I'm sure that you are all familiar with the old saying: "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me."
It's a nice little saying, but one which most of us know is completely untrue. The truth is most physical wounds heal given time, but the wounds that words produce, though hidden, often stay with us for years, and sometimes a lifetime.
Some of us know that all too well. We can all think of times when someone said words to us that wounded our spirit, words spoken by a parent, a friend, a co-worker, a teacher, and so on. We have never forgotten them.
Some of us carry around an emptiness caused by words we longed to hear but never heard from some key people in our lives. And our lives, to some extent, have been shaped by that void. Some of us carry around with us deep regret over words we have spoken which caused another pain.
On the other hand, aren't some of our most cherished memories those times when someone said loving, affirming words to us at the right time? In this passage we are looking at today from James, he reminds us that our words matter!
It was his first day on the job. He was a new clerk in the produce department of a super market. A lady came up to him and said she wanted to buy half of a head of lettuce. He tried to dissuade her from that goal, but she persisted. Finally he said, "I'll have to go back and talk to the manager." He went to the rear of the store to talk to the manager, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. When he got into the back of the store, he said to the manager, "There's some stupid old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?" Seeing the horrified look on the face of the manager, he turned about and, seeing the woman, added, "And this nice lady wants to buy the other half of the head of lettuce. Will it be all right?" Considerably relieved, the manager said, "That would be fine."
Later in the day, he congratulated the boy on his quick thinking. He then asked, "Where are you from, son?" The boy said, "I'm from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women." The manager looked at him and said, "My wife is from Toronto." The boy said, "Oh, what team did she play for?"
I think we all understand just how much trouble our words can get us into. This problem is nothing new. The Christians that James wrote to were apparently having serious problems with their tongues. So James addresses their problem.
James is a very practical book that instructs us how to live the Christian life. The theme of this book is found in:
James 1:21 (NKJV) Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
The word James uses for "lay aside" is also used in Ephesians 4 with the idea of taking off dirty clothes. In order to put on the new man, you must put off the old.
Ephesians 4:22-24 (NKJV) that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, 23 and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.
James says we are to "Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness...." Arndt & Gingrich suggest that "Abundance of wickedness" could be translated: "all the evil prevailing around you." This implies that all conformity to the prevailing evils around them must be discontinued.
The word "receive" means: "a welcoming or appropriating reception." We are to receive the Word of God with purity, and humility. Because, as verse 21 tells us, it is able to "save your life." The word soul is psuche, which can also be translated: "life." The word save is the Greek word sozo which means: "to deliver." It is used here in a temporal sense of saving your life from the damage that sin brings. The expression "Save your soul" is never found any place in the NT to describe the conversion experience. James is writing about the temporal life and how to preserve it from damage. "Save" has the idea of: "prolong and enhance your life."
The theme of James is: "How to save your life from damage." Damage is the logical outcome of sin while here on earth, it is loss of meaning and purpose, loss of joy. It is poor quality of life, broken relationships, conflict, guilt, emptiness.
So, James is telling us how to save our lives from damage, and one of the things he focuses on is our speech. The power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us. With the tongue man can praise God, pray, preach the Word, and lead the lost to Christ. What a privilege!
But with that same tongue he can tell lies that could ruin a man's reputation or break a person's heart. The ability to speak words is the ability to influence others and accomplish tremendous tasks; and yet we take this ability for granted.
In order to impress on us the importance of controlled speech, and the great consequences of our words, James gave us several pictures of the tongue: the bit, the rudder, fire, and a poisonous animal.
James 3:1 (NKJV) My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
"Let not many of you become teachers" - doesn't mean that God doesn't want His Word taught. This is a warning that the misuses of the tongue is a greater potential for those who are teaching. A teacher's words have power to control, power to steer the lives of other people. A teacher is always telling others how to live and correcting them when they come short.
Albert Barns said, "If anywhere the improper use of the tongue will do mischief, it is in the office of a religious teacher." Being a teacher of God's Word is a dangerous occupation for anyone because of the power of the tongue to speak error, to speak inappropriately, or to misrepresent Christ. Therefore, James begins his warning on the misuse of the tongue with teachers. But it is not just teacher that he warns:
James 3:2 (NKJV) For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.
Every Christian must admit that "we all stumble in many ways". And sins of the tongue seem to head the list. None of us are perfect. Let's face it - we all have said things that later we wished we hadn't said. We have all, at one time or another, stumbled over our tongues.
Most problems in life involve the tongue. Remember, it is in a wet place and can easily slip. There is no easier way to sin than with your tongue. Circumstances may keep you from doing certain things, but you can say anything you want.
James has more to say about the tongue than any other book of the Bible; not a coincidence as James is about "practical Christian living."
James 3:3-5a (NKJV) Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things...
The power of the tongue can be used for good. James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship. The rudder of a ship is small but it controls the movement of the entire ship. One little shift in the rudder and the whole ship changes course. The tongue isn't very big, but it has the power, through a few words and subtle inflection, to move people and change the course of human events.
