“Controlling What We Say”

James 3:1-12

We are reading through the book of James and have come to James’ third teaching of wholehearted devotion to Jesus: controlling what we say. Really? Controlling what we say is a demonstration of wholehearted devotion to Jesus? Turns out Jesus did say something about the things we say, Luke 6:43-45, New Living Translation, NLT,

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.

James addresses those who choose to teach first. In fact, he encourages people not to become a teacher, or at least warns them that should that become their calling, they must realize they place themselves under stricter judgment. Many like to be the leader and take control, but James was warning those who take that role, they must understand there is a higher expectation of accountability. James heard this straight from Jesus, Luke 12:48, 

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

James echoes Jesus in restating that being a teacher in God’s church is more than just a calling or having natural or even spiritual gifts. If you claim to be a teacher it adds a dimension of having and maintaining appropriate character and right living. 

Because of the influence teachers have over others, God will judge them with more strictness. The word tense used for stricter implies there are degrees of treatment at the judgment seat. 

This judgment seat idea has been prevalent in James’ teachings. Remember, James is writing this letter to believers of Jesus Christ and yet he keeps referring to being judged. Somehow in modern Christianity this judging aspect of our walk with God has been diminished. 

James goes on to claim that even he himself, stumbles in many things. Notice the pronoun “we” in verse two. Teachers are humans too. The ancient Greek word used here and translated “stumble” doesn’t mean a fatal fall, but rather something that trips us up and hinders our spiritual progress. Ain’t that the truth. 

It’s encouraging that James, 

as a significant leader, 

was able to put himself in the same group of stumblers as everyone else. Paul said the same thing in Romans, and 7:21-25, 

21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power[e] within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

Later on in chapter 8 Paul provides the response to our sinful nature, v.5-6, 

5 Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. 6 So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. 

We have a choice, which do we allow to take over? Our sinful nature or the Holy Spirit? 

We should follow the example of James. He doesn’t come up with excuses for his stumbling, he simply acknowledges it then turns his focus on the Holy Spirit. His example is meant to encourage us to press on, to make our walk with Jesus better, marked by less stumbling. Jesus provided a way to measure spiritual maturity for teachers and for all Christians in Matthew 12: 34b-37, NLT,

For whatever is in your heart determines what you say. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.”

What sort of words condemn us? When it comes to ourselves, it is when we boast, exaggerate or report selectively. 

When it comes to others, it is when we criticize, slander, are cruel, two-faced or use flattery and insincere words meant to gain favor. 

It all starts with our tongue. Such a small part of the body but with lots of power. James equates the tongue to the bit in a horse’s mouth used to keep the animal in line, and to the rudder of a ship, which is able to steer the entire vessel and keep it on course. The struggle comes with the fact that something as small as the tongue has power to determine both good or evil outcomes. It’s not likely that you will keep silent in order to not fail. Just as if you could solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn or the problem of a hard-to-steer vessel by keeping it tied to the dock. 

Think about it, both the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rudder of a ship has someone in control. 

Some people have no hand on the reins or rudder and therefore say whatever comes into their mind. It doesn’t work to direct your tongue from your emotions or from aspects of our carnal nature. James directs the new Christians to put the Spirit of God in charge, working through them, to direct their hearts, hands and especially the tongue. 

James then equates the tongue to a fire, capable of consuming a great forest. How easily one is burned by the tongue. We have a children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” 

Not true! 

I am sure many of us can recall a bitter word spoken against us, but any broken bones we may have incurred have healed. 

James provides examples where the tongue can either control or destroy. Consider the fact that what we say, 

> such as a casual sarcastic or critical remark or 

> a well-timed encouragement or compliment 

can impact someone for a lifetime. 

I have a 6th grade student who has what I often call diarrhea of the mouth. What he thinks, he says. He has no filters whatsoever. I am constantly stopping him or asking him to stop or apologize. His immediate response is, “I’m just kidding!” to which I respond with Proverbs 26:18-19, The Message,

People who shrug off deliberate deceptions,
    saying, “I didn’t mean it, I was only joking,”
Are worse than careless campers
    who walk away from smoldering campfires.

