Here's a pop quiz. What do the following items have in common? A wild beast, a rudder on a ship, a small fire, a deadly poison, and brackish water. If you said these items are all images that James uses to talk about the tongue, you are correct. He minces no words in the third chapter. Control your tongue.
He isn't the only writer in the Bible to give this command, of course. Proverbs is chock full of these kinds of nuggets, like in chapter 21, verse 23: "Those who guard their mouths and their tongues guard themselves from trouble." So is the book of Psalms, like in 34:13: "Then you must keep your tongue from evil and keep your lips from speaking lies!"
Even Jesus has a lot to say...about what to say. For example, in Matthew, he says that it's not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but the words that come out of them.
Clearly, the Bible understands this universal truth about the human condition: our tongues need taming. But James is unique in the vividness and flair that he uses to make his point. He uses word pictures to illustrate the power of words. The tongue is like a small bit that can bridle even the wildest horse. It is like a small rudder that can determine the course of a giant sea vessel, and small spark that can set off a blazing fire, a tiny bit of poison that can cause great harm, and a toxic mixture of salt and fresh water that can destroy life. That is some vivid verbal flourish.
I'm no wordsmith to match James' writing skills, but I do wonder what other kinds of creative spins one might take to talk about the power of the tongue. What other ways might there be to creatively verbalize the responsibility we each have to control what we say, and to make sure that the words we use create beauty rather than cause harm.
Two ideas come to mine: 1) A Top Ten List, and 2) Tongue Twisters. So, based on James' advice to control what we say, here are...
The Top Ten Tongue Twisters that Talk about Taming the Tongue
10. If liars lie in lairs of lies, in their lairs lie lots of liars.
This one is about slander and lies. It is an easy place to start, because, after all, this one is listed in our ten commandments. "Thou shalt not bear false witness," or "Thou shalt not lie." James puts it another way later in this book, when it says, "Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no.'" Yet hearing the commandment and actually carrying it out are two different things.
9. If you attack behind their back, they'll be back to bite you back.
This one is about gossip, which is a particularly tough one for many of us. I was once part of a Bible study where we decided at the beginning of our time that we would covenant together to cut down on the gossip. Boy, was that one tough. We discovered it's hard for Christians to keep from gossiping, as we have all sorts of ways to get around this one! My small group discovered that a classic way is to start a sentence with, "Keep so-and-so in your prayers, cause did you hear..." It is a slippery slope, folks!
8. I need not your needles; they're needless to me. It need not be needed to be needling me.
Watch the insults. There is no need to cut people down. That old cliché, "Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is simply untrue. Words do cause harm. They can hurt. And the bruises can last a very long time.
7. An oyster's noise annoys me, see, when an oyster voices complaints to me.
This one has nothing to do with oysters, or the noises they make. This one is about grumbling and complaining. It cuts right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We need to be people of great joy and enthusiasm and hope. Yet so many of us betray God's image within us simply by how our words and actions suck the joy and life out of the world around us. The Israelites in the desert were notorious for that, and it drove Moses nuts. There is often little reason for grumbling and complaining in the body of Christ.
6. Ye have two ears to hear in here, so hear ye with your ears, and don't pack your yaks like a yakking yak pack packs yaks.
This tongue twister is a simple reminder to listen more. It is one of James' most vital pieces of advice. He says, "Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry." If there is any bit of homework we should exercise more, it is this: Try listening more. In each of your conversations, particularly ones that get tough or testy, listen with empathy. Hear the other person out. It's amazing how much more sensible and more productive your exchange will be.
5. Classless cusses cause crass clauses across coarse courses.
This one is pretty simple. Cut down on the cursing. Yes, there are certain words of profanity that express meaning in ways that classier words cannot convey. But our Christian witness requires us to elevate our speech beyond that of the coarse and unrefined. Stay away from the crass; opt for the classy.
4. Love best builds and fills when its built and fills your will.
Use your words to encourage. "Bear one another's burdens," Paul writes, "and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Gal 6.2) Elsewhere, in Romans 12, Paul says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep!" Yet how many times do we put our own needs and our own emotions before others? Your tongue has a great capacity to build others up and give them the fuel they need to keep going. Give people the gift of encouragement.
3. Patient patients push a penchant for patience in a pinch.
Let your speech be graced with patience. Watch your tendencies to let your impulsiveness and impatience dictate what you say, lest you say something that you will later regret. Think before you speak, and measure your words carefully, especially in moments of tension and disagreement. When we let our unbridled emotions take over, we pay the price.
2. Would you bother to bother a brother if you offer one offer but proffer another?
Watch the hypocrisy. Make sure what you say is consistent with what you do. This principle was one of Jesus' favorite accusations against the religious leaders of his time, especially in the book of Matthew. There was too much speaking, and not enough doing. Too much talking about the law, and not enough acting in love. When I was in youth group, we had a saying, "Your walk talks, and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks."
Okay. So, now it is time for number one. And this one is given to you just straight and clear, no gimmicks, and no tongue-twisting. Here it is.
1. Speak the Truth in Love
Taming the tongue is more than just keeping your mouth shut when you feel like saying something you shouldn't. Taming the tongue also means saying something you don't want to say but needs to be said. It would be wrong to think that the only way we need to guard our speech is to keep our mouths shut at all times. Sometimes, our speech can be used to speak the truth to others, even when the truth hurts.
You see, sometimes not saying what you should say to someone who needs to hear it is as harmful as saying something you shouldn't. (How's that for a tongue twister?) But it's true. Think of all the difficult words that Jesus had to speak throughout his ministry:
- He told a rich man that his addiction to money was preventing him from entering the kingdom.
- He told one of his closest friends that he wasn't as loyal as he thought he was going to be.
- He told a crowd of religious leaders that they were in direct opposition to the will of God.
- He told an angry crowd that their anger against a sinful woman should have been channeled against their own sins.
- He said he was God's son, and he died because of it.
Sometimes, sharing the truth hurts. It is costly, and it is very painful. But when shared in love and genuine concern for other people, in the long run, it is for the benefit of all involved.
So, where are you on this list? What would your rankings look like? Maybe you don't have a problem with lying or hypocrisy, but maybe you could work on gossip. Or grumbling. Or maybe insults.
The reality is that James has tapped into something that is clearly a widespread characteristic of our human condition. We could all work on our speech. James would affirm that words have great power. They can be destructive and divisive, or they can bring wholeness and healing. The choice is yours.
Where are you on this list of tongue-taming traps? Chances are, your challenge is clear.
Clean up your language.
Speak without grumbling and complaining.
Let your word be your bond.
Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Let your actions speak louder than your words.
And, remember, there are times when you must speak the truth to someone, in love.
In the name of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.