THE DISCIPLE’S TONGUE
In one statement, Jesus ripped the mask off every person who would presume to hide within his heart evil things. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). The greatest fool on earth is the one who thinks he can hide his true character from others. Only mute people can do this. But even those who cannot speak will eventually reveal their true character by their actions. Jesus continued, “The good man brings good treasure out of the good things. And evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Mt 12:35). We separate good men from evil men by what comes forth from their mouths and how they behave. In fact, Jesus assured us that what comes out of our mouths will determine our eternal destiny.
But I say to you, that every idle word that men will speak, they will give account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Mt 12:36,37).
There are those who would presume to be religious, but their heart is full of evil things. They offer a good presentation to cover a host of inward evils. But if such a person does not control his speech, then he has already judged his supposed religiosity to be useless. “If any man among you seems to be religious, and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is useless” (Js 1:26). It is interesting that this statement says that one “deceives his own heart” when he pretends to be religious, but harbors evil. With this statement, James introduced one of the most profound pronouncements from the Holy Spirit in the Bible. James 3:1-12 is a dissertation from God that should exhort any disciple to engage in a lifetime of struggle to control that which cannot be tamed, that is, his speech.
I. Little is too big.
James introduced the impossibility of controlling that which would declare useless our discipleship. “If anyone does not stumble in word, the same is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (Js 3:2). These are not encouraging words. Those disciples who would be puffed up in their own “spirituality,” should remember that they are continually brought down by a slipped word. If one would think that he can always control his speech, then he should consider the fact that the strength of a horse is controlled by a very small bridle (Js 3:3). If one would think that he is spiritually strong, then he should reconsider the small member of the tongue that can bring one down to humanity.
A large ship may stay afloat on the ocean and take the blows of the waves, but it is turned about by a very small rudder (Js 3:4). An unguarded word spoken in jest can wreck a life. And then consider the strength of standing trees in a forest. No matter how strong the trees may present themselves, they can be burned to the ground with the flame of a small match (Js 3:5). A life of discipleship can be burned to the ground with a harsh word. A mighty automobile engine can produce tremendous power, but be brought to silence with a very small particle in the jets of the carburetor. James’ metaphor is direct. Though the tongue is small, it can bring down lives. A businessman of our acquaintance once said that he had an investor come to him in order to invest 1.5 million dollars in his business. But during the discussions, our friend said that he made one statement as a joke, which the investor considered offensive. So the investor gathered up his papers and walked out. A word made in jest cost our friend 1.5 million dollars.
The curse of the careless word is in the fact that one can spend a lifetime making friends that can be destroyed with a few careless words. We wish we could thank the author who wrote,
A careless word may kindle strife,
A cruel word may wreck a life.
A bitter word may hate instill,
A brutal word may smite and kill.
A gracious word may smooth the way,
A joyous word may light the day.
A timely word my lessen stress,
A loving word may heal and bless.
James was right. If we could only control our tongue, then we could really control our whole body (Js 3:2). Being a good disciple could be easy if it were not for the tongue. The tongue can never be completely controlled, and thus, discipleship will always be a struggle. And for this reason, we are always on our knees before God, asking that we be forgiven of all the senseless words that may have caused damage to our relationship with others. The struggle to be the type of disciple we want to be begins with the small member, the tongue.
II. Division is caused by words.
Since the tongue cannot be completely controlled, then James cautions,
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. So is the tongue among our members, that it defiles the whole body and sets on fire the course of nature. And it is set on fire by hell (Js 3:6).
It is true that much gossip that is aired among the members should also be fumigated. The tongue is never on the sidelines when there is division among the members of the body. This is true, as someone said, because there are always three types of gossips among the members in times of turmoil: (1) vest-button gossips, those who are always popping off nonsense, (2) vacuum-cleaner gossips, those who are always picking up dirt, and (3) liniment gossips, those who are always rubbing it in. These are gossips with “hoof and mouth” disease. They are always hoofing it from one member to another, mouthing off those things they should not. Paul reminded us that there are those “wandering about from house to house … gossips and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Tm 5:13).
Why is it that when there is turmoil among the disciples that there are more people run down by gossips than automobiles. In times of controversy among the children of God—and there will always be those times because we cannot control our tongues—there are some who never know what to talk about, only who to talk about. We must never forget the wisdom of the sage who said, “Gossips are people who put 2 and 2 together and always get 22.” These are those people who have things go into their ears, but get mixed up before they slip out of their mouths. It is people as this who never seem to be interested in the work of the church until there is trouble. They will not show up at the assemblies of the disciples to discuss the work of the church until there is trouble. Sometimes it is as someone said, “Some people never get interested in anything until it is none of their business.”
