I am constantly amazed at the stories that I hear. So much so that I wonder where some of them come from. I’ve heard stories of people which were apparently true, but were told to someone in confidence. I’ve heard stories which were only partially true, but the facts had been blown out of proportion. And I’ve heard stories that were totally untrue, and yet had been spread to the point where people actually believed them, and consequently they had taken on a whole new life of their own.
And in regard to things which are not true, or only partially true, I’ve heard a number of stories about myself, about things that I’ve supposed to have said or done, many of which are very far from the truth.
Now obviously some of the stories that we hear can be amusing. And we can laugh at some of the things that people say. However other stories can be quite damaging. And the truth is that mud sticks, and it sticks regardless of whether there is any truth in the stories or not.
Now, of course, the problem behind all of this . . . is our tongues. And to give just a few examples . . . Our tongues can get us into real trouble by the way that stories are spread. Our tongues can be used to be very critical of one another. And our tongues can be used to discourage one another too.
So if we are Christians, we need to be very careful about how we use our tongues. And in this regard, it can be helpful to recall the words of James, the brother of Jesus. Because although regarding the use of our tongues, James is really a prophet of doom and gloom. If we can get beyond that, there is much wise advice that we can have to share.
B. THE (NEGATIVE) POWER OF THE TONGUE
1. Positions of Authority (1)
And the first thing that James teaches relates to positions of authority and leadership.
Now James was writing to a situation where teachers were held in high esteem. A teacher was someone who was financially supported by the church. A teacher was the guardian and interpreter of tradition. And a teacher was someone whose role it was to guide and help people in all the aspects of life—intellectually, spiritually, liturgically, and morally. And because a teacher was honoured, people were seeking positions as teachers, particularly those who were not considered at the top of the tree.
Nevertheless, James’s message was clear . . . Those who sought such positions needed to realise the responsibility that went with those position. Indeed, anyone who aspired to be a teacher, who wanted to pursue a position of great responsibility, needed to realise that if they misused their position of trust, they would be judged even more harshly by God than any other person, because of the nature of the positions that they held.
So those who found it difficult to control their tongues, James suggested, should steer clear of such leadership roles. Because if they didn’t, their words would bring their position into disrepute. And then God would have to deal with them more harshly than he would have to deal with others.
According to James, anyone who is aspiring or considering a role which gives them great authority and honour, needs to consider their ability to tame the tongue, and their ability to maintain the respect that their position deserves.
2. Universal Failure (2a)
Now that’s not to say that James considered only those who could control their tongues perfectly, should offer themselves for a leadership role. Because he knew that that just wasn’t possible.
Because his second point about the taming of the tongue is that no matter who we are and how much we try, we all fail. We all have times when our tongues get us into trouble. We all have times when we spread a story we shouldn’t, and we all are the cause behind some people getting hurt.
Those in leadership may have special responsibilities. But whether we are leaders or not, James says, we all fail in the use of our tongues. And as a result we are surrounded by instability and disunity, because of the truths, half-truths, and bare faced lies that surround us.
Like it or not, for such a small organ like the tongue, we are all responsible for a lot of heartache and damage.
3. The Power of The Tongue (2-6)
Which is where James’s third point comes in. Because despite the tongue being so small, it exercises a lot of power—and all out of proportion with the rest of the body.
And to illustrate the extent of the power of the tongue compared to the rest of our bodies, James used a number of illustrations to make his point.
He likened the tongue to a horse with a bit (3). Because with a bit in a horse’s mouth, a rider (or charioteer) could steer a horse wherever he wanted. Illustrative of the amount of control our tongues have over the rest of our bodies.
He likened the tongue to a ship with a rudder (4), where the rudder controls the ship, even when the wind wants to blow it in a different direction. Illustrative of the amount of power the tongue has over the rest of the body.
And he likened the tongue to a fire in a woodpile or in a forest (5), where one small flame can spread so easily, and the consequences can be devastating. Illustrative of the destructive force of the tongue.
With one small part of the body, great power can be exercised, and out of all proportion with the rest of the body. Control over the tongue, then, is imperative, because for James, the tongue can be such a force for evil.
4. Lack of Total Control (7-12)
And that leads us to James’s fourth point. And that is, that having indicated its destructive potency, James is forced to admit that mankind is incapable of controlling the tongue. We may be able to control other things; we may be masters over the animal kingdom through either domestication or hunting; but James concludes, we cannot control the tongue.
As far as James is concerned the tongue is simply full of deadly poison. And he not only gives an example of what he means, but he also tries to illustrate our hopelessness as well.
Indeed, his example illustrates our inconsistency and double standards. That is, we bless God and we curse our fellow man. Which, according to James, effectively means we are blessing and cursing God. Because what we do to someone else, reflects on the person who created them.
