Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Silence
Ryan TOmpkins // FEBruary 3, 2019
scripture Passage // James 3:1–12 (ESV)
“ 1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
What is the most dangerous part of your body? Some of you might be inclined to say the mind, that has the imagination to conceive of things like nuclear weapons. Some of you might say the hand, with which we strike other and wage war. But James' answer to this question may be surprising to us. He would say that the most dangerous part of your body is the tongue, which of course is a symbol for speech and for language.
The words that you utter are the most dangerous thing that you can wage. If that is the case, then right off the bat we can probably make two assumptions to begin with. Number one, you underestimate the power of your tongue, the power of the words that you use. Number two, you underestimate the intentionality that is required to see your tongue, your language, be sanctified, to become more holy.
What I hope today as we consider these notions and the power of the tongue, is that in the end, you really will start to think about, "In what ways are my words more destructive than I anticipate? Or in what ways do my words create the life that I would like to live in, but aren't necessarily corresponding to reality?"
To wrestle with some of these ideas and to understand what James is saying, we're going to consider number one, the power of the tongue, and number two, the destruction of the tongue, and number three, the hope for the tongue. So number one, the power, number two, the destruction, and number three, the hope.
First of all, the power of the tongue. Now, James does begin in Verse 1 with a note about teachers, which does not seem to be his main point, but we should not neglect. For those of you who either are teaching or aspire to be teachers, James is saying that this is not something that should be taken lightly.
If you're going to teach God's word, that's a heavy responsibility. You're instructing people on how to live in a way that glorifies God, and it should not be taken lightly. You should be very thoughtful before engaging such a task, not least of which because if you do engage such a task, you will stand under greater strictness of judgment. That indeed is a heavy thing to take into account.
Now indeed, I think Ricky makes a very good point, in that in many ways, all of us are teachers, but James is speaking particularly to the teachers in the church, and if you happen to be one of those teachers, I encourage you to be thoughtful about what you're engaging in, to realize that you will be held to greater strictness and judgment. If you're teaching a young class, and you don't do very much preparation, and you run in and kind of wing it, you might want to think twice about it, because Jesus may have a few words to share with you when you see him about not taking that as seriously as you ought to have taken it, in the strictness of judgment.
Now, for those of you who aren't teachers, you may want to take moment to say, "Thank you," because all the people who labor in RPC classes at whatever age, they are doing so taking on the expectation of greater judgment, of greater certainness in that judgment. I think a thank you is appropriate as they're willing to take on that responsibility in terms of administering God's Word to ... in our midst.
Now as I said, we don't want to neglect that point, but James really doesn't camp out here. It seems to be a launching point. James' main point is that the tongue is a big problem for every believer, for the entire church. The tongue is a big problem, according to James, because the tongue is very powerful.
He begins in Verse 2, and in Verse 2 he speaks with some exaggeration. He says that, "If anyone controls one's tongue, that person is the perfect person." Now, of course he's speaking with exaggeration, because A, there is no perfect person, but also because in Verse 8, he's going to tell you that no man can tame the tongue. It's ultimately an impossible task.
Does that mean we shouldn't engage in trying to exercise greater diligence and greater oversight over our words? Of course not. We're called to be holy as he is holy. We'll never achieve holiness as it should be, it is simply a lifelong pursuit that moves us in the right direction, and so it is with trying to exercise greater control over our tongue and our words. We move in the direction of holiness, and we try to make what gains that we can, even though no one will actually arrive at the place of complete mastery over their tongue.
If I was to ask you, "Who of you didn't really control his or her tongue this week?" All of you would have to raise your hand. In some way, you've compromised another human being, you've wounded someone, you've gossiped, you've engaged in back-biting, you've painted someone as worse than they are. Over and over and over again, and as we're about to see, you often are using your words as well to create the world in which you want to live. This is one of James' most profound points.
This begins in Verses 3 and 4, where James uses two analogies that you need to think about, because they're extremely significant. The first analogy in Verse 3 is a bit which goes in a horse's mouth, and this massive powerful creature, the course of the creature is directed by the bit in his mouth. That's what steers the power of the horse.
In Verse 4 he goes on to talk about his ship. He says, "These massive ships that are driven by the powerful winds take their course according to," what? It is the small rudder that directs the course of the ship, the way that it goes. James says, "So it is with the tongue. Just as a bit directs a horse, and a rudder directs a ship, so your tongue directs the course of your life. It sets the direction that you will follow."
