A SUBJECT IN EVERYONE'S MOUTH
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Vance Havner tells the story of the old colored nanny who was in quite a serious auto accident. Where there is a wreck, of course, there is soon a lawyer, and he said to her, "Auntie, you ought to collect some damages from this." "Damages!" she responded. "Man, I'se done collected enough damages, what I needs is repairs!" She may have been mixed up, but she knew that getting fixed up was the primary need. That is the need of each one of us when it comes to this subject in everyone's mouth-the tongue. What we need is not more damages, but repairs.
We see the damage everywhere, but we do not have to look at others, for our subject is one that is in everyone's mouth, and, therefore, we have to look no further than ourselves for evidence of its negative, harmful, and destructive power. Christians will often say that the answer is Christ, and no one can argue with that, for in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The problem with this solution is that the solution is not the problem. Leona Hertel explains what I mean out of her own experience. She wrote, "I once took a math course and found all the answers to the problems in the back of the book. I thought it would be a snap. However, just having the answers did not help me to learn the proper mathematical procedures. Life is often like this. We know the answer to our problems is found in Christ, but we must learn how to apply His all-sufficient grace if we are to find help in time of need."
God has supplied the answer in Christ, but it is our duty to learn how to make it work in life. The application of truth is just as vital as truth itself. We do not become Christlike just by knowing that is our goal. It doesn't just happen. There are practical steps we must take to achieve this goal, and that is why James stressed wisdom, which is the practical application of truth and knowledge in life.
But how does James help us to achieve repairs for this minor muscle of the mouth which is marred by sin, and which can be so harmful in marring the lives of others? James follows the same pattern that needs to be followed in bringing the lost to turn to Christ and be saved. A sinner must be convinced of his sin before he feels any need for a Savior. So a Christian needs to be persuaded about the tremendous danger of the tongue before he will bring it under submission to God. Only when we are fully convinced of how inconsistent our tongue is will we be willing to work at bringing it into conformity with Christ likeness.
In verse 10 James makes it clear that the major problem Christians have with the tongue is in inconsistency. Out of the same mouth we send forth both blessing and cursing. We are back to our double mindedness again, and James said in chapter 1 that such double mindedness will not receive anything from the Lord. He will not give the wisdom and patience a person needs to press on to perfection. Your Christian growth can come to a halt just because your mouth is a fountain that sends forth both bitter and sweet.
Aesop tells the story of the master who ordered his servant to prepare him the most perfect dish on earth. The servant brought in a dish of tongue, for he said, "The tongue is the instrument of the mind, and the source of the most beautiful poems and most noble of thoughts." The master then ordered him to prepare the most abominable dish possible, and the servant again brought him tongue saying, "It is the poisoned instrument of slander, falsehood, and blasphemy." The tongue is a great paradox, for it is both the best and the worst. It is the producer of all our praise, and the maker of all our malice. We both love and hate with the tongue, and James says we must stop using it for evil, and use it consistently for good.
Our need for direct help from God is obvious as we examine the details of James in his denunciation of the tongue. In verse 6 he says it is a fire. Fire can be good, but James stresses the fact that the tongue fire is fed by the flames of hell. Phillips in his translation makes it vivid-"A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is as dangerous as any fire, with vast potentialities for evil. It can poison the whole body; it can make the whole of life a blazing hell." The NEB has it, "...it keeps the wheel of our existence red-hot, and its flames are fed by hell."
The more versions you read the more impressed you become with the radical language of James. If we take James seriously, we are all, to some degree, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One of our members is a traitor. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, but within the body is a sanctuary for an unholy spirit. Satan has one last strong hold in the Christian life, and as long as he can maintain some control of the tongue he can do a great deal of damage, even through a child of God. Mitton in his excellent commentary on James writes, "If our lives are thought of as, by right, God's property, God's rightful kingdom, then the tongue is the enemy agent within that kingdom, a ready tool at the disposal of God's enemy, the ruler of this world."
If James is exaggerating here, it is by God's inspiration, and it is due to the fact that Christians underestimate the danger of evil in their tongue. The most dangerous enemies are always those within, and every believer carries one at all times right in the mouth. James says in verse 6 that the tongue can defile the whole body. The tongue leads the way and controls what we do with our body. If a man talks of evil, he will tend to follow it up with action. If you cannot trust a man's tongue, you cannot trust any part of him, for the tongue defiles the whole man. In Matt. 15:11 Jesus said, "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." Jesus went on to name some of the things that defile a man's life, and two of them are false witness and slander.
Satan got the ball of sin rolling in this world by using the forked tongue of the serpent to bear false witness to Adam and Eve. Prov. 18:21 says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue..." Satan brought death into the world by means of the tongue. Joseph landed in prison because of the slanderous tongue of a sensual woman. Jesus was severely slandered and called a glutton and winebibber, and by means of lying words people were stirred up to cry out for His crucifixion. Paul had to face it, and men of God all through history have had to suffer the burns that can be inflicted by the fire of the tongue in false witness. The tragedy is that this fire from hell can even come out of the mouth of Christian people.
James believed in a hell on earth. He only mentions hell once in his letter, and it is in relation to the tongue of believers. A Christian will never go to hell, but a Christian can bring hell to himself and others. It may be hard to believe that a Christian can be responsible for inflicting the torments of hell on others, but there is no way to escape it unless you get rid of James. James is a writer who is so honest that it hurts. He knocks away all of the illusions, and he forces Christians to look at reality. James says a Christian can have such an uncontrolled tongue that he does more for the promotion of hell than he does for the kingdom of heaven. We may not like to hear it, but it does explain a lot of things in history.
In verse 10 James says these things ought not so to be. It is wrong, but it is real, and there is no point in sticking our heads in the sand and denying it. Vance Havner says it is not always good to know some of the big shots in the Christian world too well. It is depressing he says to hear them expound the Word of God, and then set down at the table with them and listen to them grip about the hotel service, and grumble about the mail being late. Even the best of God's servants are instruments of clay, and they have a strong tendency to reveal that by the use of their tongue. The unknown poet was not necessarily thinking of a church committee when he wrote these words, but no one can deny that he might have been.
He cheered each dry committee,
With tales of absent folk,
And let not truth nor pity,
Impair his little joke.
Till loves were soiled, and lives were spoiled,
By every word he spoke.
It is bad enough that it is real, but James makes it even worse in verses 7-8 when he dogmatically states that it is humanly hopeless to control the tongue. Human nature has some marvelous powers, and with much labor can tame the creatures of the jungle, sky, and sea. One of the wonders of the world is man's power to train the lower creatures. I have seen trained birds perform amazing stunts. It has been done from ancient times. Men of long ago even trained fish, and today most everyone has seen a whale or porpoise trained, and lions and tigers and elephants are old hat. When it comes to the tongue, however, man's weakness is as impressive as his power is over other creatures. No man can tame or control the tongue. James does not mean that we are all a bunch of wild uncontrollable babblers, but that we all have a tongue that at any time might go off half cocked and do damage. We never know when we are going to say something stupid or hurtful.
The implication is that much of the evil of the tongue is not willful and deliberate, but it is the result of poor control. A Christian might hate himself for what he says, but he does it anyway because his tongue is an unruly evil. Most of us feel civilization is much safer than the jungle, but James implies that our chances of getting hurt are greatest where there are the most human tongues. Satan goes around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, and according to James, the roaring may come from our own mouth. Samuel Hoffenstein wrote humorously, but with a touch of realism-
The jungle is a kind of grove
Where lions, apes and rajahs rove;
Its not the kind of place that I
Should choose to live in, or to die;
Yet I should just as soon be in it
As here you blab another minute.
Maybe some of you are feeling this way even about this message on the tongue, but we need to consider a few more verses. James closes verse 8 by saying that the tongue is full of deadly poison. It is a tool of the serpent, and once we sink our fangs into someone, and let false rumors or slander flow, there is no cure. The only way to deal with the sins of the tongue is by prevention. It takes a baby a couple of years to learn how to talk, and then decades to learn how to keep quiet. Silence is golden because often the best thing you can ever say is nothing. In verses 9-10 James stresses the terrible inconsistency of the Christian in blessing God and cursing man with the same tongue.
Jesus knew this was going to be a problem for believers. In Luke 6:28 He said, "Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." Paul repeated the command to the Romans in 12:14, "Bless them which persecute you; bless, and curse not." There is just no justification for a Christian to curse any person, but the fact that they need to be constantly reminded makes it evident that they do, and James says this ought not to be. It is totally inconsistent with the Christian life to use the tongue in this way.
Too many times we judge a friend
Away from God and man,
And drive repentant prodigals
From Jesus and His plan.
Too many times our knifing words
Stiletto through a heart,
Leaving wounds beyond the healing
Of any doctor's art. Author Unknown
Phillip Dodderidge wrote, "The tongue is the instrument of most of the positive evils with which sincere Christians are chargeable." Every Christian must be aware that the most ferocious monster in the world has his den just behind the teeth. Peter denied his Lord with his tongue, and Christians do so frequently by using it to curse and injure those for whom Christ died. There are probably more doubters and skeptics in this world because of the uncontrolled tongues of Christians then any other single factor. Both our relationship to God and to man depends upon our bringing the tongue under the Lordship of Christ. The poet writes, "A dog is loved by old and young; He wags his tail and not his tongue."
A man wrote a famous tract called Come To Jesus. He became a well known Christian. Later he got into a theological debate. He wrote an article against his opponent, and it bristled with sarcasm, and sharp cutting words. He showed it to a friend and asked for his opinion. The friend read it and said, "Why don't you title it Go To The Devil by the author of Come To Jesus." The man got the point, and I trust we will all get the point of James. A tongue that both blesses and curses is as freakish as a fountain that has both sweet and bitter water, or a fig tree that grows olives.
God expects Christians to be ideal specimens of humanity, and not weird freaks who keep everybody guessing whether they are from heaven or hell. The world expects Christians to be consistent. If you walk by an apple tree everyday you will pay little attention, but if you find lemons on it one day, you will be impressed and never forget it. So if a Christian lives a consistent life, and then suddenly lets his tongue speak evil of men, all will be impressed, and never forget that inconsistency. The harm has been done to one's testimony. That is why James is stressing consistency, and that is why one of the greatest prayers in the Bible is Psa. 19:14, "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer."