Taming That Wild Thing: the Tongue

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : James 3:7-8

What does it take to transform the way we speak?

The Power of Small Things

Many a bully has discovered that small doesn’t always mean weak. Tiny isn’t necessarily timid. Calvin Murphy, I remember, was a rather short man playing in a game for giants – professional basketball. When bigger opponents, however, tried to intimidate Calvin, they discovered to their surprise that he was tougher, stronger, and more formidable than they were. Murphy, the little man, was one of the league’s most feared “enforcers” – players who keep opposing bullies in line.

The Bible often speaks of the remarkable power that small things exercise. The New Testament writer James, for example, gives us several sketches from life that illustrate the point. Here’s a sleek stallion, muscles rippling, the picture of raw power. But by a small bit placed in that horse’s mouth, a man can guide and restrain it and make it obey his slightest whim. Or picture a heavy ocean vessel, capable of withstanding the most violent storms. The helmsman can direct the motion of that vessel in any way he wants by the use of a small rudder. Or again, to change the image, an almost limitless expanse of forest can become an inferno of destruction and death when ignited by one fleeting spark. If James were writing today, he would have even more impressive illustrations ready at hand. We know now a little bit of what staggering energies are locked up in one incredibly tiny atom!

The Power of the Tongue

But the Bible doesn’t simply speculate about how things are or hold up the mirror to nature. James is interested supremely in human life and behavior, in genuine, down-to-earth religion. His thoughts about the power of the small lead up to what he really wants to talk about: the tongue.

Listen to James, chapter 3, verse 5: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things.” The tongue seems to be a rather small and unimposing part of the body, doesn’t it? Soft, without bony structure, usually hidden from view. Who would guess that it can wield such power? But it can.

Listen to these biblical proverbs about its use: “The lips of the righteous feed many. . . . The tongue of the wise is health” (Prov. 10:21; 12:18). The human tongue can affirm others, express love, impart truth, share the good news of God’s love. It can speak words that heal, liberate, and redeem. But that is not all.

“Rash words,” says another proverb, “are like sword thrusts” (Prov. 12:18). The tongue can wound. It can demean and deceive others. It can destroy a good name or blaspheme the Name above all names. You have heard it said that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But isn’t the tongue mightier than both? “Death and life,” says the Bible, “are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).

James wants especially to impress on his hearers its destructive possibilities. “The tongue is a fire,” he writes, “an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). The tongue can be a fire that sears, ravages, and destroys. It takes in a whole universe of possible evil and is capable of the worst deeds imaginable. Remember that little rhyme we used to say as children? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We were whistling in the dark, weren’t we? We really knew that the words could hurt worst of all.

“The tongue,” says James, “defiles the whole person.” What you say with that one small member can altogether permeate your life with pollution and guilt. The tongue can inflame and torment every faculty of our being or of another’s. It is so fiendish in its cruelty and destructiveness that its fire, says James, must have been kindled by the flames of hell. Oh, what words can do to people! What speeches and harangues can do to the world!

I still remember the chilling sensation I felt when I first heard a recording of public addresses by Adolph Hitler. I couldn’t understand the language, but the palpable power of those speeches to kindle hate, fear, and cruelty, was downright terrifying. And we don’t have to be tyrants speaking to multitudes to create such hellish effects. Sneering projections of blame, our jokes at another’s expense, our badgering and name-calling, have been doing the same deadly work. The tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness.

How Can It Be Tamed?

But now comes the most frightening fact of all about the tongue. No one can tame it. Listen to James again: “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed, and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” What about that? Is the picture overdrawn? Out of what kind of experience do you suppose James made these observations? Simply by observing people. Human relationships, then and now, can become inconceivably bitter and painful through the unbridled exercise of the tongue. The play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an ugly example of that, so gripping because it’s so close to life.

Maybe we are restrained in our speech toward certain people. We watch what we say around those we want to impress or whose disfavor we may fear. But when we really let fly at someone defenseless or unimportant to us, we show we haven’t tamed the tongue; we’ve only domesticated it for show.

