You can come as you are, but you can’t stay that way.
This is the beauty of the gospel of Jesus.
It’s beautiful because anyone can come.
It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, what’s been done to you or what you are dealing with right now.
You don’t have to cure yourself of all your troubles before you come to Jesus. You don’t have to raise yourself up out of the mud and muck of your faults and failures before you come to Jesus.
It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, it’s the sick, Jesus told us. And knowing our proud and stubborn hearts he does not wait for us, he packs up his medical bag and comes to us with his cures.
You can come as you are, and when you come you will realize that Jesus has already been calling on you.
You can come as you are, but you can’t stay that way.
You can’t stay sick when Jesus in the house. He comes to give health. He comes to bind up old wounds and restore what’s broken. He comes to give strength and vitality so that you can live a full life of service to God and to your neighbor.
Progress. Growth. Change. Maturity. This is the invitation of the gospel.
Our Sunday mornings together play a key role in that process. Every Sunday we open up the Word of God to hear the Voice of God – a living and active force at work on our hearts and minds.
When the Word of God is read, the voice of God speaks.
Paul described the healing, growing effect of the Word in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
When we open God’s Word we open ourselves up to the teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness of God. When that happens God grows us and equips us to be useful for all kinds of good work in the world.
This morning we are going to be equipped in James chapter 3.
James picks up a theme he began in chapter 1, verse 26. Let’s turn there.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
James 3 is an extended treatment of 1:26, specifically on bridling the tongue.
He knows that we are sometimes slow to grasp a point, so he comes back around and goes into greater detail. Let’s read James 3:1-12.
In this passage James gives us 3 reasons to keep a tight reign on our tongue.
You must keep a tight reign on our tongue because it has power to determine your destiny.
You must keep a tight reign on your tongue because if you don’t the devil will.
You must keep a tight reign on your tongue because a divided tongue reveals a divided heart.
- First, you must keep a tight reign on your tongue because it has power to determine your destiny.
Does that sound dramatic? I didn’t make that up because it preaches good. I see it in verse 6.
I find in in verse 6. See that phrase – “setting on fire the entire course of a life.” That’s what it means. In the Greek James says literally the tongue “sets fire to the wheel of life.”
Your tongue is so powerful it can determine the direction or destiny of your life. It is can determine the direction of someone else’s life.
The Bible attaches enormous significance to words. With words God crafted the cosmos –
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”
The OT prophet tells us that God’s Word is like a fire or a hammer that breaks rock into pieces.
“Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
The NT tells us that God’s word is living and active, a double-edged sword that can penetrate the depths of the soul.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
God’s Word has immense power, and while our words may be less potent, something of the divine force of the Word has been written into our code.
Solomon wrote about that in Proverbs 18:21:
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue”
Do you remember the blessings of the Jewish patriarchs in the Old Testament? In Genesis 27, Isaac blessed his son Jacob and somehow his words were understood to speak into existence a future life for Jacob.
The Bible gives tremendous significance to our words.
You don’t have to go to the Bible to see the power of the tongue.
The website PyschCentral described the fascinating research of Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman who coauthored the book: Words Can Change Your Brain.
They write that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”
“Positive words, such as ‘peace’ and ‘love,’” can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, according to the authors, and build resiliency.
However, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning.
“Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes,”
Words have an incredible ability to affect our bodies. Wouldn’t it be interesting to look into the head of your child throughout the day to see what your words are doing to their brain?
The crazy thing is that words don’t have to be spoken to change our brains. Here’s another example of research showing the power of words:
“In their neuroscience experiment, “Do Words Hurt?”, Maria Richter and collaborating scientists monitored subjects’ brain responses to auditory and imagined negative words. During this process, they discovered painful or negative words increase Implicit Processing (IMP) within the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sACC).”
(Makes perfect sense right?)
Put frankly, their study proved that negative words release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in subjects.
The power of the tongue gives us a substantial power to influence each other doesn’t it? One word from my mouth can impact the neurochemical pathways in your brain.
This validates everything the introverts in the room have ever believed about the world, doesn’t it?
It’s not safe out there around people. I can’t have someone’s tongue influencing my amygdala.
In verses 3-6, James uses 3 illustrations from life experience to paint a picture of the tongues power.
Verse 3 gives us the image of a horse. A horse is an animal with 2 distinctive traits: naturally a horse is very powerful and it is wild. A horse in its natural state is a wild power, but put a small bit in a horses moth and you will gain mastery, not just of its mouth but its whole body.
Or take in verse 4 the image of a ship. James points out two features of a ship at sea – the greatness of its size and the greatness of the wind acting upon it. A ship at sea is large and blown by strong forces, but a small rudder attached to the back of a ship will allow a pilot to harness both the ship and the wind and steer the ship however he wills.
