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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

We were taught this saying as children – but it’s not true!

Over the years I have been bruised, broken, cut, ripped, and punctured. I’ve lost count of the number of stitches. Most of these wounds and scars are from contact sports. All the breaks and cuts have healed – only faded scars remain.

But, like others, the wounds that continue to cause me pain were inflicted by tongues. No doubt I’ve inflicted more than my share of painful wounds on the lives of others with my tongue. 

What does James have to say about our tongues, and how we use them? 

James introduces the importance of what we say in these words (James 3:1-2):

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 

He begins with himself and others who teach, but this expands quickly to include every follower of Jesus. 

Tongues direct

First, James identifies the strategic significance of the tongue. 

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. (3:3-4) 

Although the tongue is a small body part, it has a large impact. James illustrates this simple principle with two examples: a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder. The bit is relatively small compared to the horse. In approximate terms, a bit may weigh less than a pound, but it controls the direction of a horse of more than 1,000 pounds. Similarly, the rudder of a ship is small compared to the size of the ship, but it governs the direction of the whole ship. 

Tongues destroy 

Second, James argues that the tongue has a huge impact for damage and death. 

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (3:5-8) 

A little spark can wipe out a great forest. A little venom can kill a large person.

Tongues are duplicitous

Third, our tongues can be so duplicitous; they can bless God and curse God’s image – another human being. 

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? (3:9-11) 

All of these arguments demonstrate that we cannot tame our tongues (3:7-8) – and this is where James transitions into the way toward wholeness

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (3:10-12) 

We cannot tame our tongues if we draw from internal resources that are not informed and directed by the God who is revealed as Jesus Christ. That brings us to the crucial principle that moving our tongues toward wholeness begins with changes to our hearts.

You don’t get olives from a fig tree. If you want olives they must come from an olive tree. Following this natural principle, if we desire our words to be a particular kind of ‘fruit’ then they must come from a source that bears that kind of fruit. So if we want to speak the ‘fruit’ of good words we have to draw upon the ‘tree’ that bears that fruit. That ‘tree’ is God’s wisdom which James and other biblical writers link with the Spirit of God. 

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (3:13)  

The pattern of good conduct and good words does not flow from “wisdom that does not come from heaven.”   

Here is what “earthly wisdom” produces: 

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (3:14-16) 

This wisdom is not only “earthly” it is unspiritual (i.e., not from the realm of the Spirit), and it is demonic. James calls a spade a spade. 

It would seem that a degree of self-discipline may control most of what we say. But there are going to be those times when we “shoot off our mouths before we load our brains” – and what comes out is what is really in the ‘heart’. 

What is the way of toward wholeness? 

James says it is “the wisdom that comes from heaven.” What are the characteristics of that wisdom? 

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (3:17-18) 

Here’s how Eugene Peterson renders these verses in The Message

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. 

What is this wisdom? And, how do we tap into it? We will come back to that in the next post.

For now, here are a few practical suggestions

  • Re-read James 3:1-18. Are you convinced of what James writes? If so, ask the God revealed as Jesus Christ to convict you of your need to be deeply transformed in your ‘heart’ so that you may speak what blesses Him and honors others. 
  • Throughout the week, begin each day with the request: “Take control of what I say, O LORD, and guard my lips” (Psalm 141:3 NLT). Be intentional about what you say, and how you say it, and trust the Lord to move your tongue toward wholeness.

In the next post, let’s return to explore the wisdom from above, and how we can embrace it.

Click this link to listen to the podcast for "Moving Our Tongues Toward Wholeness." 

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