Words. They are so very interesting aren’t they? They’re made up of any combination of one or more of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, but their weight, power, and intensity far outweigh the sum total of their number. There are monosyllabic and multisyllabic words at our disposal for forming sentences, offering opinions, and making statements. You can study a language, including vocabulary, grammar, the sound of language, and how words evolve over time and that will make you a linguist. You can narrow your studies, focus solely on the topic of grammar, and master the knowledge of the structure of sentences, knowing where to place nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. You can possess an extensive vocabulary, master the study of grammar, and have at your command oratorical skills like Winston Churchill or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but you will never tame the tongue. Let’s turn to James 3:1-12 and read together.

1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 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. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 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. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:1-12 NIVO)

Words are so very powerful. Benjamin Franklin was referring to a printing press when he once said, “Give me 26 lead soldiers and I will conquer the world!” Mr. Franklin knew that a printing press, loaded with the 26 soldiers of the alphabet, had more power than guns to begin a revolution. Our tongues, our words delivered audibly or in the form of the written word possess so much power, power that brings great responsibility.  

I doubt you have given it much thought lately, but I hope you will leave here this morning absolutely overwhelmed, mesmerized by the gift God has given us in giving us our tongues. Our tongues are truly a marvel! Chuck Swindoll writes,

To the physician, it is merely a two-ounce slab of mucous membrane enclosing a complex array of muscles and nerves that enable our bodies to chew, taste, and swallow. How helpful! Equally significant, it is also the major organ of communication that enables us to articulate distinct sounds so we can understand each other. How essential! Without the tongue no mother could sing her baby to sleep tonight. No ambassador could adequately represent our nation. No teacher could stretch the mind of students. No officer could lead his fighting men in battle. No attorney could defend the truth in court. No pastor could comfort troubled souls. No complicated, controversial issue could ever be discussed and solved. Our entire world would be reduced to grunts and shrugs. But the tongue is as volatile as it is vital. It was author Washington Irving who first said, ‘A sharp tongue is the only edge tool that grows keener with constant use.’ (Swindoll, Chuck. Growing Strong in The Seasons of Life. pg. 25-26.)

How beautiful and yet frightening all at the same time isn’t it? Beautiful from the standpoint of the wonderful words we can speak and the ways we can use our tongues to inspire, comfort, instruct, unite and more. The manner in which they are delivered can make words more powerful, intimate, crushing, or touching than the words themselves. Take for example the word, “dream.” You can hear the word “dream” and immediately think whatever you will think. You might immediately think of what came to mind during the night as you slept. For someone else the word “dream” might stir thoughts of what you hope will happen for you one day. You dream of winning the lottery, of Prince Charming coming your way, or of owning your own home. The list of dreams is endless. Yet, for another, the word might be filled with disappointment as you think of what you once hoped for only to realize that it was nothing more than a dream. But, when that single solitary word, the word, “dream, is placed precisely, described and defined with clarity, fashioned by a master wordsmith, delivered with a rich baritone, thunderous voice, with cadence and rhythm, then a mere word creates an inescapable memory that will linger throughout history. “I have a dream…” Need I say anything more?

That’s the beauty of the tongue, the power inherent in our words, but there is another side, the dark, sordid story of the misuse of the tongue isn’t there? Our tongues, our words can cut deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel. Wounds may heal in time, but the scars left by a poison-filled tongue, a sentence that stings, a paralyzing arrangement of nouns, verbs, and adjectives can last a lifetime. Words are so powerful they can even destroy life. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 18:21,

21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21 NIVO)

The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” can be traced back at least to 1830. Either the times were different and they didn’t use words in the same way we do today, which I highly doubt, or it just simply isn’t true. Words can inflict unbearable, unimaginable harm.

On Wednesday of this past week police in Panama City, Florida charged two middle school students, both of them age 12, with cyberstalking in the death of their 12 year old friend, Gabbie Green. Gabbie was found in her home on January 10 where she had hung herself with a belt. The bullying started shortly after Gabbie moved to Panama City in October of 2016. Mean text messages, hateful social media posts, boy trouble and girl drama–it all piled up on Gabbie.

