We have a lot to get to this morning, so let’s just jump right in by referring to a quote from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She so aptly said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Her quote came from an idea found in the 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. But the idea wasn’t original with Mr. Stewart, he apparently got the premise for the quote from history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle. Who got the quote from somewhere, but he could not remember where. As we continue our study of the Book of James, I think I know where it originally came from.
We have already noticed what James had to say about the way that we talk. In James 1:19, he said, "You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak…” It seems that James was writing to a church filled with small-minded people who gossiped about each other and tore one another apart with their speech. I know lots of religious folks who are quick to avoid murder, stealing, and drunkenness, but are willing to assassinate fellow believers by the words they choose to use. Maybe that’s why James spends so much time talking about the way we talk. In Chapter 1 slow to speak, Chapter 2 don’t lie to make yourself look good. Now we get to chapter 3 and we read James’ strongest words about our words.
James knows that words are powerful. With our words we have the opportunity to bless and build up; or we can use them to curse or burn to the ground. James is not the only Biblical writer to address our speech, all through out the Bible, we see instructions about the way we talk. Solomon writes in Proverbs 12:18: Careless words stab like a sword, but wise words bring healing. Words can wound, and if we're honest, almost all of us could probably think back and remember when someone said something to us that cut us deep down to our soul.
The way we speak one another stab like a sword and we, and especially our children, are ill-equipped to deal with the things that people say. I remember the first time that one of the boys came home, heart broken because someone said something awful to them. The first thing that came to my mind, Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you. My second thought was even worse, I'm rubber and you're glue… Usually that’s the only defense, our only coping mechanism that we give our children for hurtful words. Sadly it’s not enough.
Because not only can words wound, the teacher continues in Proverbs 18:21: What you say can mean life or death.… Even before social media, Solomon knew what he was talking about. This week I did a google search to find how many teenagers and young adults took their own lives because of what people had said, tweeted, or posted about them on social media. If it happened once it would be a travesty, but in the last three years there were hundreds and hundreds of stories of teenagers, college students, and young adults who ended their lives because the incessant, constant, non-stop belittling, and tearing down by other people.
Words have the power to wound, and they have the power of life and death. That’s why once again we see James talking about our talk. In our 3rd chapter, James begins: Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (1-2)
James begins this section by warning those who want to be teachers, and he is echoing what Jesus said in Matthew 23, Don't desire to be called teacher (8) which is a bit odd since Jesus was about to send them out to teach the nations. But Jesus explains it’s not the position but the desire that causes the issue. He says in verse 12, Whoever makes himself great will be made humble.
It seems that there was a time when all of the moms and dads wanted their little boys to grow up to be a rabbi. It was an honored figure in society. I understand things have changed today, and in certain circles preachers garner as much respect as the custodian at the Greyhound station. But in Jesus’ day there was a certain prestige associated with being a teacher. Their culture had religion woven into every aspect of it, and those who were teachers were respected. And so Jesus says, "Don't desire to be called teacher” in an effort to make a name for yourself, and James is echoing that same sentiment. The ability to speak to a group, is a huge responsibility, and needs to be entered into soberly.
Some of you are thinking to yourself, Whew, I'm off the hook. This sermon is for preachers or teachers. But take another look at how James starts verse 2: We all stumble along the way, which is another one of the Bible’s inclusive statements. If you remember from last week James has just been talking about faith and works. Today he moves from a discussion of idle faith, to a discussion of idle speech. We need to remember that our works are not limited to actions, they also include our speech. Actually, the way we talk is among our most important works. That’s why the discussion of faith and works from chapter 2 leads seamlessly into a discussion about our speech in chapter 3.
James is writing that Our words reveal the progress of our faith. Verse 2: We all stumble along the way. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
Perfect does not mean sinless here; rather it means mature. There is something unique about the sins that come from our words. Solomon writes that there are a whole set of sins that lose their power as we mature or grow older. In the last chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes, He is explaining what happens as we get into the twilight years of our lives. He says that desire fail (12:5). The desire to conquer and overcome, to build, to be mighty. That desire fails, there are certain sins that begin to lose their power because of our age has affected our abilities.
But no matter how old we get, we will always have to battle our tongue. In fact, it seems that often times the older we get the sharper and more aggressive our language becomes. If you have a bitter or angry heart, as you physically grow older, there are some sins you cannot commit. You might not be physically able to intimidate, manipulate or force people to do what you want them to do, but age doesn’t weaken your speech. James warns us that our tongues take us right into the epicenter of all that is wrong with us, namely our hearts.
Remember what Jesus says in Luke 6:45: What you say flows from what is in your heart. The words that come out of our mouths find their power because they reveal what is in our hearts. If you’re always saying angry and hateful things there is no way to justify your language. We try by saying, I just didn't get enough sleep. I was just stressed out. My blood sugar was low. But the Bible says you have a heart problem. I don't know where your heart is, but your words tell the truth about you. We waste so much time trying to justify ourselves; even now some of you are thinking, I'm not really an angry person, I just explode once or twice a month. The truth is you're an angry person. Some of our lives are marked by words that tear down, words that attack, words that hurt. I am the first to admit that there are times in my life when I tried to wound someone else with my words. I knew if I said it, it was going to hurt them, and I wanted to hurt them and so I said it.
Maybe you aren’t bold enough to be outright aggressive, maybe you are passive aggressive. You might not outright crush somebody, but you refuse to enter into their celebration. Whatever they're excited about, you just kind of take it away from them. They ask you, Did you see my new truck? You reply; I did, but I'm more of a Ford guy. And look at those wheels! Do you know how much those wheels are going to cost to replace? I think getting that truck was an unwise decision. Is that good stewardship? We get real passive aggressive and just kind of chisel away, or nit pick, at others.
Or maybe your words reveal that you are jealous. You feel like you constantly have to give people your resume about why you're so great and why you're so amazing. Maybe you meet someone who is better than you and you feel this need to tear them down. If you identity is based on the fact that you're the best salesman at your office, or your the best dad on the ball field, or the best mom on Pinterest, and you meet someone who you perceive to be a threat to your image, you get jealous and use your words to tear them down.
James writes that our speech tells the truth about our faith. If we find our security in Christ then our speech will be filled with words that edify and encourage others. But if your identity is rooted in anything else, you feel compelled to point out the weaknesses of others. Your insecurity creates this fear that someone will come along and knock you off your throne. You will no longer be the greatest salesman, greatest mom, greatest dad, greatest Christian, have the most beautiful lawn. You live in fear that you will be dethroned and you won’t matter anymore because your identity has been taken from you. Once your identity is gone, you're lost. But if you are rooted in Christ you are free to rejoice with others. An identity rooted in Christ changes how you see the world.
Next we see that James says Our tongues direct the course of our lives.
Look back at the text starting in verse 3: When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
The tongue is small, but don’t allow it’s small size deceive you, because it contains tremendous power. James points us to a horse bit. With a small bit in a horses mouth, a 90 pound jockey can steer a 3,000 pound muscular animal wherever he needs it to go. The application is obvious. If people can control their tongues they can control their whole body as well.
The second illustration is like the first one: A small rudder on a huge ship. Compared to the size of a ship the rudder seems insignificant. But we cannot over emphasize its importance in controlling the ship. James is doing a masterful job painting these word pictures to show the power that is found in our words. If it is controlled, our words are effective and wonderful, but if not controlled or controlled poorly, the disaster can be enormous.
Words not only direct the course of our lives, but often times the lives of a nation of people, and even the whole world. Whether it is the words of a John F. Kennedy who inspired us to be active in our communities by saying, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” or the words of Ronald Regan who called for a greater freedom in Russia by saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” or a call to share the dream of racial equality when MLK jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That’s why James says in verse 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Like the bit for the horse and the rudder for the ship, the tongue is small in relation to the body yet has a powerful potential to achieve huge results; it can promote peace, share the truth, and speak words of life. Our words have power, our words have meaning, and every word we say, no matter how small you think that word is has the ability to set the course of your life or the lives of those around you.
James continues his word pictures in the second part of verse 5 by giving us our third illustration. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 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.
Our words can not only speak life, but they can bring death as well. Someone who has lost the ability to control their speech is a source of great destruction. Just as a little flame can destroy a huge forest, a small misuse of the tongue can cause pain and agony. James reminds us that one little comment is not just a wasted word, it’s a spark that causes a big problem. Our words can be a fire that sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by …. did you notice that word … hell?
Once again, James echoes the language of Jesus, who talks more about hell than anyone else in the whole Bible. The Greek word James uses here is Gehenna, which was an actually place just to the south of Jerusalem. It was a place where godless people would gather to do all kinds of horrible, disgusting and evil things. They worshiped false gods which usually included a child sacrifice to the Canaanite god Molech (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2–6).
When the Jews returned from Babylonian slavery they decided to turn Gehenna into their dump. All the garbage would be taken out of the city, it would be set on fire, and you could see from the city the garbage burning day and night. And it became an illustration of what hell is like. That's where all the sin goes, and it's set on fire, and it burns forever. James says that our words can do some pretty despicable things.
This is deeply convicting in me because we all stumble in may ways, and our words that we make in a flippant way will cause Gehenna to come into our homes, church, and community. I pray that’s not what you intended when you made that comment, but that's what a spark does. How many of you have been set on fire by somebody's words? Who have you set on fire? I find that I and we tend to be more aware of the ways that we have been set on fire than the ways that we have set others on fire.
James here is warning us that our tongue can destroy like that. We can lose it all. Just like a careless camper can destroy an entire forest overnight. A careless word can destroy a life overnight, or thousands of lives.
As someone who spends a lot of times picking out words to express ideas I am overwhelmed by this illustration because fire and words have an awful lot in common; when used in the right context and with care they can provide a tremendous blessing. On a cold day a warm fire can make everything better. After a difficult day the kind words of a friend can sooth the pain. But if they are used carelessly they can be destructive. Someone who carelessly uses fire can destroy lives, homes, and land. The same is true for someone who is careless with their words.
I truly believe that God desires for the Central Church to be known as a place marked by edification and encouragement. This morning, James is calling you to speak life in to our families, one another, and our community. Maybe this week, instead of just thinking about how awesome certain people are, you actually took the time to tell them what you appreciated most about them. James says that we can use our words to bless, and I believe that’s always the best option.
Maybe today you realize that your words have betrayed you, they told the truth that you were so desperately trying to hide. Maybe you realize that your words reveal that you are angry, or jealous, or bitter, or desperate, or sad, or needy and you realize you just can’t put enough spin on your language to make everything alright. The good news is that this morning God gives us the chance to repent. This morning we can use our words to not only confess to God but we have the wonderful chance to confess to others. Because our words don’t just cause chaos in our own lives, but they cause chaos in the lives of others as well, and usually the ones who are the most dear to you and closest to you.