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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
Title:The Power of the Tongue
Text:James 3:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Self Control

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Read: Proverbs 18: 2-8, 13, & 19-21
Proverbs 20:19-20
Proverbs 21: 23
Proverbs 22: 6 & 11
Proverbs 26: 20-28

Text: James 3: 1-12

Psalm 139: 1, 2
Psalm 37: 1, 12
Psalm 39: 1, 4
Psalm 52: 1, 2, 5
Psalm 15: 1, 2
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters,

The average person uses about 30,000 words per day. That’s a lot of words. All of us speak enough words each day to fill a book. If you multiply that by the days in your lifetime, then you would be able to fill a good-sized library with volumes of books written just by you.

During a typical worship service a minister will use 6000 to 8000 words. And so, each Sunday he uses up a good part of his allotment per day just during the two worship services. And when he conducts a worship service then his words may be recorded. Hundreds of people listen to what he has to say. And so, during the worship services he has to be very careful with the words that he uses. Before he speaks on the pulpit, he will have carefully thought about exactly what he is going to say and how he is going to say it. He spends a good part of the week preparing himself.

But, did you know that all of your words, day in day out, are recorded as well? Do you know who does that recording? Well, the Lord God does. He keeps a record of each word that we speak. He “bugs” our conversations every day. He is always listening in. And he holds us accountable for every word we utter. The Lord Jesus himself made that very clear when he said in Matthew 12:36, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” Therefore we must speak and act as though we were already facing Christ in judgment.

However, the words we speak are not always wholesome words are they? Just think about this morning before you came to church. Especially when you have little children to get ready, you will likely have spoken angry and unwise words. And it is possible that after the worship service, you get into the family car and you argue all the way home. That’s the way it often goes in families.

What is the matter with us? Well, the matter with us is that we all have unruly tongues. James’ words here in chapter 3 are just as fitting now as they were when he wrote them 2000 years ago. James speaks about the power of the tongue. With our tongues we can accomplish a great deal. Through the spoken word you can build up or you can tear down. You can accomplish great things with your tongue, and you can do a lot of damage with your tongue. It is a very powerful instrument. That is what I will preach to you about this morning. I will preach to you about:

It has the power:
1. to direct the course of life;
2. to destroy the circle of life;
3. to heal the source of life.

Already earlier in his letter James indicated that he was going to come to the subject of the tongue. He said back in chapter 1:26, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” He also says in verse 19 that we must be quick to listen and slow to speak. The tongue is a very dangerous weapon. It needs to be used with extreme caution. It has to be handled with care. It is like a stick of dynamite. You had better not let it slip. That’s also the way it is with the tongue. You’d better not let it slip either. There’s a proverb that says, “though feet should slip, ne’er let the tongue.”

Surprisingly James begins by singling out a certain group. He begins by addressing the teachers in their midst. When we think about teachers, then we think about those who teach in an elementary or high school or university. Then we also think about ministers and elders. But if that were the case, then most of you sitting in the pews would be let off the hook. This would then apply only to a few individuals in our church. However, that is not what James has in mind here. The Scriptures consider all of us to be teachers.

Listen, for example, to the way the author of the letter to the Hebrews addresses his readers. He says in Hebrews 5:12, “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” He expects all of his readers to be well enough equipped to be teachers.

However, it is true that James especially has in mind those who have a prominent position as teacher in the church. James writes that not many of them should presume to be teachers. It appears from this that many among his readers had that desire. They had a desire to teach others. And that’s a noble desire.

But to teach someone requires a certain skill. That is why it is a good thing that James earlier reminded the readers that you must be quick to listen. You can’t be a good teacher if you are not a good listener first. If you want to bring others to faith, for example, then it is not just a matter of coming with all kinds of facts about what being a Christian is all about. No, you first of all have to know where that person is coming from. What’s going on in his or her life? Most people have heard something about the Christian faith. But there are certain reasons that they reject the Christian faith. What are those reasons? Are they misinformed? Or are they disappointed in the Christian people that they have met? What keeps them from coming to the saving knowledge about Christ? In order to find these things out, you first of all have to listen to them, to be in tune with them. And only then can you apply God’s word to them. It needs to be applied to them within their own particular situation.

The most important teaching we do is to our children. It says in Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Literally it says, train a child according to the demand of his way. And so a better translation would be, “train a child in accordance with his own unique circumstances, and when he is old he will remain on the right track.” In other words, find out what makes your child tick. Listen to him or her. Don’t think that the way you bring up a child is by lecturing him or her. Don’t overwhelm him or her with a torrent of words. Don’t impose your personal likes and dislikes upon your child. Use your words wisely. Make sure they apply. Do that with everyone with whom you come into contact and do that within the parameters of God’s laws. And that gives you an enormous amount of room. For God wants us to enjoy his creation to the fullest. And there are numerous ways in which we can do that.

A teacher must be able to share God’s truth. But, as we saw the last time, faith without deeds is useless. The teacher will not be effective unless he also practices what he teaches. The parent can say one thing to a child, and do something completely different. That does an enormous amount of damage.

James says that we all stumble in many ways. He includes himself in this. He says that no one is perfect in that regard. We all are prone to slips of the tongue. Don’t think that James is saying this because he wants to give us a way out -- “Well, we can’t really help ourselves because that’s the way we all are.” We all slip once in a while. That’s not what he means. What he means is that when we speak to others, we have to keep in mind that we are sinners just like they are. The word that he uses for “stumbling” literally means “to sin” or “to transgress”. Don’t come to others with a superior attitude as if you are better than they are, as if you know everything. No, you’re a stumbler like everyone else.

Therefore choose your words carefully. Be kind and considerate. People do not respond very well to those who are smug and self-righteous. Such a person does not come across as an understanding person. But people do respond to kindness and gentleness. If you want to teach others then you have to be humble about it. This is a quality especially necessary for an office bearer. James says that “if anyone is never at fault in what he says, then he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check” (v. 2). When James uses that word “perfect”, he actually refers to maturity. And that’s the theme that he develops throughout his whole letter. He urges his readers on to the maturity of faith. When you are mature in speech then you know what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. You don’t just say the first thing that comes to mind. You have a good sense of timing and of content.

James uses some very good illustrations in order to make his point. He compares the tongue to a bit in the mouth of a horse and to the rudder of a ship. These two items are quite small, yet exercise great power. With a bit you can control a powerful horse, and with a rudder you can steer a huge ship. Horses are often used as an example of power. That is why even today we speak about the horsepower of a motor. But a horse needs to be controlled. And the way you do that is by putting a bit into his mouth so that you can overcome the wild nature of the horse. And a rudder of a ship is only a small part of that ship, but you use it to control that large ship to fight the winds and the currents that otherwise drive the ship off course.

There are also all kinds of things that threaten to drive us off course. Our old nature wants to control us and make us do all kinds of sinful things. And that sinful nature needs to be controlled. And therefore we have to learn to use our tongues in the right way. We have to learn to use it to steer others in the right direction.

Brothers and sisters, and that includes you boys and girls, never underestimate how you can direct the lives of others by the use of well-chosen and timely words. Think, for example, of the way the Lord Jesus used his words, and how he directed their lives. He spoke words of healing to those who were down and out, the prostitutes and the sinners. He spoke, for example, to the woman at the well and her life was completely changed, as were the lives of her neighbours. He spoke kindly to her in spite of the fact that she was a Samaritan; in spite of the fact that she was hated by the Jews. The very fact that he spoke kindly to her made her think. It made her think about the message of salvation the Lord Jesus was bringing. And it changed her life.

You too have the power to change the life of others. You have great power with your tongue. Do you want to direct the lives of your children, and the lives of your loved ones? Do you want to be a positive influence on them so that they will direct their lives in the right way? Then use your tongue wisely. Use it the way the Lord Jesus used it, by being kind and compassionate and forgiving, and yet by setting clear boundaries.

2. Don’t, however, use your tongue in a destructive way. We come to the second point. In verse six, James compares the tongue to a fire and states that the tongue sets the whole course of life on fire. When he speaks here about the course of life he uses an expression that means “the circle of life”. James suggests that the various aspects of our lives are connected like spokes in a wheel. He is referring here to all aspects of a human existence, from beginning to end. The point that James is making is that with your tongue you can destroy someone’s life.

If a child grows up with nothing but criticism and harsh words, then he or she will have a very difficult time throughout his or her whole life. But if a child grows up with kind and encouraging words then the opposite happens. Kind words are the building blocks of life. When God spoke, we came into existence. These were words of love, for he created us in love.

But don’t think that your words do not have power like that as well. They do. If you want to give your children, or your wife, or your husband a good life, then you do that by the kinds of words you speak. And if you want to destroy their life, then you’d also you do that by the kind of words you speak. Words are extremely powerful.

The town of Houston is a small community in northern British Columbia set in a large valley in the midst of giant forests. Once there was a very large strip in the midst of the forest close to town that was destroyed by fire. When the fire was raging the town of Houston was greatly endangered. It affected the people adversely and they were reminded of that fire whenever they went up for a drive and came across a swath of that great section blackened by the fire. That fire made quite an impact. People talked about it for years. It had the power to destroy large portions of the forest and almost destroyed that town of 4000 people. That fire became known as the Swiss fire, because it was accidentally set by someone from Switzerland who was there on holidays. However, the Swiss embassy did not like the fact that this became known as the Swiss fire. They did not want the reputation of Switzerland to be negatively affected by that name. One thoughtless moment by a single person created much havoc and even threatened the reputation of a whole country.

Well, says James, the same thing is true of the tongue. One thoughtless remark can destroy the circle of life. By making a thoughtless, hurtful remark to another person, you can interrupt his or her mental well-being for a life time. You can greatly alter another person’s mood and ability to function. And that is especially the case if you are in a position of power or influence: a parent, a teacher, an elder or a minister, a deacon, or a good friend.

Unkind words spoken behind a person’s back are especially damaging. And let’s face it, we are all very good gossips. We like to talk about other people. That is one of our favorite pastimes. The book of Proverbs reminds us that when we gossip we add wood to the fire. For it says in Proverbs 26:20, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”

When there is a fire, then often it is not the fire as such that does all the damage. No, you can have a small fire that can do great smoke damage. A fire spreads its misery around.

As James says, it is hard to tame a wild animal. However, it is even harder to tame our tongue. As someone said, “the most untameable thing in the world has its den behind the teeth.”

James speaks here about the tongue as “a world of evil among the parts of the body.” How true that is. Think about the wrong language that constantly flows from our mouths. With our words we express anger and bitterness. With our words we express our wrong desires about the things that we want in order to fulfill our own lives. Our words are often selfish and self-serving. Our tongues express what lives in our heart. Listen to what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 12:34, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” Our heart is the seat, the storehouse of our emotions and our desires. And the unsanctified heart is full of wrong desires and goals and ambitions. It is indeed a world of evil.

James says that the tongue is itself set on fire by hell. That’s quite a strong statement. Look at what Satan did with his words. He tempted Adam and Eve. He spoke lies to them. His words were full of venom. As the Lord Jesus said in John 8:44, Satan is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He killed with his tongue – the tongue is that powerful.

But our tongues do not need to be set on fire by hell. Do you know how the tongues of the apostles were set on fire on that first day of Pentecost? Their tongues were set on fire by the Holy Spirit. And that fire is a purifying fire. That fire from heaven burns away all the impurities that live inside of us and come out of us by way of the mouth. If our tongues are set on fire by the Holy Spirit, then it is a mighty tool in service of the Lord. Then it is a mighty tool in the building up of the church, in the building up of families, in the building up of friendships and all kinds of relationships. But if the heart is filled with hatred, envy, and bitterness, then Satan is the one who is lighting the fire. And then all we do is destroy. Our hearts however must be filled with love, the love of Christ. We come to the third and final point.

3. James says that the tongue is remarkably versatile. With the tongue we can praise our Lord and Father, and with it we can curse men, who have been made in the image of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

James compares the mouth to a spring of water. He says it is impossible that both freshwater and saltwater come out of the same spring. The spring that produces fresh and wholesome water gives water that gives life. It gives life to vegetation, and to animals and to man. This world cannot exist without fresh water. In other words, water is the soul of all life. It is the life-giving source. The same thing is true of the soul of a man. If the soul of a man is good and wholesome, then so is the life of that man. As the spring is the source of life, so the soul is the source of life. Proverbs 18:4 says, “the words of a man’s mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.”

Water, however, can also do a lot of damage. Just think about floods. They bring death and destruction. And so it says in Proverbs 18:21 “the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit”.

Cool water is refreshing. So are well-chosen words. It was Paul’s prayer to the Romans that “he might come to them with joy and together with them be refreshed” (Romans 15:32). He also speaks about those fellow believers who have refreshed him with their words. Kind and upbuilding and encouraging words can be so refreshing. They are the source of life.

The words that you hear from the pulpit are also words of life. For these are not the words of a man, but the words of God. Every time God speaks to you he tells you that he loves you, that he graciously and mercifully forgives you your sins, and that he wants to dwell with you forever and ever. He wants to be near to you. That is, he wants to dwell in your heart. Those are wonderful words. Those are upbuilding words. Those are the words of eternal life.

When the Lord Jesus spoke his words, it was always with the aim to bring others closer to their Father in heaven. And that is always what our aim should be as well. All our words must be chosen to direct others to the source of life, which is God.

The tongue can be such a delightful instrument. And that is why James compares the tongue to a tree. Trees are essential for the life of the earth. They produce clean air. They hold down the soil. They provide beauty and shade. And they bear fruit. In Proverbs 10:21 it says, “the tongue of the righteous nourish many.”

Brothers and sisters, let our tongues be instruments of nourishment, of healing. “We all stumble in many ways” James says. Indeed. We are a bunch of stumbling fools. But it is especially because of that that words can be so healing. When we do wrong, as we do all the time, then an apology goes a long way. We are very quick to criticize, but we are very slow to apologize, if we apologize at all. Wrong words leave festering wounds. But kind and humble words are like ointment on those wounds.

Brothers and sisters, boys and girls, God has given you a wonderful tool. It’s very powerful. Use it in the way that he intended for you to use it. It’s not something you can do by your own power. You need God’s help. And so, pray every day that you may use your tongue for healing rather than wounding. As Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” He preceded that advice in verse 2 by saying, “devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful.” It is only through prayer that the power of the Holy Spirit is available to you. Pray for a tongue set on fire by the Holy Spirit. And then God will bless you and make you a great blessing. Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2007, Rev. W.B. Slomp

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