An insurance adjuster recently noted the unique way that people file reports on their claims when asked to describe their accidents in the fewest words possible:
“I pulled from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law, and headed for the embankment.”
“The pedestrian had no idea which way to run, so I ran over him.”
“The guy was all over the road; I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.”
Communication. It is the process of expressing how we feel and what we think. It is impression as well. It is a tricky, risky piece in the puzzle of existence. Words can confuse, embarrass, and hurt. Conversely, they have the power to heal, encourage, help, and teach. Unfortunately, unless we are under the Holy Spirit’s control, our words are more prone to hurt than to heal.
Words are often tragically destructive. Recently, my favorite sports writer was analyzing a fine levied on a local baseball manager for verbally chewing out the commissioner. His column defended the manager by saying, “After all, they were just words.”
Just words? There’s no such thing. Words have tremendous weight. The pen really is mightier than the sword. It is not true that “names will never hurt me.” Job said, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (Job 19:2). I must be constantly aware that my words to my children as their father, to my congregation as their pastor, and to my wife as her life partner carry impact. That’s why God holds me accountable for my words (Matt. 12:36-37).
Devastating words aren’t the only problem we have with our speech. Occasionally, our tongues simply succumb to the cascade of everyday pressures.
In addition to stress from our everyday encounters, our words come under the pressure of our exposure to negative patterns of speech. Many of us are exposed to degrading speech on a daily basis. From the choice words of an angry boss to the crude and shaded language of prime time TV; in casual conversation with a neighbor to careless chatter among Christians; there is a steady exposure to corrupted communication. Unfortunately, our tongues often become a mimic of the input and, to our chagrin (embarrassment), the destructive words are out before we know it – occasionally in front of people who can’t believe what they’re hearing!
Whether it be well-meant confusion, careless destruction, survival in chaos, or subconscious submission to environmental patterns of speech, words can be destructive in three-dimensions. They are able to destroy our relationship with God, our relationship with those we treasure the most, and even our relationship with ourselves. Having a tongue is like having dynamite in our dentures – it must be reckoned with.
Transforming our tongues requires supernatural strength. Victory demands taking up supernatural arms – being “strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). Being strong in the Lord is no mystical, hocus-pocus process. Being strong in the supernatural, victorious strength of the Lord has some solid resources that are available to us. As we discover and digest God’s Word, the indwelling Spirit transforms it into growth – growth that produces spiritual, victorious strength.
God has blessed us with a wealth of truth in regard to the tongue – truth that warns, convicts, and transforms us as we permit it to take residence within us. One of the most instructive sections of truth on the tongue is James 3. In this passage, five principles unfold that make us aware of the gravity of our words.
Principle 1: The Measure of Maturity
“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (Jas. 3:2).
The word stumble means “to fall or to trip.” What a graphic picture of immaturity in our speech – tripping. Our seven-week-old sheep dog, Paddington, trips over everything in his path. His clumsy stumbling reflects his immaturity. A stumbling tongue reflects our spiritual age as well. Our spiritual maturity is not measured by the communication patterns of those around us, but by the standards of God’s Word.
The word perfect literally means “complete” or “mature”. This verse asserts that we are not mature until we do not stumble in word, being able to bring our entire body under control.
Certain skills are priority skills. If you master them, others come quite naturally. A marathon runner has no difficulty running a mile. A professional golfer can handle the two foot putts. And so it is with the tongue. If we master the tongue, we have the capacity to master other areas of our lives.
Have you ever seen someone revive a drowning victim with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? What a thrill it would be to bring renewed life to our relationships by learning the skill of mouth-to-mouth maturity.
Principle 2: Small but Significant
“Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (Jas. 3:3-5).
Wars that have claimed thousands of lives have been ignited by the tongue’s spark. Marriages that once set sail on a joyous adventure have been steered onto the rocks by the rudder of a splintered tongue. After several years in the ministry, I cannot recall one counseling situation in which the problem was not either ignited or seriously complicated by negative words.
The kids on our block say it best. The tattletale is called “Mr. Bigmouth.” That isn’t a reference to the size of his mouth, but rather a pungent (strong) description of the heap of trouble that his little mouth produces.
Principle 3: Combustible Commodity
“And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:6).
The seriousness of the tongue’s activity is revealed in the truth that it is “set on fire by hell.” It is a “world of evil,” literally an entire network of sin. We have an organized crime syndicate right in our mouths. Our tongues have the capacity to corrupt our entire being – nothing is exempt from the damage our tongues can cause.
