Taming the tongue


James 3:1-12

3Not 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.


            *Not a true story*  The pastors of our district get together every third Thursday of the month for lunch and to share in one another’s joys and concerns.  Well at our last meeting only four of us showed up, which is kind of nice because it is more intimate and we share more deeply.

            One of the pastors opened up and shared about something that he struggles with frequently.  He told us that he is a gambler and he has gambled away all of his life savings and has at times even thought about helping himself to the church offerings to make ends meet.

            This pastor sharing about his problem led another pastor to share that he drinks heavily and that his addiction is causing his family to break apart.  A third pastor then shared that he has a huge crush on a woman in his congregation and that he is thinking about leaving his wife for her.

            I just sat there and everyone looked at me.  I began to fidget with my things and shift around uneasily in my chair.  Finally one of the pastors asked me if there was something that I wanted to share.  I said yes, I’m a gossip and I can’t wait to get out of here and to get on my cell phone.

            That was absolutely not a true story.  But today I want to talk about one of the most powerful organs in our body: the tongue.  I say that it is one of the most powerful organs in our bodies because it has the ability to direct our lives and the lives of those around us.  Today I want to break down the scripture that we have from James to see how we are called to keep a hold on our tongues and to use our tongues for good things, and not for spreading hate, deceit, and lies.  So let’s jump right in.

            I think that it is kind of interesting to look at the vocations of the people in our congregation.  Many people at our church are now or have been at some point in time teachers.  We have a large number of public school teachers or people that have been school teachers.  We also have many people that have spent time as Sunday school teachers.  So do you know what James is calling all teachers?  Sinners.  He says that not many of you should be teachers and it looks to me like we have many teachers.  I guess you will all be judged with greater strictness.  Too bad for you.

            No, seriously.  James isn’t saying that we should not go into the vocation of teaching.  And he isn’t saying that we shouldn’t teach Sunday school or teach our children.  The point that James is trying to make is that teaching is a job that should be taken seriously.  We as teachers (and I consider myself to be a teacher, not just a preacher) have a huge responsibility in molding the minds of youth, young adults, middle aged, and aged people.

            When you go into these classrooms for our hour of Sunday school, you are entering into a time where we are seeking to know God more intimately.  We are seeking to gain from one another’s knowledge and experiences.  And as we meet with the children, we are trying to provide for them the foundations of Christianity so that when they grow up they will be able to make the choice to follow Christ.

            What James is saying here is that we need to make sure that when we are teaching, whether it be teaching the children or teaching adults, that we do not lead people astray.  Because if we do, we are responsible for them.  Yes, ultimately the decisions that someone else makes is their decision.  But if we mislead someone and that causes them to stumble or even to fall in their walk with Christ, or to even stray away from Christianity, part of the responsibility is on us because of our false teaching or misleading of them.

            James recognizes that none of us is perfect and we make mistakes in teaching.  I’m guilty of that, and I would bet that if you are honest, you will probably also admit that you have made a mistake or two in your life.  But sometimes the mistakes that we make have huge consequences.

            The organ that we use the most when teaching is the tongue.  We speak words with our mouths.  And James compares the tongue with a number of things.  He compares the tongue to a bit that is placed in the mouth of a horse.  Many of us don’t ride horses anymore.  These massive animals have been uses for centuries to pull wagons, carts, and even plows, and still are in the Amish communities and in third world countries.  Draft horses can weigh over 2,000 lbs. with the largest horse ever weighed coming in at about 3,300 lbs.  Yet these large animals are controlled by a small piece of metal or a synthetic polymer that goes from one side of the mouth to the other and is connected to the reigns.  When the rider pulls gently on one side of the reigns, it puts pressure on the bars of the mouth, causing the horse to turn to alleviate the pressure.

            If that example doesn’t work for you, James gives another example.  He mentions ships and how they require a great amount of wind power (or rowing) to make them move, yet they only require a small rudder to steer them one way or another.  The Titanic was 882.75 feet long, but the rudder that was used to steer this gigantic ship was only 15 feet long.  Now the people that James was writing to would have never seen a ship as large as the Titanic, but living near the Sea of Galilee would have provided them ample opportunity to see a ship or two in their lives.

            The point that James makes is clear.  The tongue is a small and powerful part of the body.  Though small, it has the ability to steer your entire body in a completely different direction.  I like that he uses these two different metaphors for the tongue and its effect and then will follow it up with a third metaphor at the end of verse 5.  If we look again at that horse bit, look at how many people the bit affects.  It’s you and the horse.  If you turn the horse you are riding around, it doesn’t affect me.  It doesn’t affect Billy Bob or Janice.  It is you and the horse.