And our helplessness in this situation is illustrated by a series of questions, all designed to illustrate our impossible situation. His examples: “Does a spring pour out fresh and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Can salt water produce fresh?”
Now as I said, James really is a kind of prophet of doom and gloom when it comes to the tongue. And what makes it worse is that he makes no positive comments on the subject whatsoever. Furthermore, at this point in his letter he simply drops the subject. And one could easily conclude that if the tongue is that bad then why don’t we just cut it out. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away. For it is better for you that one part of your body should perish than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”? (Mt 5:29)
However, I don’t believe it was James’s intention to finish the topic on such a negative note. And the reason I say that, is because I believe that James was much more encouraging than that. As a consequence, it’s more likely, that like the Apostle Paul so often did, at this point he simply got side-tracked and never got around to finishing his argument. He never got around to telling the positive side of the story.
Which is a shame. It is also an opportunity for us to speculate about what that would be.
Perhaps he could have started with the apostle Paul’s argument. The one that says that all parts of the body are necessary, and that there is a necessary interdependence of one part with another. Indeed Paul’s words were “God has placed the limbs, each one of them, in the body, just as he wished” (1 Cor 12:18). Perhaps he could then have continued with the idea of the tongue being used, but in a much more positive fashion.
After all, if we all considered our tongues so negatively that we cut them out to stop us from sinning, then it would be impossible to use our tongues in any positive manner either.
So perhaps he could have finished his debate by taking the negative points that he made so clearly and give them a much more positive twist.
D. THE (POSITIVE) POWER OF THE TONGUE
1. Positions of Authority
And if we do that, firstly, regarding positions of authority, it maybe that power brings greater responsibility, and a greater need to control the tongue. It may be that those in authority will be judged more harshly than those who aren’t. But having accepted that, shouldn’t we aspire to the positions that God calls us to? And shouldn’t those who are leaders use their tongues to improve people’s situations, to help people intellectually, spiritually, liturgically, and morally?
For sure even leaders make mistakes. And they say things that they shouldn’t, which (hopefully) they later regret. But to be called to a position of leadership is not something that should be ignored. It is only wanting to be a leader for other reasons that needs to be discouraged.
The tongue can be a trap for people in positions of authority. But if we can accept that, then the tongue can be a powerful tool for helping others as well.
2. Universal Failure
Secondly, it may be that it isn’t just leaders that fail, but we all fail. That we all say things that get ourselves and others into trouble. And we all say things from time to time that hurt others.
But being mindful of that, that is no reason for giving up on life. For sure what we say may sometimes cause some instability and disunity. But isn’t it possible, with God’s help, that we can use our tongues to build up and encourage others as well?
That may mean that we will need to use our tongues to apologise, to admit our weaknesses, and our failures. But it will also mean that we can use our tongues to help heal the rifts, and even go beyond just patching up the damage.
3. The Power of The Tongue
Thirdly, it maybe that the power of the tongue is all out of proportion with the rest of our bodies. And it maybe that the tongue is often used for bad reasons. But the tongue can also be used for good as well. And if it exerts power like the bit of a horse, like a rudder on a ship, and like the flame that starts the fire, think how much the tongue can be used for good.
The tongue may often be seen as a force for evil. But as Christians, with God’s help and guidance, it can also be a powerful tool for great good as well.
4. Lack of Total Control
And, fourthly, we may not have total control over our tongues. But being alert to the danger of loose lips, with God’s help, we may well get on our way to start learning how to control it.
James may have said there is a tendency to praise God and curse people, even amongst God’s people—effectively cursing their creator in their attitude towards others. But don’t we also praise God, through praising others too? And if we did that, wouldn’t we not only be taking God seriously but be building up our fellow believers at the same time?
As we live life from day to day, we are all in positions to hear some strange stories. We can hear stories that are perfectly true but are just not meant to be shared. We can hear stories that are based on truth but have been twisted and have taken on a whole new meaning. And we can hear stories that are not true at all but have been passed on as though every aspect of the story is true. Etc., etc., All evidence of the reality that our tongues are used in such destructive ways, in spreading rumours, in discouraging others, and in being critical. Nevertheless, our tongues can also be used in a far more positive way, to bridge gaps, to mend wounds, and to encourage and to build up others.
So even though James wrote in such a negative fashion—and the principles that James shared may well be true—I believe we can take those principles and apply them in a much more positive way.
Yes, our tongues can be instruments of harm. And yet, as Christians, think of the good we can do with them too. Not least of which is in encouraging and building up others, and in sharing with someone the good news of Jesus.
Posted: 9th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis