First Mennonite Church
January 24, 2016
The Tongue, Small But Dangerous
Text: James 3:1-12
Someone said it could be about 90 percent of butchers only have 90 percent of their fingers. That is because butchers work in a hazardous environment. Every tool they use is razor-sharp, but butchers cannot do otherwise without their sharp knives, cutting blades, and grinders. Every butcher knows that each and every move must be done with extreme care and attentiveness. Otherwise, the cost of any careless move can be painful and long-lasting or permanent.
The idea that the tongue is a very dangerous tool is also the reason for James advice to us teachers and preachers of the Word of God. On the issue of misuse of the tongue, James addresses teacher first. He knows how easy it is to commit a misstep with words. “The tongue does not have a bone,” we say. Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. Our job as teachers of the Word of God makes our working environment a dangerous one. That is because the most common tool for our trade—the tongue is a dangerous tool!
James warning against many wanting to become teachers can be understood in two ways. First, we who are teachers of the Word of God are aware that we are dealing with a sacred text. When we teach the Word of God, we are not dealing with the editorial column of a newspaper. We are dealing with a text inspired by the Living God, whose truth and will we need to communicate faithfully and reverently. Again, the Bible is not only a sacred text, it is also an ancient text. That means that we who teach the Bible must get familiarized with the world of those who wrote it and to whom it was written. We must bridge the time between the writers’ and original readers’ time and our time in order to connect the truths we find in the Bible.
Being aware of these two main characteristics of the Bible, it becomes extremely important what and how we teach from it. We should not speak on behalf of the Word, but should allow the Word to speak for itself. We must also be mindful of Paul’s advice to Timothy when he said, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2Timothy 2:15).
The second way we can understand James warning against many wanting to become teachers, is because we need to use speech and words when teaching. We use words and our tongue is our tool par excellence. Therefore, James warns those who want to consider becoming a teacher about the dangers of careless use of words because we will be judged more strictly. The emergence of false teachers in the early church could have given James clear examples on the pitfalls of some rushing to become teachers. These teacher might have not been thoroughly familiar with the gospel as we can see in Acts 18:24-26. James was aware of the influence teachers have. When someone teaches he or she shapes mind, spirit and therefore the whole life of those who absorb their teaching. Teachers can mislead. Just as teachers can build-up the church, they can also destroy the house of God.
However, what follows next shows the main concern James had for giving this warning against many wanting to become teachers. James was more concerned with the wrong use of our tongue as a teacher.
James admits that we all stumble in many ways and for many reasons. Yet, he admits that if there is ever anyone who is able to be perfect in speech, such a person has achieved total perfection. The misuse of the tongue and the problem with what we say are common reasons we stumble. James considers that if anyone is able to keep in check his/her mouth such a person is also able to keep in check every other aspect of his or her life.
James gives three examples of how a little thing can have a great effect.
1. Bits control horses
2. Small rudder guides a big ship
3. Small spark destroys a great forest
A tiny bit can control a majestic race-horse like American Pharoah is a good example of James illustration.
“I didn’t feel like I was riding. I felt like I was flying in the air. He’s one of a kind. To have a year like the one I had in my career was unforgettable,” said Victor Espinoza, the Jockey of American Pharoah. Although Victor felt like he was flying in the clouds, he was actually guiding his famous horse toward the finishing line. American Pharoah was not going where he wanted to go. He had to go where Victor was guiding him.
When James compares the power of the tongue as the small rudder that guides big ship, he did not envision anything like the mega ship Benjamin Franklin that docked at the Oakland Port, last December. This mega ship, measuring 1,300 feet long, 177 feet wide and 197 feet tall, and can haul up to 18,000 shipping containers, although its rudder might be immense, yet compared to the ship’s gigantic size, the rudder is still a rather small part.
Words can build. Words can destroy. Words can bring comfort, but words can also bring grief. Words can shape the mind and heart of our children. But words can also break the spirit of the young. Words have a power influence over those who listen to us or those whom we address our words to. A word spoken thoughtlessly can have a tremendous negative effect. On the contrary, like Salomon says in Proverbs, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Words can bring healing. Words can inspire and encourage. Words spoken in love calm the spirit.
The third comparison of the tiny tongue and its big effect is that of a small spark lighting a big forest fire. We who live here in California know how this illustration looks in real life. But then James goes a little further with this comparison. 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. What James tells us here is that when we use our tongue in hurtful ways, we do not only destroy those at the receiving end of our words, but we are also destroying ourselves. Hurtful words, gossip, negative criticism, lies, sarcasm, and every out-of-control use of our words do not only jabs into the flesh of others, it also rips our very heart. These ways of using the tongue reveal an unsurrendered area of our life. That is why James says that the tongue is “set on fire by hell.” An uncontrolled tongue reveals that God has not fully gotten in control of our lives. The tongue is wilder than any other creature. That is the next illustration James uses.
The animal trainer
James highlights the human capacity to control much everything, except the tongue. There are animal trainers. Lions jump at the cue given to them by their trainers. Elephants walk on two leg when commanded; cobras “dance” at the prompt of their charmers; and condors do as their handlers have taught them to. But the tongue, who has been able to tame it? It is no wonder why we came up with the expression “I had to bite my tongue.” We use this expression when we struggled to control ourselves from saying something we knew we would regret later. James says, this should not be so.
This should not be
James arrives at his point when he shows that it is not possible to praise God and curse our fellow man with one and the same tongue. If the tongue is not under the control of Jesus’ lordship, it cannot offer an acceptable praise either. James is clear when he says that we cannot bless God on Sunday if were careless with our speech during the week. Fresh water cannot come from a sulfuric stream, nor do acid olives grow in a Cotton Candy seedless grape vines. This reveals the truth about the source of our speech. Our words are like the music that plays from loudspeakers. The loudspeakers do not produce the kind of music that comes out of it. The music is in the CD that is playing. Our heart is like a CD inscribe with a kind of music. It can be a melodious and sweet song or it can be the screeching noise of a drill on a metal or glass slab. It is from the heart that the words of our mouth come. If the heart is filled with Christ, gentle, life-giving words will come from our mouths. But if we have grudges, ill-feelings, or bitterness in our heart, of these too will come out of our mouths. Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
James chapter 1 verse 26 says: If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where you are annoyed by something or someone, take a moment before you say something. Press the pause button of your tongue. Let only fresh water to come out of it. Let only what is “seasoned with salt” and what will give grace to your listener come out of your mouth. Let Christ dwell richly in your heart so that whatever comes out of your mouth will reveal Christ in what you say. Amen!