James3v1to12: TAMING THE TONGUE.

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This passage is often used to illustrate the influence of the tongue on others. I am not convinced that this was the intention of James. Instead he warns us to guard our tongue because it greatly affects its user. What we say and how we say it reveals much about ourselves. If anyone is never at fault in what he says he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. v2.

(B) The tongue gives our lives direction. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 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. v3and4.

The bit in the horses mouth and the rudder on a ship are a means of imparting direction to the horse and ship respectively. The tongue is an important means of imparting direction to our lives.
What we say at pivotal or crucial moments will set our lives in a certain direction. The words may be the culmination of much thought but they are none the less indispensable in determining the pathway we take.

A man may love a woman very much but until he asks the question, "Will you marry me?" there is some doubt about his commitment. The question is a statement of intent and is going to shape the rest of his life.

I have dealt with the importance of such statements in my story by the same name. Please read it. There was another occasion when I made a declaration that had a considerable impact upon my life. My mother was taken very ill on a Woman's Meeting outing. How she got home I will never know. I suspected a heart attack but three doctors failed to take her condition seriously. So she stopped in bed for a couple of days. On the third night after her attack I heard my father calling, "John, come quickly! John, come quickly!" My mother was sprawled out on the bed - dead. I was so sorry for my father. His life had been such a struggle. For fourteen years his health had deteriorated inexorably due to Parkinson's disease. Now he had lost his wife. I looked at my poor, old father and said, "I will look after you."

Jesus encouraged his disciples to make a profession of faith when he asked, "Who do you say I am?" Mt16v15. Simon Peter's reply certainly gave direction to his life. He answered: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." v16. Jesus commended Peter for this uncompromising declaration and promised that upon it he would build his church.

Saul of Tarsus spoke just five crucial words on the road to Damascus that showed his life had been completely turned round and he was intent upon moving in quite a different direction. He said to Jesus: "What shall I do, Lord?" Acts22v10. This simple statement was a commitment to discipleship.

The ship only changes direction when the helmsman uses the rudder. It then has to be held in place to keep the ship pointing the same way. The words we speak have a vital bearing upon our journey through life and its final destination. They reinforce or confirm an inner tendency and shape our development.

We must be careful not to talk about nothing but money lest we make shipwreck upon the cruel rocks of Avarice. If we spend our time running others down we shall hardly avoid the reefs of Censoriousness and Mean Spirit. I know folk who talk compulsively about themselves and sail round and round the bleak Island of Self-centredness. Others are so opinionated they never leave the Boring Sea. Purveyors of dirty stories get stuck on the filthy mud banks of the Lewd Marshes. Gossip and rumour-mongers lay close by in a polluted little creek called Graceless.

Paul promised the Romans: If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Rom10v9. If we speak up for Jesus we will end life's voyage in the Heavenly Havens.

(C) The tongue is self-destructive. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. v5and6.

These are the verses that are often quoted to emphasise how the tongue can ruin the lives of others. This is not the intention of James. He is saying that just as a spark can set a great forest on fire so the tongue, such a small member, can corrupt and destroy a person's life.

Consider the consequences of possessing a wheedling, pleading tongue. I know a man who loved going on holiday to Morocco where he made friends with a local family. He went to stay with this family every time he visited the country. However, the members of the family made increasing demands upon him. On his last visit they pleaded for his car! They lost their dignity. I have taught numerous attractive little girls who have tried to exploit the affection I have for them to get their own way. Fuzz and Buzz spent a lunch hour trying to wheedle out of their next Geography lesson so that they could rehearse a play. In the end they lost their dignity and I lost my temper.

A man with a deceitful tongue loses much. I respected James - he was a steady, industrious, levelheaded boy. One day he came to me and said, "I am sorry Mr Reed - I can't hand my homework in - I've left my book at home." I was prepared to accept this - until a small, fag end of humanity whispered: "Have a look in his bag Mr Reed." I did and discovered James had not left his exercise book at home after all. It was a shock. I never expected it of him. He lost his integrity. The person who fawns and flatters also loses this virtue. It is a terrible loss.

