If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:26 - 27 (NRSV)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And 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. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. James 3:1 - 12 (NRSV)
The power of words…
21Death and life are in the power of the tongue:
Proverbs 18:21a (KJV)
James called the tongue a raging fire, totally unable to be tamed. In his opening statement of the chapter he cautions believers to not enter a ministry of teaching lightly. The tongue is a dangerous weapon, and there are lives at stake.
James tells us the tongue is like the rudder on a big ship, or a bit in the horse’s mouth. It is a small thing, behind the scenes, yet the most powerful muscle in the body. It should be used for the highest of purposes!
George Lucas is Star Wars’ creator. He was given a lifetime achievement trophy at the Academy Award ceremonies in 1992. In accepting he said, I've always tried to be aware of what I say in my films because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers, teachers with very loud voices.
We are all teachers, and we are teaching all the time. Jesus said you shall be my witnesses (Acts 1.8). When I attended New York Institute of Technology, I had a creative writing teacher who encouraged me greatly. I turned in a bad essay – it was full of big words to impress my teacher. It was poorly conceived, badly composed, and grammatically a stench in the nostrils of all my English teachers combined. She handed it back to me without a grade. What she did say was, How about choosing a subject about which you know something? Write it plain, so I’ll understand it.
My teacher wasn’t interested in my vast vocabulary – she wanted to help me grow as a writer. So I went back to the drawing board. I turned in a story about our church youth camping trip. It was ok – even a bit sappy. But her words, written in red on that paper are forever an encouragement:
Russell – this is more like it! This is good – you should really do something with your writing – submit it to a publisher.
I don’t know how I ever got the courage to submit anything to a publisher, but the mere fact that I ever did is because of a teacher whose name I can’t even remember; her words taught me to try.
As in teaching, leading is always happening too. Leading, good or bad, is a matter of the example we set by our response to the world around us.
After three years of researching gossip, Indiana University sociologist Donna Eder has identified an important dynamic involved in gossip. Eder discovered that the initial negative statement was not the starting point for gossip. The critical turning point was found in the response to the initial negative statement. "She's a real snob," is not the start of gossip. It's when someone else agrees that the gossip fest begins.
Eder found that the key is whether or not a negative statement is "seconded". If a second is provided, gossip ensues. If not, the conversation changes direction. "No one ever challenged an evaluation that had been seconded. Conversely, no matter how cutting the remark, an immediate quibble from a listener could send talk into a less critical direction."
The moral: you can abort gossip-bound conversations by quickly affirming the person being targeted for negative comments. Want to know what to say when someone starts to tell you gossip:
"I don't want to hear it;
I don't even believe what they're saying about you."
We have been led with words. Consider Patrick Henry's resounding: "Give me liberty or give me death." Remember Nathan Hale's vibrant words: "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Who can forget JFK's inaugural speech and the words: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Martin Luther King Jr.'s stirring words "I have a dream" from the Washington D.C. Plaza mobilized the black community four decades ago; those words still ring in our ears. Words such as those changed the course of history. They challenged our souls and spirits, and as a result we will never be the same.
Words can do the same for people and their perception of themselves. They can be used for good. They can be used to inspire, lift up, motivate, instruct, and empathize.
Finish this statement with me – Sticks and stones may break my bones, but will never hurt me. You and I know that is not true. There are people in this room right now that can tell you in a moment the hurt they have received in their lifetime – from words either carefully aimed to wound, or words carelessly dropped that stung just as badly.
A child has a fragile makeup emotionally. Our words, or temper out of control for just an instant can deliver a blow that will cause a lifetime of punctured dreams and hopes. We, with our words, can drive someone down a pathway of doubt and second-guessing.
On the other hand, we can speak words of kindness. The right words can heal a brokenness in someone else. Once, during a particularly difficult time in the life of the church I was serving, I was discouraged – about ready to give up. Missy Coleman, (God’s gift of a surrogate Grandmother to me) caught me in the church hallway, took my by the hand, stared up at me with those soft eyes, wisdom-creased face and said in that deep South Georgia comforting kindness: It’ll be alright….just you wait ‘n see.
Missy’s words didn’t end the struggle in that church, but it put my heart back together. And that ended the struggle in me! I didn’t quit. Missy gave me the courage to go on.
When you go to the doctor, sometimes he will ask you to stick out your tongue because he wants to examine it. He can tell a lot about what’s going on inside you just by looking at your tongue. The Great Physician can also tell if there is a revival or a riot going on – by your words.
Selwyn Hughes is the author of Everyday Walk with Jesus. In an interview he told about his grandfather.
In 1904 Wales had a great Holy Spirit revival when a hundred thousand people were converted in six months without any preaching, just God coming down, touching peoples' lives. The miners underground would suddenly stop working and cry out to God to become converted. In schools youth and children would have their heads on the desk weeping, and the teacher, often a Christian, would pray with them, leading them to Christ.
Such was the impact of this movement of the Holy Spirit (this awesome flood of God that was going through Wales), that many of the drinking saloons, the public houses closed down; the magistrates had no cases to conduct. After six months they were given white gloves as a symbol of the fact that they hadn't worked for six months.
One of the men who was converted in that revival was my grandfather. He was a miner. His job was leading the horses that pulled the tubs of coal from the mine.
My grandfather was a blasphemer and had a filthy tongue. The way he used to train his horses was by swearing at them. Then he got converted, and for days the horses didn't know what to do because he wouldn't swear at them. They had to learn a new language. So even the horses knew there was a revival going on because the change was so dramatic.
My grandfather then led my mother to Christ. My mother led my father to Christ. My father led me to Christ. So I see myself as a product of that revival.
Paul said we should examine ourselves (1 Co 11.28). In our context we should call it a tongue checkup.
n Are your words teaching valuable character?
n Are your words leading in positive pathways?
n Are your words healing?
n Are your words being used by the Holy Spirit in saving?
If your answers do not satisfy you, here’s how to change:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Philippians 4:8 (KJV)
The tongue is your most powerful muscle. To have it under control this way is to follow Jesus. May it be so!