Do you know why we can’t tame the tongue? Because it’s the index of something deeper. Jesus gave us the most profound of all insights into human speech when he said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). The tongue, of course, is nothing in itself but a flap of flesh; but it reveals, it expresses, it sends forth what is in the human heart. “The good man,” says Jesus, “out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (v. 35). From within, out of the heart of man, from the inmost personal center of our being, come all manner of evil things. And one of their chief channels is the tongue.

We cannot tame our tongues because we cannot heal our hearts. The real problem is there. The tongue only gives it away. Remember those scornful words spoken to Peter on the night our Lord was betrayed? When the rugged apostle denied that he was a Galilean, someone said, “Your speech betrays you” (see Matt. 26:73). Your accent makes a liar out of you. What you say shows you up for what you are – every time.

All attempts to refine speech without transforming personality are doomed to be superficial. It’s of no use to perfume the waters that flow by your house when the stream is poisoned at the source. What good are band-aids and lotions for surface sores when the cancer is in the blood and the bone?

What is James bringing us here – a counsel of despair? “We have a dreadful problem on our hands or in our hearts and we can’t do a thing about it?” No, he doesn’t mean to say that. In fact, he says it’s a deplorable situation of which we ought to be ashamed if evil keeps pouring forth from our tongues – especially if we claim to be God’s people. “With the same tongue,” says James, “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). James argues that there ought to be a consistency of what comes forth from our inner lives.

Christ the Tongue-Tamer

He is building, you see, on the foundation of the gospel. He’s writing to people who have experienced the saving power of Jesus. He’s already said that no human being can tame the tongue. But he knows that the situation isn’t hopeless because Christ can. Remember the account in the Gospels about the raging maniac who made his home among the tombs? Chains and shackles could not bind him. No power on earth could restrain his violent rage. But at the word of Jesus he became sober and teachable. People who had known him before were amazed to find him clothed and in his right mind. Jesus can change the most tortured, rebellious heart. He can tame the most unruly tongue. By the power of his Holy Spirit, he can make all things new.

Here is the marvelous good news of the Christian message. God in Christ has done something unspeakably wonderful for us. In the dying of Jesus for our sins, he has provided a way by which we can be forgiven and accepted as God’s dear children. In the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, he has begun a process of transformation within us. To be born again, to be converted, to be saved, means among other things to receive a new heart.

And the wonderful thing is, that ancient promise of a new heart for old is coming true! No matter what kind of tongue you have, what kind of heart, Jesus the Savior can do something about it. If you will trust him, simply trust him, as the one who came from the Father’s heart to seek and save you, to die for you, and give life, you can receive now the gift of his Spirit. You can taste what Paul meant when he said, “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). You can partake of the bread of life. You can drink the living water. You can have life – more abundantly.

Will you now receive Jesus Christ, the living Lord? Will you acknowledge your need of him? Will you confess the plague of your heart, the sins of your tongue, and invite him into your life to save and to rule? Will you do that now in a simple act of commitment? A simple prayer of trust? You can do that right where you are. You can know beyond all doubt that Christ lives within you by his Spirit and has given you a new heart.

Perhaps today you are already a believer in Christ. You have been for years, but you still have problems with your tongue, and that makes you uneasy about your heart. It seems at times like that fountain of which James spoke, giving sweet and bitter water at the same time. You’re ready to agree with James that these things “ought not to be so” and yet they don’t seem to change.

Well, you began to find the answer when Christ entered your life, and you’ll find it more and more as he dwells in your heart by faith, as you know the fullness of his Holy Spirit. I think of a man in the first church I served named Art. He was in a class among people who were going to join the church. But when he finished the class he told me to my great disappointment that he wasn’t ready. I didn’t understand that exactly but then several weeks later he came back and he said, “I’m ready.”

What had happened was that where he worked people had begun to notice that he was talking differently. He had been a very profane man in his life before. And one day someone said to him, “Art, what’s happened to you? You don’t speak like you used to.” Well, he asked what they meant and they told him, and that convinced him that he was ready now to join the church because Christ had come into his heart, and out of his heart began to flow a different kind of message.

That can happen for you if you trust in Christ and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. You can speak in such a way that people will be blessed and God will be praised.