Here’s a story for you history buffs. During WW2 the Germans created a battleship class called the Bismarck, they were the largest and most powerful in the German fleet. One of them, called the Bismarck, was sent into the Atlantic to disrupt shipping. After sinking a British supply ship, it was attacked by a group of torpedo bombers. After a torpedo struck and damaged the rudder of the Bismarck, the pilot lost control of the sheep which drifted in an erratic course back towards the British fleet giving chase. They easily destroyed the rudderless ship.
Verse 5 explains the connection between horses, ships and the tongue:
Like the bit and the rudder, the tongue is relatively small, but mighty. It boasts tremendous power. Bits and rudders and tongues teach us that small things can direct huge things.
Verse 6 gives us one more illustration of something small but mighty. A great forest can be set ablaze and burned to the ground with a single spark. Small things can destroy huge things.
This week I read about the Mendocino complex fire in California in 2018. Two fires, called the River Fire and the Ranch Fire combined to form a raging wildfire. The Ranch fire was at the time the biggest single wildfire in California history, burning 410,203 acres. The fire took two months to contain, with hotspots persisting for 6 months. It destroyed 280 structures, causing 257 million dollars in damage. The Ranch fire began when a property owner drove a stake into the ground with a hammer and a spark landed in a pile of dry grass.
The tongue is small, but boasts extraordinary power.
When I first read this passage, I connected the tongue to the horse and the ship. It’s a strong but wild thing that needs control.
But that’s not what James says, is it?
The tongue is the bit in the horses mouth, it is the rudder at the rear of a ship, it’s the spark that ignites a fire.
So what’s the horse, what’s the ship or the fire in the analogy? It’s your life.
The tongue is the small thing that steers the great thing that is your life.
I would guess that some of you here could tell us about a time when a tongue changed the course of your life.
The smallest, most insignificant moments can have a lasting effect.
I heard a story from a friend of mine this week. He is an older guy who has been married for a long time. As a newlywed he and his wife were going to a dinner event and she was baking a pie. My friend was in a hurry to leave and get there on time but the pie wasn’t ready. After bugging her a couple of times, he grabbed the pie out of the oven and they left. On the way the under-baked pie sloshed around in the back seat. At the event my friend made a joke about his new bride who hadn’t learned how to make a pie yet. That was 42 years ago, and in that 42 years, my friends wife has not baked another pie.
A retired man in his 70s taking piano lessons. He began to quietly sing along to a song he was playing. His teacher observed, you have a nice singing voice. The man was obviously moved by the comment and told the story of being in a classroom at 5 years old and during a time of song, an adult told him he wasn’t a singer and it would be okay if he was quiet during the song. He spend 70 years believing he couldn’t sing.
Pete Jacobson is a high school wrestling coach who had a great career himself in HS and college. He remembers vividly a moment that changed everything for him, one day his coach told him, “ “When you hit your leg attacks well, you can take down anyone in the state.” He still gets goosebumps every time he thinks of that moment. He remembers every word. The next day, Pete won his first tournament, upsetting the 4th, 2nd and 1st seeds and winning the Outstanding Wrestler of the Tournament award. That was the day Pete decided he would wrestle in college and become a coach himself. He has spent decades of his life creating moments like that with the young men he works with.
All because of one sentence.
One careless sentence cost my friend 42 years of pie. He was lucky that was all it cost him.
Our words can cost us much more than pie.
A careless social media post can cost you your job.
A careless word can burrow into the heart of your child and determine their sense of identity for decades.
A careless moment of gossip can ruin someone’s reputation and destroy a friendship.
A careless promise that isn’t kept can leave a permanent mark on a friendship.
A careless joke at another’s expense can ruin the reputation of the gospel and turn someone from Jesus.
Don’t underestimate the impact of your words!
They can direct or destroy a life.
A flirty joke can direct your life into a wonderful new relationship. That same joke could burn a wonderful old relationship to the ground.
A casual observation about someone’s abilities can direct them down an exciting and rewarding career path. A casual observation about someone’s inabilities can blow up their dreams and hopes.
A simple word of kindness could steer someone away from years of depression and self-loathing, and a simple word of criticism could send someone spiraling into doubt.
A Christian sharing a word of inspiring truth can set someone on a life-changing course of spiritual exploration, and a coarse joke from a Christian’s mouth can turn a person against the faith.
2. Get control of your tongue because if you don’t, the devil will.
In verse 5, James compared our tongues to a spark that ignites a forest fire. He continues in verse 6:
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.
Again, you might be thinking I’m getting carried away with the main points with some religious flair. This sentence might make you think of the Church lady on SNL talking about SATAN.
Give me a chance to explain and you might be surprised by the depth in this statement.
A little crazy, right? A little dramatic.