The 12 year old girl who has been charged told the police, “Her actions consisted of starting rumors of the victim having sexually transmitted diseases, vulgar name-calling… and threats to ‘expose’ personal and sensitive details of the victim’s life.”  The 12 year old boy who has been charged told police Gabbie had texted him to tell him she had attempted to hang herself because she had a bad day. Later in the day the two of them had a video chat and the boy said, “If you’re going to do it, just do it” and ended the call. Gabbie’s parents had been to the school repeatedly during the past year to try and get help in stopping the online bullying through Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook but the harassment never stopped.

I feel for those of you who have young children. Kids are getting cell phones at a younger and younger age today and that is giving them access to unlimited dangers. Most kids are highly social, they want to fit in, they want to have friends, but with all of the various social media apps out there today, friends can turn to foes in a heartbeat over any number of issues and the results can be disastrous. Some naive parents say, “I keep a tight rein on my child’s use of social media.” You have no idea my friends. There are evil geniuses who have created apps that you aren’t even aware of, apps that are on their phone, but you can’t see them, and all of this to help your kids avoid your watchful eyes. Besides that, your kids are more tech savvy than you and I ever dreamed.

“They’re just words.” “I didn’t mean anything by what I said.” “Can’t you take a joke?!” “Don’t be so sensitive!” Kids and adults sometimes counter our cutting words when we recognize the harm we’ve done, but we don’t want to take ownership of the damage. Then, there are those times that we genuinely feel bad about what we’ve said, how we have hurt another person, so we ask for forgiveness and want to wipe what we’ve done from our minds.

The lady came to her pastor and she said, “I’ve been guilty of slander. I want to repent of it and be done with it. Can you help me?” The pastor said, “I can help you. I want you to take chicken feathers and lay them on the front doorstep of all of the houses of the community.” So the lady went home, took a big basket of chicken feathers with her, and made her way through the neighborhood as she laid one on each doorstep of all of the houses. She then went back to the pastor and said, “I did it.” He said, “Now I want you to go back tomorrow morning, gather them all up, and bring them back to me.” She said, “Well, I can’t do that. The wind has blown and they are everywhere.” He said, “Exactly, you may turn from your sin and be forgiven, but the wind has blown your words everywhere and the words spoken will never come back.” A word once spoken can be forgiven, but it can never be forgotten. James wrote,

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8 NIVO)

We have a problem don’t we? It’s a pervasive problem. The problem spans every culture, every ethnic group, every age group, every socio-economic group, and regardless of how much education you have received, you still can’t tame your tongue. I’ve been to Seaworld and watched killer whales jump through hoops, dolphins do double back-flips, and sea lions fetch a ball like a dog. I’ve been to the circus and seen elephants sit and twirl at the command of their trainer while bears rode bicycles. I’ve watched lions and tigers roll over at the crack of a whip. I’ve heard a parrot named Boozle sing the national anthem. Somewhere in the world there’s a man teaching gnats to dance on the head of a pin. A male killer whale weighs 12,000 pounds, a grizzly bear stands 7 feet tall and weighs 800-900 pounds, and a 100 pound trainer can make them do things with nothing more than the sound of their voice. Our tongue weighs in at about 2.5 ounces and yet it is more unruly than the wildest of beasts. Someone once said, “Our tongues weigh practically nothing and yet no one can hold it.” James would agree. Back in James 1:26 he wrote,

26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26 NIVO)

We can have a hard heart, a calloused heart, an evil heart and still fool people…as long as we keep our mouths shut. Proverbs tells us as much in Proverbs 17:28 where we read, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” A fool, a fiend, or a foe can hide behind lips that refuse to open. The problem is we don’t, we won’t, and according to James, we can’t. Our tongues reveal what is in our hearts. Jesus said,

45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45 NIVO)

“…Out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”  If there is anger and resentment rooted in our hearts then what we say will align with how we feel. If there is hatred in a person’s heart then regardless of how badly a person tries to hide it, his or her mouth will reveal that hatred eventually. A hurting heart oftentimes manifest itself in hurtful words directed at others. At the same time, a heart that is full of joy and gratitude will overflow in words of encouragement. Words of blessing and celebration will most definitely flow from our mouths into the lives of others when our identity is rooted and secure in who we are in Christ and not defined by what we have or what we do. An honest heart will spill over into words of truth.

