A Course in Speech

Series: Preacher: Date: June 30, 2013 Scripture Reference: James 3:1-12

Would you all please stand up?  Thank you. Now would you all please turn around and wave at the people in the sound booth?  Okay, everyone turn back around and face me and remain standing.  Now lift both hands Heavenward. Now drop them at your side. Thank you. You may be seated.

If you wonder why I had you do all that, raise your hands with a perplexed look on your face. Thank you again. To clear up those perplexed looks—I had you do all those pre-sermon aerobics to illustrate the power of words. As you have just witnessed firsthand—WORDS MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.

But the reason BEHIND the reason for all this word-play is because the next issue that James deals with in his “ultimate how-to manual” is the power of the tongue. In these next twelve verses he gives us some very practical guidance on human speech. And by reading this little book we can see that James is well-suited to deal with this issue because in he repeatedly addresses the subject of the way we use our words. In chapter 1, verse 19 he told his readers to, “Be swift to hear, slow to SPEAK.” A few verses later he said that the religion of a believer who does not know how to bridle his tongue is worthless.  In verse 12 of chapter 2 James said that whenever we speak we must do so as though we are already facing Jesus on judgment day. And, in coming weeks—as we proceed in our study of James—we will see that speech is mentioned in some way in every chapter of his little epistle. In fact, I would say that James expresses himself more strongly about the dangers of the tongue than any other New Testament writer. This tells me that James must have had a lot of experience confronting speech abuse as the pastor of the church in Jerusalem. And the Holy Spirit led James to share his experience-based expertise because all growing disciples of Jesus must learn to control their tongues for a two main reasons.

1. First of all, talking is something we all do. In fact we do it a lot.

Communication experts tell us that thanks to voice-mail, cell phones, face-time and SKPE—the average person speaks enough words to fill twenty, single-spaced, typewritten pages every day.

This means our tongues crank out enough words to fill two books of three hundred pages each month, twenty-four books each year, and twelve hundred books in fifty years of speaking.  I guess this explains how authors like David Baldachi and Clive Cussler can crank out book after book after book! And of course, these days we don’t just talk with our mouths. Thanks to social media which we can access with our smart phones and I-pads and notebooks we use our keypads to communicate almost as much as we do our tongues.  The plain truth is that communicating comprises a large part of our lives and if Jesus is going to truly be Lord we need to learn how our faith should affect it all.

2. A second reason we must study this issue is because the sad fact is we all use our communication skills to sin.

As James 3:2 says—and remember, he is addressing Christians, “…we all stumble in many ways…[and] none of us are without fault when it comes to what we SAY…”  I think one reason we all fall short in this area is because it is so easy to do so. As that old saying goes, “The tongue is a wet place…be careful lest it slips” It is easy to SLIP up and use our words to sin. In fact, as Guy King says, “The spirit of every one of the ten commandments can be broken by the tongue.” No wonder God put our tongues inside the cage that is formed by our teeth! And truth be told we have ALL used our tongues to break God’s loving laws. We have all spoken or communicated in another way with the intent of hurting others. We’ve held someone up in a conversation like a paper doll and snipped away until nothing was left but pieces on the floor. In fact, since this is true, let’s stop right now for a time of honest confession.  If you have ever used your tongue to speak bad of another person—if you’ve ever used your words to hurt would you raise your hands? Thanks for your honesty. With that honest confession as our motivation let’s see what James has to say. Take your Bibles and turn to James 3:1-12.

1 – Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

2 – We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man able to keep his whole body in check.

3 – When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

4 – Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.

5 – Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

6 – 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 it itself set on fire by hell.

7 – All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man,

8 – but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

9 – With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.

10 – Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

11 – Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

12 – My brothers can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Now in these verses James says there are four speech lessons that all Christians must learn.