The story is told of a young man who made a statement to several people, which statement he later found out was totally false. He asked advice from one of the elders, who instructed him to take a feather and lay it on the front step of the front door of every house where he stated the falsehood. He was then instructed to later go back the following day and collect up all the feathers. The young man replied, “But the feathers will be blown all over town.” Right.
Someone wisely said, “The worst indigestion one can have comes from having to eat one’s own words.” The poet was right:
Two ears and but a single tongue,
by nature’s laws to man belong.
The lesson she would teach is clear;
Repeat but half of what you hear.
For this reason, James exhorted, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Js 1:19). Have you ever noticed the things in Proverbs 6 that God hates, things that are an abomination to Him? Just in case you have not, they are, among other things, “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who speaks lies” (Pv 6:17,19). Delmar Andrews probably revealed in a very precise manner the evil of slander.
The sin of slander is one of the most vile and wicked sins in the realm of iniquity. It is a devil’s caldron, brewed in correction, flavored with filth, spiced with deadly venom, and stewed over the fires of hell. Its stench is nauseating and repulsive to the nostrils of the decent and respectable.
The sin of slander could not have been better described. When dealing with our tongues that cannot be tamed, every disciple should make the control of his tongue top priority. If one would involve himself in slander, he has used his tongue in the most evil way it can be used. James exhorted, “Do not speak evil one of another, brethren. He who speaks evil of his brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law (Js 4:11). The slanderous person sets himself up as the law, and thus his slanderous speech speaks evil of the law of God. He judges the law of God to be inadequate to lead people, and thus, he slanders in order to manipulate people to follow him and his law. Such was what the church leader, Diotrephes, did in reference to the evangelists, and the apostle of love himself. So John wrote to Gaius, “Therefore, if I come I will remember his [Diotrephes’] deeds that he does, unjustly accusing us with malicious words” (3 Jn 10). If someone would so slander the apostle of love, then certainly disciples who step forward to be the type of leader they should be, should expect slander from those people who love to be first (3 Jn 9).
III. The untamable is among us.
James is emphatic about the untamable tongue. There is no bird or beast that cannot be tamed by man (Js 3:7-9). “But no one can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil full of deadly poison” (Js 3:8). It seems to always be true what someone said, “Some use language to express thought. Some use language to conceal thought. But some use language instead of thought.” It is true that if you speak when you are angry, you will make the best speech that you will ever regret. A poet said it right.
It is not so much what you say,
As the manner in which you say it;
It is not so much the language you use,
As the tones you use to convey it.
Paul instructed concerning the tone we should use in our speech: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone” (Cl 4:6). In reference to our demeanor concerning our speech, Paul also instructed,
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ has also forgiven you (Ep 4:31,32).
We must always keep in mind that kind words will always echo back to us in kind words. How we speak to others is how others will speak to us.
IV. A loose tongue manifests a hypocritical heart.
James concludes his exhortation concerning the tongue with words none of us want to hear. A loose tongue will reveal our hypocrisy. “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (Js 3:10). The challenge in one’s use of his speech is to be consistent. And in being consistent, one must always speak good consistently. We must not forget that our manner of speech is an indication of our manner of behavior. Jesus was right. “The good man brings good treasure out of the good things. And an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Mt 12:35). Someone once defined dignity as “the capacity to hold back on the tongue what should never have been in the mind in the first place.” But if there is evil in one’s heart, it cannot be concealed. It will be revealed through the tongue.
James uses two illustrations to explain that true disciples are consistent in their speech. A spring does not give forth sweet and bitter water. No disciple should be spouting forth sweet and bitter speech out of the same mouth. A fig tree does not produce both olives and figs. Neither should a disciple produce good and bad speech. It is simply true what James earlier said in his epistle, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Js 1:8). If one is double-tongued, then he is not stable. He is not conducting himself with dignity. Maybe we should write out and place on our refrigerators the words of the Holy Spirit of Ephesians 4:29:
Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for edification, so that it may give grace to the hearers.
This is more than advice from the Holy Spirit. It is a mandate to be obeyed. The Holy Spirit said in another place, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Pv 18:21). Is this not what Jesus said. “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Mt 12:37). As disciples of Jesus, we must never forget that our eternal destiny lies in the control of our tongues, that little member that is simply too big in our lives.