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Tame your Tongue!

Sermon passage: (James 3:1-12) Spoken on: June 3, 2012
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Pastor Wilson Tan
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James

Tags: James, 雅各书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Pastor Wilson Tan: Pastor Tan served as a youth executive at the Presbyterian Synod, and as a pastor in Jubilee Church. He continues to serve as a cell leader in zone ministry and a teacher in children ministry.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on James 3:1-12

Have you ever been hurt by something someone said to you? Have you ever said something and regret it the moment after you said it? Human speech is very powerful indeed. It can build someone up or it can tear someone apart. Words are very powerful tools we use to inspire someone, to teach a subject with, to tell someone we love them. We have “words of wisdom”, God’s Word. Speeches are made with words. Jokes are told with words. Poems are written with words. Songs are sung with words. Bee Gees, even has a song, entitled “Words”: “It's only words, and words are all…I have to take your heart away.” If you believe the Gibb brothers, words is all you need to take someone heart away. Powerful, indeed. Some words are temporal, some words are eternal. But when used negatively, it has very damaging effects on people.

In our passage today, James also knows the power and danger of words. Here, he gave emphasis on the nature of words, the use of our tongue. Of course, the tongue is used as a metaphor for human speech and communication. He could have easily interchanged it with the mouth or the lips.

Why does James begin here with a specific reference to teachers? Who do the teachers refer to? Why were they singled out by James here? James tells us that not every one of us should become teachers. Why? Because “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Even though James is referring to religious teachers in churches in the past, but he is speaking of a general principle about the impact and responsibilities of all teachers too (pastors, Sunday school teachers, theologians, school teachers, lecturers, etc). As teachers, be it in school or in church, we have great power to impact the lives of whoever we teach. Religious teachings shape the values and theology and beliefs of the believers. In the words of Peter Parker, “great power comes with great responsibility.” Such words are so true even in the super-heroes’ universe.

The Evil Tongue
Let’s talk a little about the power of words. James gives us three examples of how a small thing could have huge effects. 1) bits in the horses’ mouth (v. 3), 2) rudder on a ship (v. 4), 3) a small fire in the forest (v. 5). These metaphors are common everyday living examples. They are universal. They continue to be true even today. James tells us that our tongue is a fire!

James tells us that the tongue is small, but yet its effect is huge! Small words can convey big ideas. Small words can inspire great things. Short sermons can also be a great message. Shorter your sentences; sharper your thoughts. Small tongue, Big words. James describes the “tongue [as] a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (v. 6), a fiery tongue. I call it the evil tongue. What is an evil tongue? An evil tongue is one which causes hurt to others. It is used for evil purposes rather than for good. Gossips and rumours are works of evil tongues. Insults and unrestrained criticism are products of evil tongues. James makes it clear that our words have an enormous impact on our spiritual condition.

There is this American comedy TV-series called, “Community.” It is a story about a group of students in a community college. In one episode [S02E07 - Aerodynamics of Gender], the girls in the study group (Britta, Shirley, and Annie) were bullied by a group of “mean girls” in school. The three girls bond with their male friend Abed by turning him into the ultimate "mean girl" machine with the purpose of getting back at the original “mean girls.” Abed got carried away with his insults and ended up also insulting his friends in his own study group. The only way to stop him was for him to give a set of “destruct codes” to Meghan, played by Hillary Duff and have her say these “truthful insults” to him.

Video Clip – Community, S02E07 - Aerodynamics of Gender [2:42]

Words can hurt. It can be extremely rude, abusive, insulting, condescending, and downright hurtful. James tells us with no surprise that “no human being can tame the tongue” (v. 8). Does this mean it is hopeless to even try? If no humans can tame the tongue, who can? I believe that James is telling us that our tongue can only be controlled by ourselves with help from God and the Holy Spirit. No one else can tame your tongue except yourself. In the earlier video clip, only Abed could tame his own tongue with his own set of “destruct codes.” Allow me to share part of a song lyrics written by a young American singer-songwriter Dave Barnes entitled “Sticks And Stones”[1]:

You would have kept those words on your tongue,
If you had known the hurt they had done.
While your fists stay by, right by your side,
Your words they bruise me deep inside.

I'd rather have sticks and stones and broken bones
than the words you say to me,
Cause i know bruises heal and cuts will seal
but your words beat the life from me.

When someone beats you up, you might recover in 3 months but when someone says a hurtful word to you, you will still remember it after 3 years. I am not saying that physical abuse is less serious than verbal abuse. I am saying that verbal abuse can be as serious as physical abuse and both MUST be restrained. I came across this article on the internet which I think is relevant for our discussion today[2]:
The reality is that words can be just as painful, scarring, and brutal as fists and belts. Being proud of never striking your partner or child is wonderful… if you’re also being loving and respectful. If you believe however, that as long as you don’t hit your loved ones you’re okay--think again. Abuse is the maltreatment of a person and it is harmful regardless of whether the weapon of choice is your hand or mouth.

The problem of uncontrolled speech is a frequent theme in the OT and Jewish Wisdom literature. The Bible, especially in Proverbs, makes a co-relation between our speech habits and righteousness, and also between wisdom and foolishness:
Prov. 10:8, “The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.”
Prov. 10:11, “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
Prov. 11:9, “With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.”
Prov. 12:18, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Prov. 18:6-7, “A fool's lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. 7A fool's mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.”
Prov. 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.”