1. The first is this: the tongue has power to DIRECT.

Like the bit in a horse’s mouth that is able to direct the animal’s every movement and like the rudder that determines the course of a ship as it crosses powerful ocean currents, the tongue can DIRECT the entire life of an individual for good or evil. In this text James cites a great example of the human tongue’s “directing power” in the work of TEACHERS, and I think this came to mind because teachers were very influential in James’ day. One reason for their influence is because Christianity grew out of the Jewish faith and in Judaism rabbis or teachers were VERY highly revered. In fact, the name, “rabbi” means “my great one.”  Everywhere they went these Jewish teachers were treated with great respect. Their words were always heeded. The teaching of a Rabbi was taken very seriously.  It was actually held that a man’s duty to his Rabbi exceeded his duty to his parents, because his parents only brought him into the life of this world, whereas his Rabbi could bring him into the life of the world to come. It was said that if a man’s parents and a man’s Rabbi were captured by an enemy, the Rabbi must be ransomed first. If Rabbi and parents needed help, it was the duty to help the Rabbi first. And much of this respect for Rabbis was passed on to teachers in the early church—and rightly so because these teachers had the ability to direct the spiritual growth of their students.  In fact, in some ways teachers were more influential than even the apostles and prophets because teachers weren’t always on the move. Unlike Paul and Barnabas and Peter and John, teachers stayed in one congregation for years—sometimes for their entire lives—working within one group of believers teaching them the Scriptures—guiding or directing their spiritual development. So a teacher had the awe-inspiring potential of putting the stamp of his or her own faith and knowledge on these new Christians. Teachers literally DIRECTED the growth of the early church.

And even today teachers would be a good example to cite when it comes to the power of the tongue to direct young lives because, as Proverbs 22:6 says when we, “Train up—or teach—or DIRECT—a child the way he should go…when he is old he will not depart from it.” Well, with this example James helps us to see that the tongue does have incredible DIRECTING power—and it does. Think about it.  The president of the United States speaks a few words and the nation is at war. With his words, hundreds of thousands—even millions—of lives are affected.  The tongue speaks the words, “I DO” on the lips of a bride or groom and a lifelong relationship is initiated. It speaks the word, “GUILTY” on the lips of a judge and the destiny of an individual is determined. It speaks the word, “NO” on the lips of a person confronted by the call of Jesus Christ and it directs the individual into an eternity separated from God. The tongue has the power to DIRECT.

2. And then the second lesson James teaches us is this: the tongue also has the power to DESTROY.

Look at verses 5-6. James says, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 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 it itself set on fire by hell.”  James teaches us here that the DESTRUCTION a tongue can cause is like the damage caused by the spark that starts a forest fire. This is a good comparison and here’s why.

  • The damage the tongue causes is WIDE RANGING.

Like a spark that starts a fire that spreads across hundreds of miles, a word spoken in one place can hurt someone far away like an arrow or a sniper’s bullet.

  • It’s also UNCONTROLLABLE like a fire. I mean you can’t take a word back.

You can’t stop its spreading. Once words of gossip leave our mouths they take on a life of their own.

  • And like a forest fire, words are indeed incredibly DESTRUCTIVE.

I have never known anyone who has not at some time used his or her tongue in a destructive manner or who has not suffered horrible pain because of something someone else said.  WORDS hurt—they WOUND—and in way that is much more painfully destructive than actual physical wounds.  I broke my right arm when I was 12 and it only hurt me for a few days.  But I still remember hurtful things that people said to me or about me decades ago and when I call them to mind I hurt all over again. Proverbs 15:4 is true when it says, “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

 And the sad truth is, the more we use our tongues as weapons, the better we get at it. Washington Irving once said, “A sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use.”

Most of us are very skilled at using our tongues as weapons. In fact, let’s review some of the ways our tongues can hurt-ways that our words can destroy.

A. First of all our words can hurt…when they are UNTRUTHFUL.

And perhaps this is the most popular way that tongues are used to destroy for we seem to live in a culture that has grown very good at blurring the line between falsehood and truth.  Whether it’s politicians and their “spin doctors” or ministers who quote last Sunday’s attendance in “ministerial” terms—it’s hard to know who you can trust anymore.  I mean, if Pinocchio’s curse were spread around, most of us would have enough nose to smell a PICTURE of a rose. And lies and falsehoods can do incredible damage. I see this proved out over and over again as a pastor.

For example, a wife who has just learned of her husband’s infidelity will call and sob as she says, “He promised to be faithful but he wasn’t. He said we’d live the rest of our lives together but he’s gone.”  She and her children will hurt for the rest of their lives because of her spouse’s selfish deceit.  I’ve known husbands whose lives have been destroyed by a wife who did not keep her wedding vows. I’ve also known people who refuse to return to church because of Christian business owners who said they would pay for things—but never did. They lied. Deceit like this can indeed be incredibly destructive. Here’s another sad example. I knew a man who was accused of sexual abuse in my father’s church. Years later it was discovered that he was completely innocent but the damage was done. Because of that lie he lost his job and his health. In fact he died of a heart attack that I believe was brought on by the stress of it all. Untrue words are powerful words…destructive words. Perhaps this is why when God gave the writer of Proverbs his list of seven sins He hates the most two of them were, “a lying tongue” and a “false witness.”  Listen to me Christian! The next time you are tempted to use your tongue in a deceitful ways, remember, lying is the very antithesis of God’s character.  In his first chapter James told us that our God is truth that “does not change like shifting shadow.” Remember that Jesus described Himself as, “the way THE TRUTH and the life.” So when we embrace deceit in word or in deed we are not acting like our Creator and Redeemer. No, instead we are modeling our lives after satan himself. If you doubt this, then listen to how Jesus described the adversary in John 8:44, “…he does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie he speaks from his own nature for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