James said, “…no one can tame the tongue.” We can manage our tongues in the moment. We can use our tongues in such a way that those who are merely acquaintances might be led to believe that we are something when in actuality we are something totally different. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, young Faithful came upon a man Bunyan called “Talkative.” Faithful was more than impressed by Talkative’s knowledge of such a wide variety of subjects and his command of the english language. After Faithful and Talkative finished their conversation, Faithful’s friend, Christian, entered the scene and Faithful excitedly shared his feelings about his new friend. Faithful had been more than impressed. Then Christian spoke up. He admitted that Talkative was very impressive to those who do not have a “thorough acquaintance with him, for he is best abroad; near home he is ugly enough.” Christian said Talkative was like a painting that looks best from a distance. Christian told Faithful that he had been in Talkative’s home and observed him. He said the people who know him say he is “A saint abroad, and a devil at home.” Christian then said,

His poor family finds it so; he is such a churl, such a railer at, and so unreasonable with his servants, that they neither know how to do for or speak to him. Men that have any dealings with him say, It is better to deal with a Turk than with him, for fairer dealings they shall have at their hands. This Talkative (if it be possible) will go beyond them, defraud, beguile, and overreach them. Besides, he brings up his sons to follow his steps; and if he finds in any of them a foolish timorousness, (for so he calls the first appearance of a tender conscience,) he calls them fools and blockheads, and by no means will employ them in much, or speak to their commendation before others. For my part, I am of opinion that he has, by his wicked life, caused many to stumble and fall; and will be, if God prevents not, the ruin of many more. (Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress.)

We, as followers of Jesus, may not have tamed the tongue, but we’ve sure figured out what kind of words to use to impress those who are nothing more than acquaintances, as Christian would phrase it. We can get up on a Sunday morning, be irritable as irritable can be while we are getting ready to go to church, growl at our mate and our children all the way into the parking lot, and then turn on the charm and Christianese as soon as we hit the door to the sanctuary. “Bless you brother.” “It’s so good to see you sister.” “I’ve been praying for you this week pastor.” “Has the Lord been good to you this week brother?” And then shout, “Amen!” and “Praise the Lord!” throughout the sermon. We’ve trained our tongues to behave in the house of the Lord, but what about our own homes? It’s important for us to recognize that though we may fool some, those who are closest to us know what we are doing. What are we doing? We’re just putting on a show. In Matthew 15, Jesus said,

7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'” 10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'” (Matthew 15:7-11 NIVO)

It’s what comes out of our mouths that makes us unclean. Living in this day in which we live where there is no sense of civility, no call to holiness of speech, no consecration of our mouths to God, we do not think twice about saying whatever is on our minds. I’ve even heard people say, “I speak my mind and I don’t care what others think.” There’s no conviction concerning what we say regardless of who it hurts. We just let words fly like arrows in a crowd.

I’ve spent some time with Isaiah this past week. I was struck by his reaction, his initial response when he saw the holiness and righteousness of God. Turn with me to Isaiah 6:1-5 and let’s read together.

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5 NIVO)

Did you hear that? “Woe to me! I am ruined!” Why? Had Isaiah stolen something? Had he committed adultery like David? Was he a hypocrite like Simon Peter? A worry wart like Martha? Or a murderer like the Apostle Paul? He didn’t confess any of those things, but he did say this: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” I pray that this same sense of conviction will fall upon all of us who are here this morning. I pray that the Lord will enable us to see and understand that we are a people of unclean lips and our eyes have seen our King. You see, it was when Isaiah confessed his sin, that he recognized, owned, and confessed that he could not tame his tongue and then he received the help he needed. In the very next verse we read where a seraph of the Lord flew to Isaiah with a live coal in his hand, touched Isaiah’s lips, and said, “…See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:7 NIVO)

You and I will never be able, we are not capable of training our tongue, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tamed, transformed. Won’t you confess your predicament with Isaiah this morning and allow the Lord to cleanse you and consecrate you for His glory?

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

The Untamable Tongue
James 3:1-2
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