The Two-faced Tongue
James points to us another problem with our tongue. I call it the “two-faced tongue.”
James 3:9 reads, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” Like a double-edged sword, it serves two functions too. We can either use it for good or for evil. We can use it to praise God or use it to curse people. Are we hypocrites? Are we liars? One moment we are deep in worship at the sanctuary. The next moment, we are venting our anger and frustration at someone in church?

We are also very fond of using some phrases which seem harmless on the surface but may have negative effect on those who hear them. Here are some examples which I think we need to re-think using them in a casual context. These are phrases I have heard in church and some of them were used on me and some I have used on others.
Common hurtful phrases: “Don’t take it personally….” “I am just being honest with my feelings” “I am just speaking my mind…” “Shut Up!” “You are old and useless!” “You are young and stupid!”

Our words tell the world who we are. What we say speak volumes about our character and our personality. What we say reveal more about ourselves (our inner being) than what it says about others. Very often, behind the face of an angry man or woman, lies also a person deep in hurt. Sometimes, when the hurt and pain in us are not totally resolved, we unleash hurt and pain unto others unknowingly. When we ask people to be patient with us, we must also be patient with other. Like what Pastor Siow Hwee said in his sermon last week, quoting the golden rule, “do unto others, what you want others to do unto you.”

The Modern Tongue: Emails, Twitters, Facebook
The tongue has taken on a different form in the modern age. Even though the form may have changed, but its function remains. Words written in emails, twitters and Facebook, continue to hurt people today still. Words as communication of thoughts and feelings become modern substance of abuse. Recently, there have been so many reports about online abuse on facebook and twitters. Local-blogger celebrity Xia Xue took revenge on those who wrote mean things about her on facebook by exposing their identity on her own blog. We think we can hide behind being anonymous on social online networks, but it is far easier to track someone online today than 10 years ago. What you write/post/blog today will remain in internet space for a long, long time.

Faceless, non-verbal words do not communicate emotions and sentiments as well as face-to face verbal communication. Intentions of the writer are sometimes hard to decipher. Emoticons can be helpful but sometimes inappropriate. Language is constantly evolving. We are constantly learning new ways to communicate. But sometimes, when we fail to keep up, we make the funniest mistake. Here is a funny story about how a mother learns the meaning of LOL in the worst possible way[3].

Application: For the sake of Christ, tame your tongue
The Bible offers many practical advices on how we are to use our tongue. Ephesians 4:29, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." The problem is we always think whatever we say to others is helpful, no matter how we say it. We meant it for his good. We call it “constructive criticism.”

In the modern society we are very fond of using constructive criticism, with the intention to help someone be a better person. And actually, if it was used constructively and positively, it is a good way to build someone up. But the problem is we tend to criticise much more than we construct! It is both an art and science to be able to convey your message to someone without hurting the other person. It is very challenging to point out the errors of one’s ways without tearing them down.

There may be times when we need to tear someone down, and harsh words may be necessary for the stubborn and obstinate. But we must ask God for wisdom to know the difference. Even in discipline, we can use kind and gentle words without anger and frustration. Later in his letter, James even went on to tell his readers to stop criticising each other (James 4:11-12). The Greek word katalaleite is translated as “speaking evil” in the ESV and “slander” in the NIV. It simply means to criticise, to speak ill of someone. It does not necessarily mean speaking falsehood.

Brothers and Sisters, for the sake of the Christ, can we learn to tame our tongue? Let us not use harsh words unnecessarily and unrestrained. Many times, the things we want to say to others are important things. They are helpful things. But can we learn to say them with more gentleness? Can we deliver the same message without the anger and frustration? Can we learn to communicate in non-aggressive manners or tones? Let us be gentle with our words, speak words of kindness and grace and mercy rather than words that hurt others. A kind word goes a thousand mile. A hurtful word stays in your head for a thousand days.

I believe that one of the practical step we can take today is learning to say “could” more than “should.” When we say to someone, “You should do this and that” we place ourselves above that person. We express a sense of superiority complex that I know better than you and so you “should” listen to my advice. The classic Chinese saying, “I eat salt more than you eat rice.” Maybe this is the problem why so many older folks have high blood pressure. Too much salt intake.  The point is, when we use “could” we place ourselves as someone’s equal. Also, in this way, no one is talking down on another and my advice is just one advice among many for you to consider. “Maybe you could consider this?” We give the choice of making decisions back to the other person without hurting the other person or making that person feel like a failure.

Parents, could you consider using less “should” and more “could” when you speak with your children? There you have it, a practical example right in a sermon! This advice is not just for parents. It is also applicable for spouses, teachers, bosses, etc. Whenever we want to offer an advice to another person, consider using “could” instead of “should”. I believe that if we put this into practical we will be building people up in their faith more effectively and meaningfully than we are currently doing now. The business of any church is to edify each other, and not to tear someone down. Yes, there are times when discipline needs to be in place. But we can always consider discipline in non-aggressive, positive and constructive terms. I am not expecting us to be like angels, perfect in all our ways, but I believe that the Christian Life is built on principles of love, mutual respect and understanding and forgiveness. This is James’ message to his readers and it is the same message for us today. Tame your Tongue!

Discussion Questions:
1. Have someone ever spoken “evil” of you before? If so, how did you feel after that?
2. Have you spoke “evil” of someone before? If so, how did you feel after that?
3. What are some words or phrases which you feel you should stop using from today onwards?


James 3:1–12 (Listen)

3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.