Now, how can that be? How can the tongue set the direction of your life? Words are powerful. To understand how powerful they are, we might consider a story like the one that Audrey Hunt tells. Audrey is a musician and a teacher. In the 1970s, she took her first teaching role at Moorpark College in California at a community college, and was investing in the students there teaching various courses in music and music theory.
Audrey was passionate about her job, and it was in one of her early semesters that a young man walked in, and she describes him as, "the picture of despair." A cloud of depression hung over this boy in ways that she had not seen before, and in many ways in ways that she would not see since. She makes a distinction that often you'll see a child engage in some level of self-pity in order to get attention, but then there's another kind of child that really struggles with significant depression.
Audrey Hunt said Edward, the name of this boy, was this latter child. He carried a sense of complete hopelessness. He was downcast in class. He did not participate, he did not answer questions, he did not hand in his homework, and as the semester wore on, he was not doing well. But Audrey had something of a heart for Edward, and so she often saw Edward sitting on the quad, on the grass, eating his lunch, staring off into space, seeming quite blank, and so she began occasionally to sit down and eat her lunch, and try to strike up a conversation.
Edward was very reluctant. For some time, his only response would be a nod of the head or a shake of the head. He really didn't communicate in words. Audrey kept at it, and they began to have small conversations, and she began to see his grades in her class improve somewhat, but not dramatically.
The semester wore on. Audrey became very concerned about Edward's performance, and whether or not he would make it through the class. Audrey prided herself on being a pretty fair and consistent grader, and she had a heart for Edward, and felt a bit caught in the midst of that.
Well, Edward did sit through the final exam. He was the last one to hand it in, and a couple of days later, the students were supposed to come to Audrey's office to receive their final marks and final evaluation for the course. So her class lines up, and one by one she goes through the students, and she goes through all the students, and Edward just hasn't shown.
She finds herself tearing up, missing the opportunity to have that last interaction with Edward and encourage him, but she says, "He's brought it on himself, what he's brought on himself," and she begins to pack up, and locks her door, and turns and here comes Edward, scurrying down the hallway to get his final mark.
So she opens the door and invites him in, and they sit down together. Edward proceeds to speak more than he ever has. He says to her, "I know that I'm getting a low grade on my final. I realize that I haven't been participating in class, and that I am an embarrassment to others. I'm a lazy, selfish, stupid, and an ugly, no-good-for-anything person. I have no place on this earth, and what's more, no one can ever love a person like me. I am a hopeless case with absolutely no future."
Audrey recounts that she was utterly astonished at the level of negativity with which Edward perceived himself, but she did not interrupt, and allowed him to lay bare his heart in the midst of her office. She weighed how to response to Edward, and finally decided to respond in this way. She's an old lady now. She says it's the only time she did this in her entire career.
This is what she said to Edward: "Edward, your final grade is an A. You may appear to be a D student, but you are an A person. I believe in you now, and I will always believe in you. I am here for you now, and I will always be here for you. Never, ever forget that. Now, go and create the life you dream of. Believe in yourself. I will be watching. And by the way, Edward, I love you."
So Edward, shocked and in awe of what had just transpired, proceeded from her office, and Audrey went about closing down her office and going home. It was late that night at 3:00 a.m. that she received a call in the middle of her sleep. She begins to wake up, and the voice on the end of the line says, "Are you Audrey Hunt?" "Yes, I am." "Are you Edward's music teacher?" "Yes, I am. What is this about?" "Well, I am the priest for Edward's family, and I wanted to thank you for saving his life today."
The story that began to unfold was such that Edward's parents were pretty much out of the picture, and Edward had an older brother that was the most significant person in his life, which is ironic, because Edward's older brother was merciless toward him. His older brother, Edward's older brother, was academically talented and scholastically talented, but he was unusually short.
When Edward was born and began to grow, it became quite clear that Edward was going to be much taller than his older brother. Edward would eventually stand well over six feet tall, and he had the body that his older brother wanted. As soon as that became apparent, his older brother had nothing but contempt for him, and verbally abused him relentlessly, mercilessly, for years and years, to the extent that Edward was a shadow of a human being.
When Edward had gone to meet Audrey Hunt, he had already prepared ... he had written his suicide note and left it on the table. He had tied the noose in his closet, and across from the noose ... as you would hang himself, he put a picture of his older brother, the one that he looked up to, and the very one that abused him mercilessly.
