The Power of Words
Main Theme: Do not tolerate sinful speech in your life, because if you do, devastating consequences will surely follow.
Survey of the Text
- In verse 1, James reminds his original readers and all of us, that a man ought not take on the office of pastor/teacher flippantly or lightly. He ought not do this, because those “who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
- This exhortation regarding teachers leads James to highlight the fact that verse 2 – “we all stumble in many ways….” The idea is, pastors – and “we all” – that is every believer — ‘we all stumble in the Christian life in many ways.’ James goes on to explain, pastors and all believers stumble not only in a general way, but verses 2 and following – we also all stumble in a particular way. We all stumble in what we speak and in what we say. All of us, no exceptions— stumble in our use of the tongue.
- James then illustrates the power the tongue wields and potential for evil it possesses. James intent is not to condemn. Rather, it is to lovingly warn. So James says, the tongue is like a bit in a horse’s mouth which controls the entire direction of the horse (verse 3). Similarly, the tongue is like a small rudder on a large ship that steers the massive aircraft carrier as it were (verse 4). The point here is power to direct. The tongue is this tiny thing. And yet, it is powerful, unlike anything else, to set direction for good or for evil.
- In verses 5-8, James labors to show us the potential for evil the tongue possesses. The tongue is like the small fire, that sets an entire forest ablaze (v.5). The forest represents human relationships…set on fire by the tongue. The tongue is a “world of unrighteousness” (v.6) or a “world of iniquity” as the KJV has it. The tongue defiles the body and is set on fire by hell (v.6). All kinds of beasts and animals can be tamed, but no human being can tame the tongue (v.7). The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (v.8).
- In verses 9-10, James goes on to point out the instability and duplicity of the tongue. From the same mouth he says come both blessing and cursing. The idea is here — We bless God, we praise Him in the church service…Then we go home after the service…and sometime that very day OR during the week we curse; we speak angrily, harshly to another human being—another person made in God’s very image and likeness.
- End of verse 10, James then exhorts all believers “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” That really is the main thrust of the text: These things, these evil, sinful uses of the tongue, these things ought not be so; they ought not characterize the believer in Jesus Christ.
- In verses 11-12, James goes on to remind us that the tongue does not operate on autopilot. Rather, the heart controls the tongue. Practically this means that no matter how sorely tempted I May be, I only have one person to blame for my speech problems. The blame falls on me and me alone. No one else can be rightly blamed for my speech failures. It also means that in order to become more godly in my speech, I must first repent of the sinful heart attitudes and idols that drive my ungodly words.
- While Verse 13 is not part of our passage today, it is important to note that the person who is wise and understanding is the one who not only demonstrates good conduct generally; but who demonstrates good conduct as it pertains to his or her use of the tongue.
Recommendation #1: Seek to be humble
- The text is extremely clear. “We all stumble in many ways”, and we all stumble in particular when it comes to our use of the tongue.
- In light of this statement, I don’t see how even the most mature Christian would be able to say “I’ve got my tongue perfectly under control. I am perfectly God-honoring and wise with my speech. My tongue is absolutely not an issue.”
- Notice, even James himself says “We [We!] all stumble” … so, James is including himself and I don’t think any of us here would say that we’re more mature than James.
- So this warning in our text today, calls for genuine humility. Authentic humility.
- It calls for humility because, unless we first see ourselves as those who actually stumble and fall in these ways, we will never take the necessary steps to grow.
“sometimes I wonder if the misuse of the tongue is actually a peculiarly evangelical sin…” – Sinclair Ferguson
- James, even writing back in the 1st century, apparently would agree. We all stumble and fall he says…and particularly so with regards to the tongue.
- May we all seek to be humble as we consider our own use of the tongue.
Recommendation #2: Don’t underestimate the tongue’s power to harm.
- James is abundantly clear: The tongue possesses far more power than we typically realize.
- Again, that’s the point of the illustrations of the bit in the horse’s mouth directing the horse, the small rudder directing the large ship and the small fire leading to a forest set ablaze.
- The tongue is this tiny little thing, but it boasts of great things James says.
- So the tongue has power. And that power can be used both ways. It can be used for good and evil.
- The text itself focuses on warning against the tongue’s potential for evil….the dark side of the tongue, if you will.
- In verse 6 James says the tongue itself is a small fire,… set on fire by hell itself.
- The reference to hell is intended by God to arrest our attention. It points to huge danger and the fact that the Enemy of our souls, the devil, enjoys employing the human tongue to bring harm and wreak havoc everywhere….marriages, families, churches and more.
- It is extremely sobering to consider, there is real spiritual warfare involved in our use of the tongue.
- The devil is out to destroy every good work of God….every church, every marriage, every family. One of his chief weapons? The folly of the human tongue.
- May we take God’s Word to heart and not be guilty of underestimating the tongue’s power to harm and destroy.
Recommendation #3: Don’t forget—those who most tempt you are made in God’s image.
- See verse 9.
- When another human being, in some way, tempts you by what they say or do to sin with the tongue –> it is very easy to forget and overlook the fact that the person tempting you most severely is a human being made in God’s image…they are, as one commentator puts it, a “reflection of the divine.”
- Next time you are tempted to speak, harshly to or about another person I encourage you, remember that.
- Remember that person who is tempting you right now – your spouse, child, parent, fellow church member, co-worker…someone else…remember they are a “reflection of the divine” and from that place of respect, you can then proceed to speak wise words that aim to restore, to edify, to build up.
- If you have stumbled recently in your speech and you are aware of it this morning and convicted for it by the Holy Spirit, I urge you come to Jesus Christ. Ask Him to forgive you and receive His forgiveness. Then pray – and may we all pray this daily: Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! (Psalm 141:3-4)
- The Lord wants us to avoid all forms of sinful speech and to use us to love one another with our words – to build up, to console, to encourage, to at times graciously correct – at all times seeking to edify.
- May God by his Holy Spirit help us to do just that.
Questions for Discussion/Application
- Re-read the text, James 3:1-12. What initial insights and observations do you have from reading this passage?
- In what ways have you seen the power of the tongue be used for good, in positive ways? In what ways have you perhaps experienced God using the words of someone else to encourage and bless you?
- In what ways can the tongue be used for evil? (Note, let’s be careful in this part of the discussion to not gossip, and speak of how others have failed in this area.)
- What does it mean that we as human beings have been made in the image of God (verse 9)? How can this awareness help us to not so quickly engage in critical or harsh speech?
- How do you personally want to grow in the area of godly speech?
- Note: Kevin DeYoung sermon recommendation.
- Consider taking time to pray, asking God that by His Spirit He would help each of us to become more godly in our use of the tongue.