Think about the great speeches or even the great phrases of history: Patrick Henry's resounding: "Give me liberty or give me death." Nathan Hale's vibrant words: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." How about FDR's famous commentary on the bombing of Pearl Harbor: "This is a day that will live in infamy."
Who can forget JFK's inaugural speech and the words: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring word's from the Washington D.C. Plaza: "I have a dream."
Those words all changed the course of history. They challenged our very souls and spirits, and as a result, we and our country will never be the same.
Words can do the same for people and their perception of themselves. They can be used for good. They can be used to inspire, lift up, motivate, instruct, and empathize.
In an old PEANUTS cartoon, Peppermint Patty phones Charlie Brown and says: "Marcie and I are about to leave for camp, Chuck. We're going to be swimming instructors." Marcie takes the phone and adds: "We just called to say good-bye, Charles. We are going to miss you. We love you." Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally, asks, "Who was that?" Standing there by the phone with an ear splitting grin of satisfaction on his face, Charlie Brown answers, "I think it was a right number."
A few years ago Dr. Nick Stinnett of the University of Nebraska conducted a group of studies called the "Family Strengths Research Project". Stinnett and his researchers identified six qualities that make for strong families. The first quality and one of the most important to be found in strong families was the quality of appreciation. "Families that are strong are strong in part," Dr. Stinnett concludes, "because family members express to each other their appreciation for what the other members DO and for who they ARE."
In a similar study, another researcher looked into the effect of praise in the workplace. His study showed that the ratio of praise to criticism in the workplace needs to be four to one before employees feel that there is a balance - that there must be four times as much praise as there is criticism before they feel good about their work and about the environment they work in.
That is pretty staggering information - information that tells us that if we want to do something good, that if we want to have a healthy family, a strong workplace, or any other effective group that we need to be sure that appreciation, praise, and thanksgiving are heard at least four times as often as is criticism. Praise and thanksgiving are important - our words have the power to influence, to encourage, and to build others up.
The tongue not only has the potential to control and influence for good, but it also has the power to cause great damage.
James 3:5b-6 (NKJV) .... See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
Just as a great forest is set on fire by only a little spark of fire, so it is with the tongue. The tongue is a fire that can set a whole forest of lives and relationships on fire, consuming and destroying all that lies in its path. It is a world of iniquity; it can cause what seems to be a world of sin and destruction when it is set ablaze. A fire can begin with just a small spark, but it can grow to destroy a city.
A fire reportedly started in the O'Leary barn in Chicago at 8:30 P.M., October 8, 1871; and because that fire spread, over 100,000 people were left homeless, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, and 300 people died. It cost the city over 400 million.
Proverbs compares the tongue to fire:
Proverbs 26:20-21 (NKJV) Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; And where there is no tale-bearer, strife ceases. 21 As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
Because words possess power to cause all kinds of damage, we need to be very careful how we use our words! One study found that newlyweds who ended up staying married would only make five critical comments(out of 100 comments) about each other. Among those who later divorced, ten of every 100 remarks was a put-down. By the time ten years of marriage had rolled by, the pairs who were headed for divorce were insulting each other five times more often than the other couples. For a marriage to survive, husbands and wives should learn to keep their negativity under control, to use words to keep the conflict manageable. Otherwise, the hostility escalates to the point that their physiological condition makes it impossible to process any new information. Efforts to communicate then become futile. ("A lens on matrimony" by Joannie Schrof. U.S. News & World Report, Feb 21, 1994 (Vol 116, No 7). Pages 66-69. Topic: CONFLICT, MARITAL.)
Solomon put it this way:
Proverbs 15:1 (NKJV) A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.
Talking about damage done by the tongue, do you remember Richard Jewell? He was the security officer who was first on the scene when the bomb exploded at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He acted conscientiously and courageously, and he was quite, indeed, a hero. Then, as is typical in such events, the FBI developed suspicions about Jewell, and began to consider him a suspect in the bombing. The FBI was simply doing their job; they need to suspect everyone. But the media went wild with the story. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed a story packed with innuendo and misleading comments. The New York Post called him a "fat, former failed sheriff's deputy" in a story that crossed the line between reporting him as a possible suspect and declaring him guilty. Even Tom Brokaw compromised his credibility by saying, "They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him. But you always want enough to convict him."
Well, you know how the story turned out. Richard Jewell didn't plant the bomb. He really was a hero. He put his life in danger to save other people, and he was ripped to shreds by the press. But this time (for once) the media was held accountable. A number of news organizations, including NBC, settled with Jewell for an undisclosed amount, rather than go through the humiliation of a public trial.
This event taught us a couple of things: Number one, just because Tom Brokaw says something doesn't mean it's true. You need to remember when you watch the news that there is a very real possibility you're getting only a fraction of the story.