The word translated hell in our English Bibles is the Greek word Gehenna. It’s a proper noun, the name of a valley Southwest of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament times people sacrificed their children to pagan god Molech in that valley. After that it took on a reputation as a cursed land. By NT times the valley had been turned into a trash dump in order to discourage the reintroduction of sacrifices.
Jesus used the imagery of Gehenna to speak of the destination of the wicked.
James uses the same imagery to describe human speech. Is that dramatic?
Daniel Binchy was the Irish ambassador to Germany during World War 2. In a diary entry in November 1921, he wrote about experiencing Hitler for the first time in a beer hall in Munich. His first impression of Hitler was a man with a “carefully docked ‘toothbrush’ moustache” giving off an “impression of insignificance”.
When he rose to speak, Binchy observed a total transformation:
“Here was a born natural orator. He began slowly, almost hesitatingly, stumbling over the construction of his sentences, correcting his dialect pronunciation. Then all at once he seemed to take fire. His voice rose victorious over falterings, his eyes blazed with conviction, his whole body became an instrument of rude eloquence.”
“As his exaltation increased, his voice rose almost to a scream, his gesticulation became a pantomime, and I noticed traces of foam at the corners of his mouth.”
“His purple passages were greeted with roars of applause, and when finally he sank back exhausted into his chair, there was a scene of hysterical enthusiasm which baffles description.”
That year through the power of his words, Hitler rose to the top of the Nazi party. In 10 years he became the chancellor of Germany and led the Nazis into unimaginable acts of genocide, ordering that it was not enough for Jews to die, they must die in agony.
Is it hard to imagine the tongue of Hitler set on fire by hell?
But it’s not just Hitler is it?
Was Hitler the only one to lose himself in a sudden outburst of emotion and be transformed into a different person?
Has anyone here lost it in a fight with your spouse at home?
You can mock the Bible and its talk of the devil, but how are you going to explain the power of the Nazis? How are you going to explain what happened to you when that argument about being late to dinner escalated into a screaming rage match?
The Bible has an answer to that.
There is a fire burning underneath the surface of things in this world. There is a power at work in your life waiting to take up the reigns when you let go. There is a spirit in the shadows looking for an opportunity to gain mastery of your tongue and your life.
What is the nature of that spirit?
- It is a fire.
- It is a world of unrighteousness.
- It stains the whole body.
- It is a restless evil.
- It is full of deadly poison.
Again, this may sound dramatic. What’s wrong with this guy James? He has no chill.
Here’s an experiment – spend 10 minutes online reading the comment section of a famous social media personality. Then tell me, are their words better than poison, restless evil, stain and unrighteousness to describe the things you have witnessed?
Is it hard to imagine the burning stench of Gehenna rising from words of internet trolls and debaters?
Here’s another experiment – spend 10 minutes eavesdropping on a group of unsupervised children.
“the tongue, by virtue of being the most difficult of all parts of the body to control, becomes the conduit by which all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us.”
Master your tongue because if you don’t the devil will.
It’s hard isn’t it?
James acknowledges the difficulty in verse 7.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue.
James draws on the four categories of animal life referenced in Genesis. We can tame horses and oxen, chickens and parrots, snakes and iguanas, sea lions and goldfish. For goodness sake, this guy tamed a . . .
But no human can tame the tongue.
But we must try! Because it has power to determine the destiny of a life, it is vulnerable to the influence of evil and because a divided tongue is a divided heart.
I get that in verses 9 and 10.
3. Master your tongue because a divided tongue is a divided heart.
In verse 9, James points out the contradiction that exists in a person who with one mouth blesses God and curses the people who are made in the image of God. From the same mouth, he says, come blessing and cursing.
Is that right? My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
The big idea of the letter of James is the necessity of true religion. We took a deep dive into that topic two weeks ago. For James, not everything that goes by the name faith is faith.
James saw some claiming to have faith in Jesus and yet living lives in total contradictions to that faith. One of the ways we see that contradiction is people who bless God on Sunday morning and with the same mouth curse their neighbor on Monday morning.
This isn’t right James says.
Words are the outward expression of the inward nature of the heart.
Jesus talked about that, didn’t he?
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
“What you are will inevitably be disclosed by what you say.”
In verse 11, James uses images form the natural world to explain this principle:
First he points out natural springs:
Does a spring pour forth both fresh and salt water? The answer is no. Salt springs produce salt water. Freshwater springs produce fresh water.
Then he draws our attention to plant life. Have you ever found an olive hanging from a fig tree? Or a fig on a grapevine? Why? Because the only thing that can come out of vines, trees and springs is what’s on the inside.
The only thing that comes out of the mouth is what’s on the inside.
That means if gossip and criticism and cursing and dishonesty are coming out of your mouth, you have to wonder what’s on the inside?
