Proverbs 1:20-33 – Wisdom cries out in the street.
Isaiah 50:4-9– The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher.

Psalm 19 – The heavens are telling the glory of God.
Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 – Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light. She is more beautiful than the sun.
Psalm 116:1-9 – I will walk in the presence of the LORD. (Ps. 116:8)

James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers. Tame the tongue.

Mark 8:27-38 – Who do people say I am? Messiah. Get behind me Satan. If you would follow me take up your cross.

Tame the Tongue

We are in a five-week series on James.

EPISTLE OF STRAW: A 5-week Series on James

  • LISTENING – September 2, 2018: James 1:17-27– Be quick to listen, slow to speak. Giving. Slow to anger. Be doers of the word, not just hearers. Pure religion: Care for orphans and widows.
  • WORKS – September 9, 2018: James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 – Don’t show favoritism to the rich. Faith without works is dead.
  • TAME THE TONGUE – September 16, 2018: James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers. Tame the tongue.
  • CONFLICT – September 23, 2018:  James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a – Why do conflicts arise among you?
  • HEALING – September 30, 2018:  James 5:13-20 – Healing text. Are any of you sick? Elders should pray and lay hands on you.

book of James

Here is this week’s text (James 3:1-12) in its entirety:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

This is a funny passage to read at the outset of a school year: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

But of course, James is speaking of teachers in the church. James says, “We who teach,” including himself in the conversation. “We who teach will judged with greater strictness.” This reflects several statements of Jesus from the synoptic gospels: When speaking of the Scribes and teachers of the law Jesus says, “they will receive the greater condemnation…” (Mark 12:40. Matthew 20:47.) Greater strictness. Greater condemnation. Strictness and condemnation are the same word in the Greek: κρίμα.

James has already said in this letter that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:26). It goes without saying, that if you stand in front of people to teach them, you will speak more than usual. Your listeners will remember your words, and hold you to them. It is a humbling thing to have your former sermons quoted to you. Teachers stand a greater risk of running off at the mouth, and causing harm.

There is an inherent danger here. We who preach and teach, hold up a higher standard than we could possibly attain. We point to heights and depths of faith. We lift up the beautiful vision of a generous world. We invite people to serve the needy, visit the sick, welcome the stranger. The second, however, teachers fall short of the lofty vision they proclaim, they will be called on it. This is as it should be, but it’s a hard thing. People put their leaders on a pedestal, even when we don’t want to be. So, we are held to a higher standard. James, therefore, urges his listeners to beware of seeking higher status in the community. With status comes responsibility.

This became real for me when I became a pastor and started wearing a clerical collar. If you are from a tradition that doesn’t have peculiar clergy garb, try it out sometime. Once you don the garb of the office of ministry, people watch your every move. Everything you do reflects on Christ’s church. In particular, what you say, and how you say it, comes under extreme scrutiny. What Happened When I Dressed Like a Priest is an interesting article:

So, now James has another word for us on taming the tongue. Remember two weeks ago? Quick to listen. Slow to speak. Slow to anger. James now seems to get around to what he was trying to say earlier. He tends to bounce around a bit on his advice for Christians.

The tongue is a flame

This is a passage I memorized many years ago. In this age of blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram and so on, there are a lot of words out there. We are in constant tell mode. There are a lot of folks out there who are doing a lot of telling, but not a lot of listening. Not a lot of reading. No self-searching. Additionally, the immediacy of digital communication, and the perceived distance, make it easy to shoot off a sharp remark without fully appreciating the consequences. I confess, I’ve done it. We all have. It’s just too easy to slip up.

What makes matters worse, digital communications lack the body-language and tone of voice that often soften the edge of our words. Words are ambiguous and can be taken many different ways. A familiar acting exercise is to say the same phrase with a dozen different inflections, facial expressions and body postures. You can make the same words mean the exact opposite of what you mean. Try this out with your congregation, if you dare. Have them turn to the person next to them and say, “I love you,” several different ways. First, deadpan. Then sarcastically, with a rolling of the eyes. Sincerely. Emotionally. It will bring up some laughter and make your point.

