By Pastor Glenn Pease
The story is told of a man who had lived all his life on one of the small islands of the South Pacific until he came to visit America. He crossed the continent by train, and spent days watching the landscape. When the train crossed the Mississippi River, and he was told how much further he still had to travel, he said this to a fellow passenger, "I have been thinking about Christopher Columbus. People make such a fuss about his discovering America, but I don't think it was so much. America is so big, I don't see how he could have missed it."
After crossing Iowa three times in July, I can understand his feelings. We live in a big country. Big is space, big in power, and big in world influence. Bigness characterizes the thinking of Americans. The huge Astrodome in Houston, Texas is symbolic of the American Ideal. It has been called the eight wonder of the world. And 18 story office building could be built between the surface and the dome. Men have always been thrilled with bigness. The ancient world had its pyramids, coliseums, towers and castles. From the time we can first talk and our mother asks us how big we are, and we thrill her heart by stretching our arms and saying so big, we are made conscious of the significance of size.
Bigness is not bad in itself. Government can get too big and domineering, and so can business. It can become a monopoly, but bigness in itself is not bad. It has a tendency, however, to lead our minds astray by making us ignore the significance of the small. James was a man who fully realized that the small is significant. God inspired him to share this truth with all believers. When we think of a great Christian leader, we think of great Bible scholars, men of deep prayer, and those with a powerful witness. These are the big things in the Christian life, and we hear them exalted over and over again. No one would think of ever denying there significance, but James makes it clear that you can spend your life concentrating on these big things and still be a failure because of your neglect of the little things. He is thinking especially of that little thing in the lower front part of your head called the tongue.
James does not say, if you read your Bible every day, you are a perfect man, or an ideal and complete Christian. He does not say you are perfected if you pray and witness effectively. He does say, however, you are perfected if you have such control of your tongue that you never offend with it. The ideal Christian is the one who has realized the significance of the small, and has learned to make no mistakes with his or her tongue.
If you have ever been wondering why you are not perfect, now you know. Most sermons on the tongue are looked upon as messages on a minor problem in the Christian life. They are just little talks on trivial troubles that Christians have. The big things are what count, and so we tolerate some of the topical talks on texts about the tongue, longing to get back to the big stuff of Bible doctrine. There is so much truth to our feelings that it is hard for us to grasp the significance of the small. Certainly a message on the cross or resurrection is far more important than a message on the tongue. Nevertheless, God through James forces us to examine the significance of the small, and the role of the tiny tongue in our total testimony as Christians.
Big things only exist, and can only function properly, because of little things. That is what James is saying in this passage. A realistic look at any area of life will prove it is a true principle. We could explore the great expanse of the universe, and point out that all of it, in its gigantic colossal bigness, is composed of tiny atoms so small that they are unseen. All visible reality exists and functions on the basis of the minute and invisible atom. This is God's doing, and He follows the same pattern in the spiritual realm. Jesus describes it in Matt. 13:31 where He said the kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed. It is the smallest of seeds, yet it becomes a huge plant.
God is concerned about the big also, and man can never match God when it comes to bigness, but in all God does there is the reality of the significance of the small. We must grasp this truth, and see its application in all of life before we can deal seriously with the specific topic of the tongue. If we don't, it will only be another message on a minor issue, and it will impress few, and change none. We must recognize that James is not taking us down a side street or a back alley, but is right on main street when he writes so seriously about the tongue. James knows that speech is the primary means of communication in all human relations, and that it is the source of much good or much evil.
Most all of the beautiful relationships of life begin and continue by means of the tongue. Just think back to the thrill it was to first talk with the one you came to love. You might wish he or she would stop now, but it was music then. All friendships begin with the tongue as we learn to know each other by verbal sharing. We also lose friends by the same means. We also hurt those we love by the use of the tongue. All human relationships are made positive or negative depending on our use of the tongue.
The two great commandments of Christ are to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. Keeping the second commandment is a matter of good relationships with other people, and this is a matter where the tongue is the key factor. You cannot do the big things of the Christian life without the aid of the little tongue. The big things collapse if the little things are not under control. Since we cannot truly love God with all our being if we fail to keep His second commandment, it means even the biggest thing of all, our relationship to and obedience to God, depends upon that little piece of flimsy flesh in our face.
It may be hard to believe, but the kind of Christian you are and will become depends more upon your use of your tongue then any other single factor. The small is significant. So much so that we often fail in our Christian growth just because we don't believe it can be all that important. But look at life, and you will see James writes wisdom from above. We need to give this truth more thought, and be more conscious about applying it in our lives. Listen to the poet's description of this truth, and see if it does fit your own experience.
It takes so little to make us sad,
Just a slighting word or a doubting sneer,
Just a scornful smile on some lips held dear;
And our footsteps lag, though the goal seem near,
And we lose the courage and hope we had-
So little it takes to make us sad.
Most of the destructive conflicts within marriage start with some negative little remark you could write on a postage stamp, but before its effects are over, you need a legal size file to hold the folders with all the foul and foolish words. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire says James. We all know its true, yet we cannot bring ourselves to fight fire where it starts, and concentrate on controlling that little thing, the tongue.
The folly of our neglect of this truth is all the more evident when we realize how encouraging a truth it is. Many Christians feel so inadequate and inferior, and they know they will never be great Bible scholars, or great movers of mountains, by prayer, preaching, or witnessing, and so they live in constant guilt and frustration. James is telling us we do not have to turn the world upside down to be a great Christian. We do not have to have mighty gifts to be instruments of His grace. All we have to do is bring our tongue under control and use it is a way pleasing to Him and we can be what He wants us to be.
Every Christian has the potential for doing great things that will lift, and bring light and life into this world of so many needs. The unknown poet also writes of the positive side of the tongue.
It takes so little to make us glad,
Just a cheering clasp of a friendly hand,
Just a word from one who can understand;
And we finish the task we long had planned;
And we lost the doubt and the fear we had-
So little it takes to make us glad.
Every one of us has the power in our tongue to be harmful or helpful to every person we know. To learn to control this little muscle for the glory of God is the secret of successful Christian living. The Christian who can do it is on his way to God's hall of fame, for James says if he learns to control that little member of the body, he will be able to control the whole body, and bring it into submission to God. The little is significant, and because it is, every one of us is significant in the plan of God. There is not one so ungifted that he cannot use his tongue more effectively for the glory of God and the good of man. Now let us give our attention to some of the details of James on this important truth.
In verses 3 and 4 he gives 2 illustrations of the significance of the small. One is for land lubbers, and one for the sea fairing man. By means of a little bit you determine where a horse takes you, and by means of a little rudder you determine where a ship will go. If James had lived today, he could have added another and said, by means of a little stick or wheel you determine the course of an airplane. When Mariner I was launched it went off course and missed Venus by ten of thousands of miles. It seems that in typing out the electronic instructions to the missile someone left out a hyphen. This tiny little mistake cost 18 million tax payers dollars. Numerous little things control the big things of life. The whole elevator goes where you want it to by pushing a little button. The illustration are endless, and the tongue is that little thing in the human body that determines where your life will go. When Paul said in Rom. 12:1 to present your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, he was clearly implying that the tongue, as part of that body, must be submissive to God, or there can be no successful Christian living. The body goes the way of the tongue.
When we think of the weakness of the flesh, and the lust of the flesh, we almost always think in terms of the sex drive. We all know the power of sex, and we are constantly made conscious of it, but reading James convinces me that sex is not as great a problem for Christians as is the tongue. Christians have temptations, like everyone else, but they are aware of the dangers and tragedies of yielding, and, therefore, are usually on the winning side in this battle, but not so when it comes to the tongue. We are not conscious of its power for evil, and so we frequently fall. Listen as I read verses 6 though 8.
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts
of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole
course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the
sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but
no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of
I can hardly believe that James is on the level. It sounds like an extreme exaggeration. James makes it sound like our tongues are so evil that they make our mouths equivalent to the very pit of hell. You would have a hard time convincing the most constant curser you know that his tongue is as bad as James makes it out to be. And remember, James is writing to Christians. I would not believe these words if they were not a part of the Bible. But because they are, and because the language is so strong, I have concluded that we have here one of the most significant passages in all the Bible, but one of the most neglected. If the tongue is really the primary tool by which Satan can trip us up, and cause us to fail, and if we are almost totally oblivious to it, and hardly give the matter any consideration, than it is no wonder that we are not advancing toward Christ-likeness.
Its not the big events alone
that make us what we are;
and not the dizzy moments when
we're swinging on a star.
Its just the things that happens, as
along the road we plod;
the little things determine what
we're really worth to God.
If little things are that important, than little things are big things, and one of the biggest things you can do is take care of the little things.