If you share memes shaming politicians you disagree with, you are not a tough minded conservative, you are a jerk and you are cursing someone made in God’s image and he’s watching.
If you belittle people who vote for people you don’t like, you are not a justice minded progressive, you are a jerk and you are cursing someone made in God’s image and he’s watching.
This is the standard of Jesus – bless your neighbor with your mouth and your social media, even your enemy who is persecuting you.
That’s his standard.
“A faith which does not transform the tongue is no saving faith at all.”
The focus of James is the power of the tongue, this text is meant to challenge those who underestimate the power of our words. It doesn’t give us much practical help. For that we are going to turn for a moment to the proverbs.
1. Think before you speak.
Proverbs 16:23 (NASB)
The heart of the wise instructs his mouth and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
It is true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
2. Listen before you respond.
Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish.
3. Limit your words.
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.
Proverbs 10:19 (NIV84)
4. Watch your tone.
A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.
Proverbs 15:1 (NLT)
Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.
Ephesians 4:29 (NLT)
5. Watch your temperature.
Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.
Proverbs 29:11 (NLT)
But it’s so hard! What if I have already blown it with my tongue and can’t take it back?
Hasn’t James acknowledged that nobody can tame their tongue? Where does that leave us?
It leaves us desperate for the grace of God.
6. Receive the grace of God.
James tells us that the person who can perfectly control their tongue is the perfect human. Jesus was without sin, the perfect man who always had complete control over his tongue.
Never twisted the truth. Never exaggerated a story to make himself look good. Never made a promise he didn’t keep. Never tore anyone down with critical or sarcastic words. Never gossiped or spoke ill of someone when they weren’t around. Never repeated an inappropriate joke or got a laugh at someone else’s expense.
Jesus spoke up when he knew it would cost him everything.
As the Pharisees watched, love poured out of his mouth in this extraordinary words: “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus knew those words would send the Pharisees over the edge and lead to his death as a blasphemer. When the tribunal at the high priests home commanded him to respond to the charge, Jesus spoke the words which would be used to condemn him, “You will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:64
Jesus kept quiet when he was provoked with injustice.
When Herod and his soldiers mocked and ridiculed him he held his tongue. Though he had every right to rebuke and condemn and call down fire on those who hurt him, he was silent.
There are two ways to receive the grace of God.
The first is to receive the forgiveness God provides through Jesus life, death and resurrection.
Jesus spoke up for all of the times that we should have but didn’t.
Jesus held his tongue for all of the times what we shouldn’t have spoken but did.
A few weeks ago we talked about judgment. We talked about God the judge who gives the sentence for our sin and that steps off of the judge’s bench to take the punishment on our behalf. That’s the cross.
I don’t know what the day of judgment will look like. James tells me it will be more strict for me than it will be for you. Jesus tells me I will give account for every careless word I have spoken.
You might have seen the new trailer for Loki. There’s a scene where he is taken to a room to stand before a massive stack of paper. A man tells him, I’m going to need you to sign these to verify that this is everything you’ve ever said.
I imagine a scene like that at my judgment. God is there pulling out one record after another of my words. And I imagine Jesus standing there with me. He has a stamp with a blood red cross and a crown of thorns on it.
God pulls out the first sheet – it’s a record of that time you told your Dad, “I wish you were dead.” Did you say that? Yes. And Jesus stamps the paper with his stamp and says, “charge that one to my account.”
The he pulls out a stack, these are the 236 times you told one of your siblings “I hate you.” Did you say that? Yes. Stamp. “Charge that one to my account.”
Here’s one from that day on the playground when you made fun of Luke who I created with the special challenge of Cerebral Palsy, you called him retard and your friends all grossly imitated his movement. Did you do that? Yes God. Stamp. “Charge that to me.”
Here’s a stack of the 238 times you told someone you would do something for them and didn’t follow through. Do you remember that. It’s too much Lord. Stamp. “Those are on me.”
Jesus has already paid the price for my failure to reign in my tongue. When I receive the forgiveness that provides, I am free to move on. We’ve been learning in our DNA groups that you’ll never really have power to change until you realize God’s power to forgive.
The 2nd way we receive the grace of God is we receive the power he has provided for our sanctification.
Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
If our speech is the overflow of the words we have stored in our hearts, than the most important thing we can do to change our tongue is to change what we put into our hearts.
Isaiah 50 is a Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. The Spirit of Christ, speaking through Isaiah gives us the perfect example
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The reason you can’t control your tongue is because you are filling your heart with garbage. You’re not memorizing the Word of God. You’re not filling your mind on a daily basis with the Word of God.
Sinclair Ferguson said that “the most important single aid to my ability to use my tongue for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ is allowing the word of god to dwell in my so richly that I cannot speak with any other accent.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown