oh no!" and wished they'd go away - because they had a knack for stirring up a ruckus by what they'd say?

A young lady once said to John Wesley, "I think I know what my talent is." Wesley said, "Tell me." She replied, "I think it is to speak my mind." Wesley commented, "I do not think God would mind if you bury that talent!"

James continues his description of the tongue, v6, "a world of evil among the parts of the body" - literally, a world of iniquity or unrighteousness. 8A, "It is a restless evil" - edgy, impatient until it's demonstrated its power at another's expense. Back to 6B, "It corrupts the whole person" - as in making a spot or stain or blemish. Bad enough when you're driving along eating a sandwich or sub and get ketchup or mustard on your pants. But your tongue can stain the whole YOU.

James adds that the tongue "sets the whole course of [one's] life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell": wow! This little organ is Gehenna-soaked, bound up with original sin from the get-go. This recalls Jesus telling people in John 8:44 they belonged to their father the devil; who has no truth in him; "When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." When we speak an untruth, we're admitting our fallen origin, we give Satan ground in our being. Sin is slavery; a lying or unrighteous tongue is ignited by hell.

Nor is it nice and civilized. Vv7f, "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." The tongue is humanly untamable - wild; wilder than the killer whale at Marineland (remember the commercial where it comes up and kisses the woman at the side of the pool?). People's tongues, by contrast, are impossible to domesticate or have dominion over - without God's help.

Last part of v8, James writes the tongue is "full of deadly poison" - like an asp or rattler or cobra, on the loose - kind of like a dragon breathing fire, incinerating relationships.

Speaking of poison - those who dish out such speech had better be prepared to get some back. One time when Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were engaged in verbal sparring she said to him, "If I were your wife, I'd put arsenic in your tea." Whereupon he responded, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it."

But it's no laughing matter when wrong words slip out and burn up relationships. I recall once as a student minister I was preaching and said something fairly innocent, not at all malicious, that involved a teenage girl in the congregation. Although there was no harm intended, the young woman took offense at it and stopped coming to church. A relationship was broken because I was not more careful with my words. Perhaps you can think of similar occasions when something you said got taken the wrong way. Or you were angry or tired or both and a derogatory or sarcastic comment popped out that you later wished you could take back - but it's too late. As Proverbs says, the tongue can shoot firebrands so easily! Unrestrained, it proves itself "a world of evil".


So, what can we do about this rattlesnake on the loose? Vv2-4 highlight the importance of bringing the tongue under control: "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check" - literally, 'lead by a bridle his body'. Then James brings in a couple of word pictures. V3 tells how we can turn the whole animal when we put bits into the mouths of horses. Just a small pressure at the crucial place makes a big influence. V4 switches the analogy to a maritime image: "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."

When we lived on St Joseph Island near Sault Ste Marie, we would sometimes go over to the channel of the St Mary's River to watch the huge 1000-foot-long lake freighters navigate the channel. Often the freighters would take on a pilot between Lake Huron and Lake Superior especially for the job. These days many ships use bow-thrusters to help, but otherwise all the steering depends on the little rudder.

Rudders are crucial for navigation. During the Second World War the German battleship Bismarck ravaged North Atlantic shipping. It was reputed to be unsinkable. Then on May 21, 1941 it was sighted and planes and ships from the Royal Navy sped to the scene. The Bismarck initially headed toward the German-controlled French coast where it would be safe from attack; but to the astonishment of all the massive battleship suddenly swung round and re-entered the area where the British ships were massed in greatest strength. At the same time, she began to steer an erratic zigzag course, which made it much easier for the British to overtake her. How come? A torpedo had damaged her rudder and without its control the 'unsinkable' Bismarck was sunk. As a damaged rudder causes a ship to flounder, so an unruly tongue can sink a person fast!

So - what's the answer? How can this unrighteous tongue be redeemed for a Christian to use? Is there any hope? Taming is possible - not by human effort, but with the help of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5(23) lists "self-control" as the last of the fruit of the Spirit. We can include our tongue in the list of members made new in Christ according to Romans 6(11-14 where Paul writes, "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body [including your tongue] to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves [including your tongue] to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him [including your tongue] as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." Hear that? It's a conscious, moment-by-moment act of worship, offering each word to God, living in grace not law and judgment. The more conscious we are of being in Christ - in His love, in His grace the easier it is to communicate grace to others by what we say.

The key issue here of course is not the tongue in its physical matter: if you had a tongue transplant, you'd still have exactly the same problem! The key issue is how the mind operates out of the heart's selfishness and pride. That's really what's at the root of a sharp tongue. Jesus observed in Matthew 12(33-34), "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, how can you who are evil [in your inner being] say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." (Mt 12:33-34)

Obviously, we need God's help through the Holy Spirit to radically change our inner person (the 'tree') before our expression, our words (the 'fruit'), will be any different. Here Paul's counsel in Ephesians 5 is helpful - he links being plugged into the Holy Spirit with what ends up coming out of our mouths. V4, "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving." (Eph 5:4) OK, Paul, so how do we get there? V8, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light..." Hear the necessity of change in your inner being? V10, "and find out what pleases the Lord." (Eph 5:10) Prayerfully be asking God what He wants to have expressed. V17, "Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.[how many arguments have broken out due to inebriation's dulling of inhibition?] "Instead, be filled with the Spirit. [there it is - we need God IN us to take control, by yielding to Jesus as Lord. Then the speaking of v19 flows right out of the Spirit in v18] Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Eph 5:17-20)

Starting the day with a prayer like John Eldredge's The Daily Prayer or St Patrick's 'Breastplate' can help orient us to yielding our bodies, including our tongues, to Christ's control. Part of St Patrick's Breastplate goes like this, as if putting on Jesus as a garment over every part of us:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


Words have great power - the whole universe resulted when God spoke! When Jesus said, "Little girl, get up" or "Lazarus, come out!" amazing things happened. So God has designed humans to be able to convey startling grace by what we say.

Carolyn Tomlin in Living Light News tells of an incident recently in which she observed an older customer buying groceries. She writes, "The cashier, a young girl about 18 years old, kept her head down and her hair pulled over much of her face. When she looked up, I noticed a dark birthmark covered a large portion of her face near her jaw. The customer smiled and looked at the cashier. Their eyes met. "You have the most beautiful eyes," the elderly woman told her. The young girl smiled and said, "No one ever said I was beautiful." For a moment in time, Tomlin concludes, "The girl's life changed.All because of a smile and a compliment."

That contaminating tongue can be tamed and harnessed for good - with the Lord's help. Then, when blame is replaced by blessing, what good can result! Let's pray.