A Small Spark

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 3, 2016

James 3:1-12 Taming the Tongue: A Small Spark

Matt Mitchell
Today we are beginning a new series called Taming the Tongue. As we begin a new year, I’m going to talk about the power of our words. Perhaps a New Year’s resolution we could all consider making for 2016 is to be more careful about what we say.

A little background on why we are doing this series now. I wrote about this in the latest church newsletter. I have a friend named Matt Mitchell. He and I met on our very first day of seminary, in a class we called suicide Greek. We tried to learn Greek in about 16 weeks, 8 hours a day, five days a week. And we stayed friends all the way through seminary. After graduation, I came back to Iowa, and Matt moved to Pennsylvania where he has pastored the same church for almost 18 years now.

Matt is an excellent preacher, and he posts all his sermons on his blog. Whenever I preach on a passage, I check to see if Matt has preached on it first. If he has, then he instantly becomes one of my main sources. If you’ve been attending Hope for very long, I’m sure you’ve heard me quote “my friend Matt.”

Anyway, couple of years ago Matt completed his doctorate and had to choose a project to focus on. He did some checking and discovered that there was very little written in the Christian world on gossip. So he made that the focus of his dissertation, and then decided to turn it into a book. The book is called Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue. This is what it looks like. Matt sent me a whole case of them, and they are available for you to purchase at the info center. $10 apiece.

So, anyway, the story goes like this. Last November I was working ahead and planning my sermons for the first half of 2016. Inspired by Matt, I decided I would begin the year with a series called Taming the Tongue, focusing on some of the ways our speech can get us into trouble. I planned out messages on grumbling, swearing, dishonesty, and gossip.

The very next day, I got an email from Matt letting me know that he was thinking about coming to a conference in Des Moines in January. He was wondering, if it wasn’t too far from Des Moines to Spencer, if it would be worth it for him to stay an extra day or two and come do a seminar on his book, which is something we had talked about when it was first published. When I checked the date, I realized the weekend he was looking at was the very same weekend I had scheduled to preach about gossip!

I, of course, do not believe in luck. I believe in providence. And it seemed that God had providentially arranged for Matt’s visit.

So, on Saturday, January 23, Matt is going to lead a seminar on his book. And on Sunday, January 24, Matt is going to speak during our Sunday morning worship service. I’m excited for you to hear him, though we’ve joked that you’ve already heard him preach, since I quote him so much.

Why “sins of the tongue”?
So, for the next six weeks, we’re going to be talking about “sins of the tongue.” Not just gossip, but things like grumbling and swearing and lying as well. As I said, it makes a pretty good New Year’s Resolution for us to work on being more careful about what we say.

In preparation for Matt’s visit I sent him some interview questions. One of the questions I asked him was why he thinks “sins of the tongue” are neglected in the Christian world. He gave me four reasons, and they stand as a pretty good explanation for why this sermon series is important:

"For one, we're Americans, and we have freedom of speech in this country--the right to speak our minds. What we forget, however, is that just because we have a right doesn't mean we should exercise that right. We are Christians first and Americans second. And Christians answer to a higher authority--our Lord. We should only be using our mouths to speak what He would have us speak (Ephesians 4:29).

Another reason is that we tend to think that words are cheap; it's actions that count. And there is definitely truth in that statement. If we say something but don't follow through, it invalidates our statements. But that doesn't mean that our words themselves are not powerful. They are! Proverbs 18:21 says, "The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit." That's serious stuff!

Yet another reason is that the effects of our words are not always visible or immediate. If all words were like spells in Harry Potter, then we'd see a poof of smoke and things instantly starting to change around us. But Christians know that our words have consequences even when we don't see the effects right away.

One last reason I can think of off the top of my head is that our world is full of words, words, words. We live in the information age and are drowning in a deluge of words, so it doesn't seem like our own words, no matter how many or how bad, can really be that important in the grand scheme of things. But our Lord calls us to another perspective. He says that He is listening to our words and will be holding us accountable for them. In fact, he says that we'll have to give an account for every "careless word" we have spoken. Not just every malicious word but every idle one, too. That's a sobering reality."