B. A second way words can be destructive is when they are…UNKIND.

And the greatest example of UNKIND words that I can think about are words of GOSSIP.  Now, let’s be very clear in our understanding here. Gossip is not putting someone down to their face nor is it talking about someone behind their back in a complimentary way.  GOSSIP is saying or even e-mailing negative things about a person when they are not present.  It can also involve the telling of a truth that does not need to be told for the purpose of hurting someone.  Sometimes gossip involves simply asking questions like, “Is Steve faithful to his wife?” We even mask Gossip in “religious activity” like sharing a prayer request about something that was not intended for public knowledge.  Sometimes we gossip by saying nothing when we hear things that we know are not true and say nothing to correct them. We also promote gossip by simply listening to it. Remember, there can be no gossip if there are no listening ears. People won’t gossip to you unless they believe you enjoy hearing it. And I want to be sure to point out that one of the most popular modes of gossip these days is through SOCIAL MEDIA. I mean technology has made it possible for us to spread gossip in a cyber-second to millions.

Now—if gossip is so destructive then why do we participate in it so often?  Well, I think it is basically because it we are sinful beings and since we are, gossip brings us a sort of perverse pleasure. There is something inside us that makes it feel good to hear bad things about others and the juicer the better.  Gossip also makes us feel powerful. We see the amazing affect our words have and we like being the source of so much power.  It also makes us feel better about ourselves. Somehow we think that if we can find something wrong with someone else and make it public knowledge it makes us look better.  It is like the plots of those old westerns. You know—the ones where there is a guy who is a quick draw and all the gun slingers all over the territory come to try to shoot him—so they can say they are the “fastest gun in the west.”  In the same way we pick a good person—someone we perceive to be better than us and we think,“If I can find something wrong with this person and spread it around, then I will be the better person!”

And James is right on the money here when he compares our words to POISON because gossip does spread uncontrollably—mainly because we find it easy to believe bad things.  In fact, I believe that thanks to our sinful nature we tend to believe BAD easier than we do good. Gossip is also VERY destructive because people expand on what they hear until the rumor gets worse and worse—spreading like a fast-growing cancer.

C. A third way our words can be destructive is when they are UNSAID.

You see, we each need relationships with others—especially as Christians and one way we develop and strengthen those relationships is by simply communicating with each other. I think this is what Hebrews 10:24ff is talking about when it says, Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…encouraging one another.” The fact our fellowship as a church is damaged when we don’t talk with each other.  Our words are one way we build up one another and make our unity as a church healthy and strong. Unfortunately we get so busy in well-doing as we run around the church getting things done—that we don’t take the time to sit and talk and hear about each other’s lives. We don’t take the time to pray for one another and encourage one another. We don’t take the time to divide sorrows and multiply joys. UNSAID words are damaging indeed.

For all these reasons we have to learn to control our communication for our words or even lack of them can be VERY destructive. They can lower morale and destroy the characters of innocent people. Cynical words can promote doubt and disbelief. Negative words can promote depressive moods.  Relationships can be poisoned by the right words slipped into one’s conversation. Proverbs 18:21 is very accurate when it says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

And relationships die without word-fed healthy communication. No wonder David prayed in Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” But before we go any further in our study we need to understand that this little two-ounce muscle in our mouths is not the problem.