James isn’t suggesting we should take a vow of silence and stop talking. Which in some ways, may be easier than exercising the self-control needed over our tongue. When controlled properly the bit, the rudder and the tongue have the potential to do a tremendous amount of good.

James then equates the tongue to a fire and a world of iniquity. Sounds harsh but if you think about it most sins  involve talking in some way. And because of this James tells us that taming the tongue is difficult. 

Great. 🙁

Not very encouraging, is it?

We can tame every kind of beast, bird and reptile, even creatures of the sea, but no one can tame the tongue. According to James it is an unruly evil. 

Even more depressing!

That’s where we need to let God step in. What is impossible for us is not impossible for God, in fact, nothing is impossible for Him. This is where we need to put the Holy Spirit in charge. The entire book of James focuses on just that, putting not just our tongue, but our whole life under the power and the control of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit guides our thoughts, our mind, our input of information and the output of information, the tongue becomes tamed. I am always amazed when I am at a memorial service for an individual and others get up and say, “She was so kind.”  “She never had a bad thing to say about anybody.” I sit back and think, “Wow!” I’m not so sure people will be able to say that about me. 

I grew up in a family that pretty much said whatever they thought, with as many four letter words as existed in between. I have worked hard to allow the Holy Spirit to guide my tongue, instead of my background. It’s a holistic approach, and it takes time. 

James also states the tongue is full of deadly poison. Many a word has 

> murdered one’s reputation by slander, 

> stirred up lust and passion in one’s soul, 

> not to mention created quarrels between others. 

The tongue can go either way, it can be used to bless our God, the one who created us and within minutes turn around and spit out curses. We have some biblical examples to demonstrate this. 

Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God and when pressured, he denied Jesus with curses. John said, “Little children, love one another.” He also wanted to say the word and bring down fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village. 

Sound familiar? We are in good company. Although these men of God provide us with examples of real life contradictions please note, this was not their daily routine. As Christians, with the Holy Spirit living in us, our speech should be consistently glorifying God. Regardless of where we are, in church, at home, at work, our vocabulary and tone of speaking should be the same, tamed by the Holy Spirit. We shouldn’t be sending forth fresh and bitter from the same opening. As we read this it’s almost as if James has suffered personally from others tongues.

James tells us it is impossible for a spring to yield both salt and freshwater. Just as it is impossible for a fig tree to bear olives, or grapevine bear figs. If bad fruit and bitter water continue, basically, there is no contradiction, both the tree and the spring are bad. 

This translated in today’s language means, what we say predicts what we are. 

Quite similar to what is known as 

The duck test—”If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”—suggesting that something can be identified by its habitual characteristics.

Which brings us to what does this mean for us today? 

I look at what is going on today and have to wonder, where are those people who are Christians? I mean the type of Christian James has been describing in his letter. Those who allow the Holy Spirit to guide all of their life, especially their tongues. I hear a lot of people calling themselves Christians but am having difficulty seeing it. 

It’s like this:

> You can label a fig tree “Olive Tree” and that will

not make it an olive tree. 

> You can trim a fig tree to look like an olive tree, and

that will not make it an olive tree. 

> You can treat a fig tree like an olive tree, and that

will not make it an olive tree.

> You can surround a fig tree with many olive trees,

and that will not make it an olive tree. 

> You can transplant the fig tree to the Mount of

Olives, and that would not make it an olive tree.

Saying you are a Christian is one thing. But being a Christian is another. 

Being a Christian means allowing God to take over 

> all of your life, 

> all your heart, 

> all your soul, 

> all your mind and 

>all your strength, and 

giving the Holy Spirit control over everything, 

especially controlling what we say. 

That is what makes us Christians. 

Let’s pray.