Pretty good reasons for us to pay attention to the words we speak.

And to start the series, we are going to turn to James 3. This is the passage where we get the phrase “Taming the Tongue.” James 3 is the longest sustained discussion in the New Testament about watching the words we speak. James uses the word “tongue” to stand for the many ways that we communicate with words. He uses all kinds of word-pictures and metaphors to describe the trouble the tongue can get us into. “This passage is a warning to take the tongue seriously and to do something serious about it.” (Matt Mitchell, The Fearsome Tongue, April 7, 2013, http://matt-mitchell.blogspot.com/2013/04/matts-messages-fearsome-tongue...)

So, what I’d like to do is go through the passage verse by verse. As we do, we’ll find 5 truths about the tongue. Then, at the end, we’ll pull back and look a little more fully at the book of James, and see if we can’t find some New Year’s Resolutions.

Not Many of You
First, our Tongues have power. Speaking is a huge responsibility. Here’s how the passage starts, James 3:1:

1Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

This verse is a sobering reminder for someone like me that what I do most Sundays is a weighty responsibility. Teaching people the Word of God is a tremendous privilege, but it comes with its own set of pitfalls. Not only will I be judged for the things I do in my own life, I will also be judged for the things that I have taught. If I obscure God’s truth, if I bend or mis-represent it, if the people who learn from me are mis-instructed, I will bear responsibility for that.

It’s not that James is trying to discourage people from teaching God’s Word. Not at all. The church always needs more gifted men and women to pass on what they’ve learned to others. But what James wants us to see is the power that our words have. When we teach it’s not just our lives that are affected, but the lives of those who listen as well.

Now, it might seem like James is going to spend some time talking about the qualifications for being a teacher of the Word. You can find such qualifications in the books of 1 Peter and Titus, among others. But, as we’ll see, James is not primarily interested in teaching specifically so much as he is interested in speaking in general. And so, I think there is a principle at work in this verse that applies to all of us, regardless of whether we are in a teaching position: our tongues have power. When you speak, you affect those around you. Be careful of the words you speak, because you will be judged by those words.

Keep the Whole Body in Check
The second point: Our tongues set the direction. If we can control our tongues we’ll be able to control the rest of our lives. Verse 2:

2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When I was a kid, whenever I went to the doctor’s office I’d be asked to stick out my tongue (come to think of it, that was the only place it was considered socially acceptable to do that!) Apparently, a doctor can tell a great deal about our physical health just by looking into our mouths.

And now, James is saying something similar, spiritually. He’s saying that if you can keep your tongue in check, it is an indicator of your overall spiritual health. People who can master their mouths usually have mastery over other aspects of their lives as well.

James paints a couple of word pictures in verses 3 through 5:

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.

James takes these huge things: a 1,000 pound horse, a sea-going vessel capable of sailing in great winds—and he points out that they are actually controlled by very small items.

“Kent Hughes says, “A horse is a half-ton of raw power.” (Hughes, 137). Think about all the power of a horse running at full speed. But a little 75 pound girl who knows what she is doing can make a horse dance if she has a bit in his mouth.” (Mitchell, Ibid)

One of our aircraft carriers in the ocean is as big as a city with a city-full of servicemen on it. Proportionally, the rudder of that ship is tiny. Just a fraction of the ship’s overall size. And yet, the rudder steers the whole thing.

In the same way, the tongue, even though it is a relatively small part of the body, controls the direction of our lives.

This is really profound. Our tongues “turn” and “steer” our lives. In our marriages, in our parenting, in our workplace, in our church, in our friendships: the words we speak set the direction.

This tells you what is at stake with this series on the words we speak. James is saying that if you want to grow spiritually, then you should watch your tongue. The more you can control your tongue, the more you will grow in godliness.