3. James would say the tongue only has the power to DISPLAY.

It INDICATES how healthy or unhealthy we are spiritually. When we go to the doctor and tell him we don’t feel well, what is the first thing he asks us to do? RIGHT—stick out our tongue. He does this because usually if there is some problem there will be a coating on our tongue. Then the doctor checks our temperature by putting the thermometer on our tongue.  He does all this because the tongue is a barometer of our physical health.  Well, James says the same thing is true spiritually. We can tell how strong and healthy we are spiritually by the way we use our power of speech. Through every word we communicate, the mouth telegraphs the condition of our heart. As Jesus said in Luke 6:45, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” So, the truth is the tongue is actually neither friend nor foe. Like a bucket draws fresh water from a fresh-water well, the tongue dips down and pours out whatever is in our hearts.  If the source is clean, that is what the tongue communicates. If it is contaminated, again, the tongue will expose it. As James says here, the tongue displays what is in us.  It shows how close we are walking to God. It identifies us either as growing Christians or as carnal Christians.

There’s an interesting story in Judges 12:5-6 that illustrates this principle. The Gileadites were taking vengeance on the Ephraimites. They killed many of them and then set up a blockade on the fords of the Jordan river.  Whenever someone from the territory of Ephraim wanted to pass through, the Gileadites would said, “Are you an Ephraimite?”  If the person said no, the Gileadites would demand, “Say SHIBBOLETH.” You see, the Ephraimites could not sound the “h” correctly and would pronounce the word, “SIBBOLETH.”  The Gileadites would recognize them for who they were and put them to death. Well in many instances not quite so dramatic, the way we use our tongues identify us. It provides evidence of whether or not we are walking in close relationship with God.

So—what does your tongue say?  Does the way you speak DISPLAY the fact that you are walking close to God—or does it show a heart polluted by the world?

Ok…James’ last speech lesson is a sobering one.

4. He reminds us that no MAN can tame the tongue.

Look at what he says in verse 7, “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 deadly poison.”

In this last phrase James is saying that our unkind or untrue words are like poison in that they cannot be contained. Our words slip away from all restrictions placed on them.  J. B. Philips translates this phrase like this, “[The tongue] is always liable to break out.”  Well, James is correct. No MAN can tame the human tongue. It is beyond our strength. We can train birds, horses—even killer whales—but not the human tongue. No, as James says, no MAN can tame the tongue—but Jesus can. The Bible teaches that only He has the supernatural power and divine wisdom that is needed to keep this little monster in check.

  • He healed the demon of Gadara and a tongue that had cried out in blasphemy was tamed such the man, “…went his way and told everyone throughout the whole region the great things Jesus had done for him.”
  • Simon Peter was once known for his bragging tongue, but Jesus tamed it such that it delivered a sermon at Pentescost and thousand were led to faith in Christ.
  • Saul of Tarsus had a wicked tongue that scoffed at the early Christians but Jesus tamed it and made it eloquent in proclaiming the love of God throughout the known world.

So, when it comes to our speech what we need is not self-control but CHRIST-control.

What about you? Perhaps you have a careless tongue. Let Jesus tame it.  Perhaps you have a critical tongue. Let Jesus tame it. Maybe yours is a gossiping tongue. Let Jesus tame it. It could be that you have a selfish tongue. Let Jesus tame it. Are you good at using your tongue to slander others? Let Jesus tame it.  Your problem may be that you have a silent tongue—one that refuses to bear witness to the love of God. Let Jesus tame it. Or you may have a lazy tongue—in that you don’t use it to encourage others.

I would like us to pray. Every head bowed and every eye closed please.

Father God, Like your servant, Isaiah, we are people of unclean lips. We all need your forgiveness and cleansing for the ways we have abused the power of speech. So cauterize our mouths as You did Isaiah’s. Purify and forgive us for the many times we have used our words to sin.  And then God, I ask that You would empower us to use our tongues in ways that will help and not hurt Your kingdom.  As David says, “…let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight Oh Lord our Rock and our Redeemer…”

Now—if that is your prayer Christian. If you want Jesus to be Lord of your mouth, then will you lift your hand? Thank you.

 In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN

This morning we are sharing the Lord’s Supper—this meal that Jesus gave us to symbolize His sacrifice on the cross—that sacrifice that makes us one. In fact, one of the WORDS we use to describe this meal celebrates our one-ness. This supper is also COMMUNION. It’s a reminder that we are a community. We are one body. As we share this meal today let’s commit to use our words carefully. Let’s covenant to only speak in ways that strengthen our oneness as a church.


This morning if you are here and are not a Christian—then I invite you to use your tongue to become one.  As Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord…and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”  This morning, won’t you walk forward and confess to all of us this morning that Jesus is your Savior and Lord? We sing now to give you an opportunity to make your decision public. Whether it is to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior or to join this church family. Won’t you come now, as we stand and sing?

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