Occasionally my wife and I have enjoyed the privilege of being with respected godly people. Though the encounters have always proven beneficial, more than once we have found ourselves surprised by their readiness to share freely the faults of others and, thereby, unconsciously tarnish their images.
We should remember that fire is one of the few forces that does irreparable damage. Fiery words often destroy relationships that, even when restored, are never the same again. Our families, our businesses, our churches, our friends, our enemies, our wealth, our security, our happiness, and our peace are all vulnerable to the defilement of the tongue. We should wear signs that say, “CAUTION: LIFE IS A COMBUSTIBLE COMMODITY – DOUSE YOUR TONGUE!”
Principle 4: A Wild and Deadly Beast
“For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:7-8).
I get a kick out of how much effort we put into taming animals. There is “elephant soccer,” dogs that bark “Jingle Bells,” chimps that communicate in sign language, birds that talk, and porpoises that “shoot baskets” better than I do.
Taming the tiger in our tongues must be a priority. By the Spirit’s power, the tongue can be tamed for God’s glory. If we do not bring it under the Spirit’s control, it will be “full of deadly poison.” When speaking of sinful mankind, Paul wrote, “The poison of asps is under their lips” (Rom. 3:13).
In regions of South America there is a snake called the “Two-Step” snake. If it bites you, you take two steps and die. Its venom swiftly paralyzes your nervous system which stops your heart. Words can be like that. They have the potential to kill swiftly a relationship, paralyze love, poison minds, destroy faith, stain purity, and deface reputations.
Principle 5: The Double-Trouble Tongue
“With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh” (Jas. 3:9-12).
Someone has said that most tongues are tied in the middle, wagging at both ends. God’s Word pictures it as a double tongue (1 Tim. 3:8). It’s amazing how we can verbally poison one another all the way to church and as soon as we turn into the parking lot begin to speak out of the pious side of our mouths! We hardly finish singing the doxology and we are complaining about the usher who didn’t put us in our favorite pew. “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (Jas. 3:10).
Even nature doesn’t act so incongruously. It would be impossible for our wells to send forth salt and fresh water, and for our fig trees to bear olives! If they did, we would reject them with disappointment. God might well ask us, “Can a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor. 5:17) send forth ‘old words’?”
In these five principles James has categorized the tragic and shifty potential of the tongue. Step one to victory is to permit these truths to penetrate us. James rings a clear warning. A transformed tongue must be a top priority for those on the growth edge of discipleship.
James’ warning, however, takes on added weight when we realize that many Christians are insensitive to the problems of destructive speech. We excuse one another with rationalizations such as, “Well, it’s the truth, isn’t it?” or “If they didn’t want people to talk, they never should have done it.” The most subtle excuse among Christians is, “Let me share this with you that we might pray more intelligently.” This desensitization process has opened the floodgates to communication sins.
I understand that if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and place the pan on the stove with the heat slowly rising, the frog will not jump out – but will slowly boil to death. It’s not that the frog is dumb. It’s that his nerve endings become desensitized in the slowly-heated water. The hotter the water becomes, the more numb his nerve endings become – until finally he is cooked.
Like the frog, we too can numb our spiritual nerve endings. By making careless communication an acceptable part of our lives, we assume that a carnal tongue is par for the spiritual course. When that happens, our churches, schools, homes, friendships, and relationships with God will all be victimized – cooked to death by our lack of sensitivity. Our foremost commitment, then, should be to nurture and protect the inward development of humility, patience, and love. These are skills that grow and develop. They are taught by the Spirit through His Word and engrafted into our lives by attentive application and continued commitment.
In order to aid in the development of these skills, we should:
- Define accurately and practically, in our own words, the essence of humility, patience, and love. Make these definitions concise, biblical, interesting, and relevant. Be creative.
- Memorize our definitions and key Scripture passages that fortify our sensitivity to the essence and importance of genuine humility and patience.
- Pray regularly (several times a day) for the developing work of the Spirit in each of the three areas. Prayer will not only unlock the Spirit’s work, but will also help remind us of our commitment.
- Speak less and listen more, permitting the principles of humility, patience, and love to guard the door of our lips. David prayed, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psa. 141:3).
- Evaluate what we have said by the standards of the three principles that we are now committed to, not by the standards of others.
- Be patient. Our spirit and our speech cannot be transformed in a day. Patiently persist!
Nurturing our inner maturity will not only fortify and stimulate our growth but will also infect others with an awareness of the positive benefit of a tongue in check.
Joseph Stowell, Kindred Spirit, 1983