Our tongues are small but mighty. They have great power. They have great effect in determining the direction of our lives–and the lives of the people around us.

The Tongue is a Fire
Which leads to our third point, which is a strong warning: Our Tongues can cause great problems. Our tongues are dangerous. Verses 5 and 6:

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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

We’re still talking about the disproportionate power of the tongue. It’s just a small part of the body, but it is so influential. In this case, the word picture James paints is of a small spark starting a huge fire.

Think about the coverage we have seen of wildfires in the west. Think about this summer, when our weather was being affected by forest fires in Canada. Everything was in a haze for days, and we were told it was smoke from thousands of miles away. And then consider what a small spark started those huge blazes: a lit cigarette thrown out of a car window, an untended campfire, a lighting strike on the top of some remote mountain. It doesn’t take much to do huge damage.

And the tongue, James says, is like that. “A fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”

The power that the tongue possesses is all too often a fire that destroys thing after thing in a person’s life. Job after job. Decision after decision. Church after church. And worst of all: relationship after relationship.

You know this is true. You’ve experienced it.
• How many arguments have you gotten into that, in retrospect, boiled down to a careless word?
• How many times have you had to scramble to set things right just because you stretched the truth? One lie demands another lie demands another until your whole forest is on fire.
• How often have you been made to feel about “this” big because of someone’s unfiltered criticism?
• How many times have you had to go back and repair the damage done because of some rumor that has floated around about you?
• How often has a little joke, some light teasing, a bit of sarcasm, come out of your mouth wrong and seriously wounded someone you care deeply about?

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.”

Instead of directing the body, the life, the person towards righteousness, “it corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

This is scary. Frightening. My friend Matt says: “So often, the tongue is a doorway into hell. Hell’s priorities and hell’s smoking stench is on the effects of the tongue. Destruction, decimation, and devastation.” (Ibid)

Sinclair Ferguson writes:

The tongue that sets on fire is set on fire itself by hell. James uses the biblical term Gehenna — the background reference being to the Valley of Hinnom on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem. It served as the city dump — hence the reference to fire — which presumably constantly burned there to destroy garbage…Was this the place to which our Lord’s body would have been taken were it not for the thoughtfulness of Joseph of Arimathaea? If so, it is difficult not to share with James a sense of disgust. It is from such a hell that destructive words arise. Remember that imagery whenever similar words seek to force their way out of your mouth. (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-tongue-the-bridle-and-the-blessi...)

A Restless Evil
Point number 4: Our Tongues are very hard to control. Our tongues are un-tameable. Verses 7-8:

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Another word picture. James mentions all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures that have been tamed by mankind. I think of a circus, with elephants dancing in a line and the lion tamer using a chair and whip to lead the big cats through a hoop. I think of Sea World, with dolphins jumping and twisting in the air and killer whales standing on their tales. Humanity has found a way to tame all sorts of wild animals.

But James’s diagnosis of our speech problem is very pessimistic: “No human being can tame the tongue.” We can train hawks to hunt for us and we can hypnotize cobras, but when it comes to controlling our tongues we are helpless.

The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue roams the wilds, quick to defend itself, swift to attack others, anxious to prove a point, always marked by evil. The Bible says that the devil is like a roaring lion, always seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And the tongue is like that. It has an inbuilt need to guard its own territory, to destroy rivals, to be the king of the beasts.

When it comes to our tongues, in fact, James sees little hope. “No human being can tame the tongue.” On our own, we are unlikely to get our tongues under control.

But, perhaps, that is where our hope lies. No “human being” can tame the tongue. But there is someone who can. What we need to do is surrender our speech to the Savior.

You want to change, but you feel like you can’t. That’s because you can’t...on your own. Only Jesus can do it IN YOU and THROUGH YOU. No self-effort program will do it. He alone can tame your tongue. He alone can stop the trouble that your tongue is getting you into.

Surrender Your Speech to the Savior.

That’s what we’re going to be learning about over the next few weeks.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, God can tame our tongues as we turn them over to Him.

Change the Spring
Which leads to my fifth point: Our tongues reveal our hearts. If we want to tame our tongues, then we need to let Jesus change our hearts. Verses 9-10:

9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Our tongues are forked. They often point in two different directions at the same time. We sing praise for God, then we go and curse human beings who have been made in God’s image. We worship and we wound. Out of the same mouth. Our tongues are forked.

James says, in the strongest way possible, “This should not be!”

Change is required here. We need to tame the un-tame-able tongue. We need to watch our language. We need to set a watch over our mouths. Our tongues should not be divided. We need to change. But how? James gives a clue in verses 11 and 12:

11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Another word picture. Fresh water and salt water flowing from the same spring. Olives coming from a fig tree, figs growing on the grapevine. That’s not how it works. That’s not going to happen.

So, if you are getting salt water out of your fresh water spring, the problem is probably with the spring. If you get figs where you were expecting olives, you better go back and check the tree, because chances are pretty good it’s not an olive tree. James is saying you need to check the source.

So if your tongue is producing poisonous fruit, the problem probably isn’t with your tongue nearly as much as it is with your heart. Because that’s the source.

Jesus said this in Luke 6:

43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

There is a source problem for our tongue problem. What comes out of the mouth begins within the heart. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

And so, if we want to tame our tongues, then we need God to work on our hearts. We need to make sure our hearts belong to Him.

We can’t just work on our tongues. We can’t just surrender our speech to the Savior. Something even more fundamental is required: heart change. We need God to replace the salt-water springs of our heart with fresh water. We need God to replace the thornbush of our hearts with a healthy, productive grape vine. We need heart change.

This is so important for me to say right at the beginning of this series. We’re going to tackle some specific sins of the tongue. We’ll look at why they are so bad and we’ll give some advice for getting them out of our lives. But we need to understand, right up front, that any real progress we make in taming our tongues is only going to come through a grace-based change in our innermost parts. There is a line that runs from our hearts to our mouths to the rest of our lives. Only by surrendering our hearts to Jesus are we going to have any hope putting out the fires caused by our tongues.

New Year’s Resolutions
There, then, are five truths about the tongue from James 3. A pretty good explanation, I hope, for why a series on the power of our words is worth our time.

But, I will freely admit, there is not a lot of practical help here. James explains why the tongue is so dangerous. He lets us know how important it is. But these 12 verses don’t say much about how we can put our tongues to better use.

As I was researching this message, however, I came across a sermon by Sinclair Ferguson in which he gives a broader overview of the entire book of James. Widening the camera lens, so to speak, he points out that the entire book is, in fact, full of suggestions for improving our speech.

So, at the risk of looking like a Buzzfeed post, I’d like to give you one more list. Here are 10 New Year’s Resolutions, drawn from the book of James, that we can all make with regards to our tongues:

1) In 2016 we can resolve: To be quick to listen and slow to speak.

James 1:19:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,

2) We should resolve: To speak with an awareness of the judgment.

James 2:12:

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,

3) I will try: To never speak in a way that demeans, despises, or causes despair.

James 2:15-16:

15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

4) It should be a goal: To never speak evil of another.

James 4:11:

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.

5) We will resolve: To never boast in what I will accomplish.

James 4:13-14:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

6) Rather, I will try: To speak with an awareness of God’s providence.

James 4:15:

15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

7) Let’s make a resolution: To never grumble, knowing that the Judge is at the door.

James 5:9:

9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

8) In 2016, we will attempt: To always speak with integrity.

James 5:12:

12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

9) We can resolve: To bring my problems to God in prayer.

James 5:13:

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.
And 10) Let’s us seek: To bring my joys to God in praise.

James 5:13:

Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.

It is remarkable how much our tongues set the direction of our lives. Such a small part of the body, but such a large influence. So, knowing that we can only tame our tongues as we surrender our hearts to Jesus, let’s resolve to be a church that watches what we say in 2016.