            Our tongues have a huge effect on us.  If you don’t believe me, try spending a day with yourself and saying nothing positive at all.  Say things like, The weather sure is bad today.  I hate this.  I want to leave.  I need this or I need that.  I hate my hair, my clothes, my life.  Even if you are the happiest and most positive person in the world, after a while, you will wear yourself down with all of the negativity.  And all at once you have changed your entire outlook on life.  Your tongue will affect you and the direction you are going with your life, just like a bit affects you and the direction that a horse is going.

            Then the second metaphor using a rudder of a ship takes it a step further.  Sure there are private boats, but James isn’t talking about a canoe.  I guess canoes don’t even have rudders.  He is talking about a ship.  In verse for he says that it is a large ship, big and capable of moving a lot of cargo and needing a large number of shipmates.  With this metaphor, that tongue of your’s is not only affecting you, it is affecting a large number of other people.  Everyone within earshot is being affected by your tongue.  Whether this is a reference to what we are teaching, or to people’s attitudes, I think it is clear that our tongues can affect other people.

            I probably don’t need to explain this too much, do I?  So James is pointing out that our tongues, though small, affect us and they affect everyone within earshot of us.  They can affect them for the better and they can affect them for the worse.  Unfortunately, the words of our mouths often have more of the negative effect.  And that negative effect goes much further than just the people within earshot.

            James uses a third metaphor to describe the words of our mouths and this one is of a wildfire.  Wildfires are powerful forces.  Even to this day with all of the technology that we have, all of the fire trucks, helicopters, chemical foams, and so on that we possess, wildfires spread like…well I guess like wildfire.  Just a week ago the wildfires in California were spreading, causing loss of property, loss of wildlife, and loss of human life as well.  Such is the human tongue.

            Okay, if you haven’t gotten that the tongue is a powerful little organ, then I don’t know what else to tell you.  But the hard part now is taking this verse and applying to our daily lives.  The application is not easy.  But the first thing that I want to address is that this pericope is not telling us to not say bad words, not to cuss or swear.  I’m not saying that we should cuss or swear, I’m saying that that is not what James is talking about here.  You might look at verse ten and say that James is talking about cursing, but this cursing is the opposite of blessing, not saying a bad word.

            I’m really not sure what makes a word bad.  The funny thing to me is that the words that we consider bad words were not even “invented” yet when the Bible was written.  But there are words in the Bible that some biblical scholars claim to be swear words.  In Philippians 3:8 Paul talks about the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and that all other things are nothing but rubbish.  The word we translate as rubbish is essentially like the S word in English.  That’s in our Bible!

            Now before you all start to think that I am advocating cussing, I need to give the reason why I try to watch my language.  I watch my language because it is offensive to other people.  We are told in the Bible to use words that are mutually uplifting, edifying, and to avoid language that is unwholesome.  Now I don’t think we can write a universal ethic on what is and is not unwholesome, appropriate, or offensive.  I know that I have to be careful around children because words like “Shut up” or “Stupid” are words that their parents are trying to teach their children to avoid using.  That’s good, our children should grow up learning that some words are offensive and some are demeaning of other people.  But in a different context, I believe it is okay to say shut up or to call something, maybe not someone, stupid.

            In the same way, if you have ever worked on a construction site or something like that, you have probably heard language that might not be appropriate for church or words that you might not use in front of your mother.  Why is a word okay in one place and not in another?  It comes down to who is hearing the words, how they understand the words, and if they are offended by the words.  So again, I am not advocating that we all start dropping the F-bomb like it is going out of style.  I am saying don’t use language that might be offensive to other people.

            So offensive language is a bad thing, and perhaps even worse is language that is meant to tear others down.  Lies, gossip, slander.  These things should not leave our mouths.

            To lie is to tell something that is not true.  The Bible takes a very hard stance against lying.  Leviticus 6:2-7 tells us that lying is punishable by death.  In Acts 5 we find out that God struck down Ananias and Sapphira for lying.  Revelation 21:8 tells us that all liars will experience a second death when they are thrown into the lake of fire.  The point: Don’t lie.

            Gossip and slander are a bit different in that slander is always meant to tear someone down.  Slander is always negative.  Gossip may be positive, but it aint none of your business!  You can gossip about positive things, but gossip is usually considered bad.  People don’t tend to mind when others share good news around the neighborhood.

            One of the best examples of the effects of negative talking, such as lying, gossip, and slander, comes from a movie called Doubt, which was released in December of 2008.  In this movie a nun is making some serious accusations against the priest and the priest, in a passive-aggressive sort of way, preaches on gossip one Sunday morning.

            The priest tells the story about a woman that came for confession and she confessed to the priest that she was guilty of gossip.  The priest told her to take her pillow from her bed to the top of her apartment building along with her best kitchen knife and to just start stabbing into the pillow.  Stab it 100 times and then come back and tell him about it.  As the woman did this, all of the feathers in her pillow were taken up into the sky by the heavy wind and scattered across the city.

            The woman returned to the priest and told him that she had done as he had said and asked what else she needed to do.  The priest said, Now I want you to go out and collect all of the feathers from your pillow and stuff them back in.

            The woman replied by saying that this would be impossible.  That there is no way of knowing where all the wind could have taken the feathers and that even with a lifetime of searching for and collecting the feathers that she could never undo what had been done.  The priest replied by saying, “The same is true for gossip.”

            Why do we do this?  Why do we feel that it is necessary to spread stories about other people?  Why do I think that you need to know what my neighbor is doing or why do I think that my neighbor needs to know what you are doing?  Why can’t we just stop spreading rumors; why can’t we stop gossiping?

            There are a lot of verses in the Bible about gossip and many are found in Proverbs chapter 26.  And I like Proverbs 26:20 because it kind of picks up on the spreading wildfire that James is referring to when he talks about taming our tongues.  “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (NIV)  Gossip is fueling the fire that burns and devours.

            This would be a real easy time for me to talk about politics, wouldn’t it?  Especially with all of the slander, gossip, and lying going on now surrounding healthcare reform.  But that is just too easy.

This past week I listened to a radio show on the internet where a commentator was breaking down a well-known pastor’s sermon for the week.  The way this worked was that he got a tape of a recent sermon and he listened to it ahead of time.  Then when it was time to go on the air, he played the sermon, stopping the tape frequently to “correct” the preacher.  He took at 45 minute sermon and critiqued it for three hours.  The pastor had barely begun his opening prayer before the radio commentator started to pick him apart and challenge his thoughts.  And did he ever challenged them!  He called this pastor names, criticized his education and background, and even questioned whether or not this pastor was a Christian.

Now I’m all for theological dialogue.  I’m all for having discussions on how we understand God.  And I’m all for correcting someone that is sinning in love.  But what this radio commentator was doing was far from having discussions.  He was doing a radio show and the pastor was not able to be there to defend himself.  I felt that the radio commentator took the pastor’s comments out of context, inferred things that the pastor was not saying, and he drug that pastor’s name, reputation, and so forth through the mud.  And he justified it by saying that he was trying to protect the truth.

I am trying to remember how Matthew 18 goes: If a brother or a sister sins against you, broadcast it over the radio waves and on the internet so that everyone with a radio or computer can hear what a lousy Christian they are.  No, of course not.  Go to them in private.  And if they don’t listen, bring another witness along.  And if they still don’t listen, tell it to the church.  If that doesn’t work, you treat them like an unbeliever.  This my friends is an example of gossip, slander, and I would say lies.

I will go just a little bit into the political realm and say that I am getting pretty tired of seeing my Facebook friends displaying status lines that are propagating hate, fear, name calling, and lies on one side of the political spectrum or the other.  It comes from both sides, but it does not come from our Christian convictions.

Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”  Yes, there will be times when we need to say negative things, when we need to correct a brother or sister in love.  But as Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34, our mouths are a gateway to our hearts.  If our hearts are good, then good things will come out of our mouths.  Our mouths might pour out blessings and curses, but we are to choose the greater of these things.

I would like it if this week we would all pay attention to our tongues.  Like a bit in the horse of a mouth, our tongues do direct us.  And like a rudder on a ship, our tongues can affect many others.  When you feel the urge to say something that is hurtful, something offensive, or something that is meant to tear another down, bite your tongue.  And though spreading rumors and spreading gossip is a lot like stabbing a feather pillow with a knife, if you find yourself doing this, try to collect the feathers.  Apologize, not only to the one that you gossiped about, but also to the ones that you gossiped to.  Make a habit of not talking about someone unless they are there with you.  And if someone else tries to tell you something about someone else, stop them.  Tell them that you don’t want to be a part of their gossip any more, and make sure to do so in a loving way.  And thank God for the grace he has extended to us, because we have all fallen. 

I’ll leave you with a simple acronym that may help you to determine what to do with a juicy bit of information that you may hear this week.

  • T—Is it true?
  • H—Is it helpful?
  • I—Is it inspiring?
  • N—Is it necessary?
  • K—Is it kind?

If what I am about to say does not pass those tests, I will keep my mouth shut! And it worked!

-Alan Redpath, from A Passion for Preaching


Psalm 19:14


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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