Another thing it taught is this: You can do a lot of damage by speaking before you get the facts, and some of the damage will come your way. You may never find yourself in the kind of jam NBC was in after reporting lies about Richard Jewel, but you can be sure that if you open your mouth before you get the facts, you are courting disaster for yourself and everyone else involved.
No wonder Solomon warned:
Proverbs 18:21 (NKJV) Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.
Proverbs 18:13 (NKJV) He who answers a matter before he hears it, It is folly and shame to him.
Proverbs 10:19 (NKJV) In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise.
No wonder David prayed:
Psalms 141:3-4a (NKJV) Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; Keep watch over the door of my lips. 4 Do not incline my heart to any evil thing ...
James goes on to say:
James 3:7 (NKJV) For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.
Even though the tongue weighs practically nothing, it's surprising how few persons are able to hold it. Men have tamed every kind of creature there is: some beasts, birds, serpents, and some creatures of the sea. But man is unable to tame the tongue.
James 3:8 (NKJV) But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
The tongue cannot be completely tamed by any man - the idea is completely and fully tamed. Note that the verse says that no man can tame the tongue. But God can.
Lehman Strauss says, "While no man can tame the tongue, there is One who can. The Lord is no less able to control a lying, blaspheming, slanderous, gossiping tongue than He is to deliver the drunkard from alcohol, the gambler from the game table, the narcotics addict from drugs, or the lustful person from adultery" ("James Your Brother". Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1956, p.134).
The point is this: no man is able to tame his own tongue; not fully, not completely, not adequately, not enough to please God. Only Christ can control a man's tongue. And he does this as we live in dependence on Him.
The tongue is "unruly" - this is the Greek word akatastaton, it means: "restless, uneasy, unstable, always roaming about." And it is full of deadly poison.
The tongue and words can be used for good and to build up. Or the tongue and words can be used for evil and to tear down. Sometimes we do it by accident. Haven't you ever said something that came out wrong, and you wished you could take it back? Or you said something you knew you shouldn't have, and you saw the pain on the other person's face? That's an accident and can usually be repaired, especially between friends or loved ones.
But there are times when the tongue and words are used maliciously, knowingly used as a weapon to hurt or destroy. The tongue is full of deadly poison.
James 3:9-10 (NKJV) With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
Note how inconsistent the tongue is: it blesses God and curses men. Imagine! The very same tongue that blesses is the same tongue that curses. How many sit in church on Sunday or at meals blessing God and then turn around on Monday and curse and attack our fellow man? It is the same tongue that does both. How restless it is! It is difficult to hold the tongue still, and when it speaks, it is just as liable to speak some curse word as it is to speak some blessing.
Be aware of the damage you can cause with words. The words we say create most of the problems we face. Most problems at church or in the workplace are the result of words. Most divorces are not caused by infidelity or desertion--they are caused by words. Most conflicts between parents and children are not the result of some generation gap--they're the result of words. Parents will spend 16 years speaking harshly to their children, constantly putting them down, and then they wonder why their teenager suddenly has so much hostility!
We need to remember that our words carry tremendous weight, and they can cause enormous damage. The Bible says, "Reckless words pierce like a sword..." (Proverbs 12:18) This is exactly what James means when he says in verse 6, "The tongue is a fire." We must be mindful of the fact that our words are weapons; they have the power to destroy.
Paul teaches that Christian communication must radically cut out certain talk.
Ephesians 4:29 (NKJV) Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
The word for "corrupt" in this verse is the Greek word sapros, which denotes literally: "what is rotten, putrid, or corrupt." Applied to language and relationships, it points to words that spoil relationships, poison another's influence, or corrupts another's character.
Also keep in mind that your words reveal much about you. Jesus said:
Matthew 12:34 (NKJV) "Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
He is saying that whatever is in your heart eventually comes out of your mouth. If your heart is critical and cold and bitter, your words will be, too. Our words betray us!
William Norris, an American journalist, once wrote: "If your lips would keep from slips, Five things observe with care: To whom you speak; of whom you speak; And how, and when, and where.
Believers, we must understand that our words have tremendous power. They have the power to control and influence, the power to hurt and destroy, and the power to build up and bless.
Psalms 39:1 (NKJV) I said, "I will guard my ways, Lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, While the wicked are before me."
Often that's what it takes, a tight, conscious muzzle on the muscle in your mouth. Harnessing such a destructive force requires a conscientious dependence on God.
In order to guard our tongues, take these two steps in dependence on the Lord:
Think first. Before your lips start moving, pause ten seconds and mentally preview your words. Are they accurate or exaggerated, kind of cutting, necessary or needless, wholesome or vile, grateful or complaining?
Talk less. Your chances of blowing it are directly proportional to the amount of time you spend with your mouth open. Try closing it for a while.
Publius, a Greek sage, observed, "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence."
Your ability or inability to control your tongue will determine--more than anything else--the level of success you enjoy in your relationships.