On a last minute whim, he decided to go and say goodbye to the only teacher that had ever invested in him, and it being so astonished by what he had communicated to him through her words, he proceeded to walk for hours in the hills surrounding Moorpark College, and decided to take a different direction in his life.
Meanwhile, his family arrived home, found the note, found the news, and the rest of the story unfolded until the priest calls Audrey late that night and informs her of what has transpired. An entire life, the course of a life, changed. Words are powerful. The words that Edward's older brother used to shape his life were powerful, and the words that Audrey Hunt used to inspire love in his life were powerful as well.
Now, to be fair, what James is talking about specifically are the words that we use to set the course of our own lives, but did not Edward's older brother's words become his words? And did not Audrey Hunt's words become his words, in terms of shaping the course of his life? As the bit directs the horse, as the rudder directs the ship, the words that we employ, to describe, to organize our thoughts, to think about life, they come to actually shape the direction in which we're headed.
I'd encourage you not to underestimate the power of the tongue. What James is talking about is that tongue and language almost has a reality-creating power, in which we would adopt words that facilitate the direction in which we would go, or we would adopt the words of others that may also set us in a direction. Now, that's pretty profound in and of itself, pretty significant, but it gets a lot more tricky and dangerous, because James pivots now from saying, "the tongue is very powerful," to saying, "the tongue is wicked." So we have to consider the destruction that comes as the result of the tongue.
Beginning in Verse 5B, James states that, "The tongue is a small fire that sets an entire forest ablaze." In other words, the tongue can do such damage you may think that it's only a camp fire, but before you know it, an entire forest will be burned as a result of the damage that it can cause. He calls it both a fire, a world of unrighteousness. He says, "It stains the entire body. The tongue apart from Christ is set on fire by" what? By hell.
Did you just catch that? James is saying, "The motivational power of the tongue would not actively submitting to the power of the spirit, is the power of hell itself." When our tongues are not being used in submission to the spirit, Satan is quite delighted, because he sees them works the very effects of hell in this world.
Now, that shouldn't necessarily surprise us, right? If we are not relying on salvation in Christ, then we inevitably will have to save ourselves. If I have to save myself, now I really have to use my words to create a world in which I see myself as effecting my own salvation. I have to manufacture it.
Now, you see this happening all the time, and in fact, we saw a number of examples in the children's lesson today, in which we would use words to effect our own standing. We have to build ourselves up, we have to tear others down, to make ourselves feel as if we are being redeemed in the midst of the brokenness in which we are constantly experiencing and living in.
So you might think of a friend or a spouse frustrated with a friend or a husband, and they use their words to paint that individual as far worse than they actually are. I'm sure many of you have had this experience where you know someone and you hear them start talking about a person, and you say, "My goodness, you have blown this so far out of proportion. This person has wronged you, but they haven't done what you've described, nor are they the person you are describing."
Well, if I have to redeem myself from the brokenness of this situation, I have to condemn the other person. We see it in people who suffer from addiction. Very commonly, someone who is suffering addiction will use words that say things like, "Well, I deserve it," or, "I have so much stress in my life. This is something that I get to partake of."
Or another take, which is interesting, and I feel like I've seen a bit more lately, is the sense that people who say, "I am better on the substance. I fair ..." I was talking to someone who had a child who was struggling with addiction not in the church, and they said that their child, for ... they believe that they are a better person by virtue of the drug that they imbibe, so their words have created a world in which they thrive as a result of participating in that drug. See how the words actually create the direction that life takes?
A lack of words can also shape reality. Some of you may not necessarily be making a sacrifice of someone else by your words, but by your lack of words. The person who offends you, and you decide, "Okay, you're dead to me," or the cold shoulder, or, "I simply won't utter any words to you." In effect, you accomplish the same thing.
This is why James will call the tongue, "a restless evil full of deadly poison." If we're going to be serious about the tongue and the destruction it can cause, we have to start thinking, "If my tongue ... if James is calling but through inspiration to the Holy Spirit is calling my tongue a restless evil full of deadly poison, then I grossly underestimate the damage that my tongue can do, and grossly underestimate how I need to be intentional to make sure my words are giving life rather than compromising others."
You see, as we tried to point out in the children's lesson today, if you believe that ultimate ... If you pull away from Jesus' salvation, you still live in brokenness, and you're still going to have to save yourself from the brokenness, and deep down, you know that brokenness requires payment, and if you're not willing to rely upon and trust in Jesus' payment, then you're going to have to make payment. Payment is always sacrifice, so the degree that you want to save yourself, you better believe you will be sacrificing people around you. That is your only option to try to manufacture salvation in this world.