I have always had an angry tongue. I know what it destroyed - my judgment. It destroyed David's the day he tried to extort protection money from Nabal. Nabal sent back a dusty answer. David was furious. He said: May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" David lost his sense of proportion. It destroyed his judgment. He was only saved from taking an ill-considered revenge by the wisdom of Abigail.

One day a mature student, a nice lady, observed one of my Geography lessons. It was, perhaps, just as well! When I attempted to collect in the form's homework one third of the pupils had not done it. I railed at them. At the end of the lesson I said to the student, "It makes me so cross - one third, one third of them, without their homework." She smiled at me and replied, "Be positive, Mr Reed, two thirds had done it." She was gently reminding me to keep a sense of proportion.

If we have a reputation for volatility our judgment will always be suspect. Even when we are right no-one will pay much attention because of the heated way in which we speak.

The Pharisees had carping, uncompromising, critical tongues and no compassion. They had no pity. Jesus said, "They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." Mt23v4. The Pharisees' lack of pity was illustrated by their attitute to the blind beggar whom Jesus healed. For them the beggar's blindness was either a consequence of his own or his parent's sin. They were not glad he was healed on the Sabbath. When the man remonstrated with them the Pharisees said, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. John9v34.

I sometimes have bitter and resentful thoughts. On such occasions I have no peace. Now, on the whole, I do not give voice to bitterness. If I do it reinforces the horrible, churning, vengeful feelings. They spread through my whole being like the deadly venom of a poisonous snake. It (the tongue) is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. v8. There is no surer way of destroying peace than by talking compulsively about your hurt. The less said about it the better. It has to be dealt with through prayer and the application of Scripture.

(D) The tongue spoils our witness. 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. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grape-vine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Sadly it is true that we use our tongues to both praise God and curse men. One morning I gave a talk in assembly that undoubtedly touched hearts and cheered up the whole school. I was amply rewarded because the children were nice to me all day. It was a sure testimony to the power of the spoken word. The following morning I was in a morose mood. First lesson the class was lively and inattentive. I made them work in silence. One pretty, blond-haired girl reacted badly - scowling, muttering insults under her breath and working with bad grace. She was wearing her friendship band. They were all the rage then. As I walked past her I said, "It's no good wearing a friendship band if you can't be friendly." She snapped back, "I'm certainly no friend of yours." Things went from bad to worse.

Inconsistency did not destroy my witness as a schoolteacher but it did spoil it. One day my speech was like a spring of clear, fresh water and the next it welled up - brackish and bitter.

Many years ago I conducted Walter's funeral. David X, the organist and a colleague of mine, was very moved by what I said. I was a fig tree bearing figs - a Christian giving expression to the believer's glorious hope. A few days later I sat in the staff room with my cronies making them laugh with descriptions of some girls I taught. My comments were coarse - very near the knuckle. I happened to glance up and caught the expression of Mr X. He was disappointed. I was a fig tree bearing olives. My bawdy talk was not consistent with the high-flown sentiments of the funeral eulogy.

It would be very upsetting if a spring sometimes produced pure water and at other times brackish, tainted water. People who relied on that spring would never know what to expect. It would trouble them. I have to confess that in my career as a teacher I was a bit like such a spring. I often heard the children waiting to come into my room ask an out-going class, "Is he in a good mood today?" What a power for good the tongue is. We can use it to encourage, to build confidence and help others to succeed or we can employ it to cut someone down to size, to humiliate and lower self-esteem. It can be used to make folk happy or miserable. However, we should never forget James' warning - it not only spoils the lives of others but it spoils us. I am not without some virtues but I have never been able to discipline my tongue. My inconsistency in the classroom spoiled me as a teacher.

The tongue corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. .... No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. What is the solution? All I have been capable of is: sorrow, penitence and many new beginnings. When I remember that I shall be held to account for every idle word I am glad that Jesus is my Saviour. I happily acknowledge my reliance upon Grace.

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