What’s good about this passage, is it’s one we all need to hear. It’s eminently practical. People will be able to put it to use immediately, maybe even in the car on the way home.

James uses the example of a small bit that guides a horse. He then moves to the example of a small rudder that can guide an enormous ship. Likewise, our tongues are a small thing that can set immense events in motion. This is a blessing and a curse. A leader says something, and immediately people start moving to make it happen. Be careful what you ask for. A friend once told me being a leader is like carrying around a megaphone. Everything you say sounds twice as loud. This is sometimes hard for leaders to understand. They underestimate the power of words for good or for ill.

The tongue is also a fire, James says. It can set forests on fire. Have you experienced this? Have you said something and been surprised at how it started a fire or even an explosion? Ask this question and watch the congregation nod.

James says many animals can be tamed, “no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” With the same mouth we bless and curse. Which do you want to be doing this week?

The time comes when you have to curse, so to speak. The time comes when you have to rebuke, or speak the hard word. As Paul says, speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). That word will be heard, if you have been speaking a mountain of blessings over time. It is like Stephen Covey’s description of the emotional bank account. Every word of blessing is a deposit. Every word of curse is a withdrawal. The latter costs a lot more. If you have to rebuke, but have not been blessing, your account with that person will go bankrupt.

Remember Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” Don’t hold grudges. Measure your words.

This is a lot of advice coming from James, but that’s okay. Keep in mind Paul does the same thing, he just balances it with the good news of the gospel. Paul speaks the indicative (what Christ has done) first, and then the imperative (therefore I implore you to…)

What is the Good News?

“In the beginning was the Word,” John begins his gospel. God spoke and life came into being. God’s word has power to create. Our words have power too, maybe not the same kind of power, but our words can also create, build up, or tear down.

John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is God’s definitive Word to the world. This is a word of unconditional love, self-sacrificial love. God on the cross. This is also a word of hope, resurrection. This is the Good News. God’s announcement.

Isaiah says in chapter 55(:11):

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God’s word accomplishes things. It endures forever. When we tap into this, amazing things can happen. When we announce the word of grace and love, it has a much more profound effect than we can imagine. When we pronounce a word of forgiveness, it can bring a flood of tears.

The good news is we have met the Word made flesh.

So what?

There are countless so-whats here. Lots of go-forwards. Below is a list. You could offer one or two, or type up a list and let people pick and choose. How do we align our words with God’s Word?

Invite people to think about their digital communications. What are the messages you really want to be putting out there? Ask people to think about their messaging. If you could only say one thing to the world, what would it be? Is that message coming through in your words, written and spoken? How do you respond to trolls? When do you choose silence, and not respond at all? When someone jumps you online, make a practice to pick up the phone. People often talk past each other more easily in writing.

hands texting message

Consider taking a day of silence this week. Pick a day when you are off, and can just be quiet. Can we stop blathering for a day? Take notes in a journal about what it’s like. Just be. Remove the need to speak or post. See what happens. Or, if that’s impractical, have a day of significantly reduced conversation. Speak only when spoken to, or when you absolutely must, and then say what you must with the fewest words possible. Listen for God. What words is God speaking to you?

Listen this week for interruptions. How often are the people around you interrupting one another? Interrupting you? Notice who interrupts the most. How is power at play? What’s going on? Be aware of your own interrupting. Are you? If so, why? Is it possible to have an entire week where you never interrupt anyone? I have a couple of friends who never, ever interrupt. It is a remarkable thing.

Take an inventory of your words this week. Listen to yourself talking. Every sentence. Keep a journal. Write down the things you find yourself saying. For your prayers this week, reflect each day on what you said, at the end of the day, or the beginning of the next day.

On the other hand, in your journal, write down the things you’d like to be saying, ideally. What messages you really want to be sending out to the world? What kind of person do you want to be? How would you like to be remembered? Pick some top messages and start using them regularly in speech and in writing.

In your journal, write down the names of those with whom you will be interacting this week. This is an exercise you could encourage people to do during the sermon, or during communion. What do you think the people you have written down need to hear most this week? How could you speak a word of blessing to them?