Frankly, this should not surprise us. Did not Jesus tell us that what comes out of our mouths reveals what is in our heart? In fact, in Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus says, "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person, for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person."
What comes out of your heart, what comes out of your mouth, reveals what is in your heart, so if you find yourself tearing others down with your words, know that you have hate and contempt in your heart, and that must be dealt with for your words to be brought into some kind of holiness and sanctification.
Word can be so destructive. Martin Laird is a writer, and he tells a story of a ballerina he knew, and this ballerina was exceptionally gifted. She danced on the world's stage to profound acclaim, and yet if you talk to her, she would be a very unhappy person. She described her own life as a series of internal videos that always played in her mind; these videos that reflected on what she was doing, and they would tell her, communicate to her, that she was never quite living up to the proper standard. Not just in ballet, but in any part of her life. This resulted in intense anger, and always having a clenched jaw, and always being consumed with her body fat, even though she didn't have any body fat.
Deeper than that anger was the fear; constant fear that her husband was going to leave her, constant fear that she was going to live alone. Under that were the videos of pain; pain that went back to her childhood. She was raised by a mother who was particularly unhealthy. At one point, she recounts sitting in front of her mirror looking at herself, and her mother walking by and saying to her, "I hope you don't think you're beautiful." And she was of course dazzlingly beautiful in every aspect of her life and career.
Later, as a teenager, she won a highly prized scholarship in dance to study ballet at a very prestigious institution, and her mother said, "Why in the world would they give you that? Everybody knows you've got two left feet." On the one hand, you can see the mother being so unhealthy, but what is she doing to try to survive and save herself? She's sacrificing her daughter. With her using her tongue as a knife, she keeps inflicting wounds that she thinks will give her life.
As a result, those words leave profound marks on the ballerina. They have shaped the direction of her life. They have shaped the ways in which she has moved and been able to navigate life, and we realize, we see how profoundly destructive words can be.
Which leaves us at an awkward place. If the tongue is remarkably powerful, even though we underestimate it, and if the tongue is remarkably destructive, even though we underestimate it, what hope is there for the tongue? What hope is there for language as a believer in Christ?
Now, this week, just to be fair, it's a bit of a cliffhanger, in the sense that James really begins his answer in the next part of the passage, and it was too much to cover in one week, so we're kind of setting it up. Next week, the answer that James is going to give when you say, "What hope is there for the tongue? Can this be redeemed?" James will say, "Yes. The answer is wisdom from above."
Now, we'll see more of what wisdom from above is next week, but James has already hinted at it for us. We've already seen James talk about such wisdom in James 1:19, in which he has encouraged the church to be quick to hear, and slow to speak. Now, if you were here, you might remember that we noted that James isn't simply talking about conversational manners. James is saying that we should be quick to hear the Word, and we should be slow to speak our own words in place of the Word.
Say, "Okay, I want to be serious about my tongue being sanctified. I really would like it not to be yielding destruction, and so that means that, well, on the one hand, I can at least be more serious about being quick to hear the Word, which means I'm spending more time in the Word. So much time in the Word, in fact, that the words of the Word become my words, so that when I'm slow to speak my own words, what I'm actually speaking are the words of God to an individual." What greater gift could you give than to recite and to rehearse the words of God toward another who needs some words?
Now, if that's the case, if suddenly I'm called to spend more time hearing the Word and being slow to speak my own words, if you put two and two together, that equals you being more quiet. I think in many ways for all of us, we speak too much. We speak too quickly. We offer words that we feel something needs to be said, and it might ... we might fair better, and the people we're speaking to might fair better if instead we pause and say, "Have I really heard God's Word on whatever issue is at hand? Am I speaking God's Word regarding whatever issue is at hand, or am I just handing out drivel and nonsense that makes me feel good and makes me feel important because I have something to say in a given moment?"
My first encouragement to you is to be quick to hear the Word, and to be slow to speak your own words, and as a result, to engage more silence and reflection. We might also ask, "What does it look like? What does it sound like when we actually engage our tongue and our language for the good of the body?"
Well, Paul answers this when he writes to the church in Ephesus in Chapter 4, Verse 29. Paul writes to the church, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion that it may give grace to those who hear."
So this is my encouragement as we begin to think about the hope for our tongue, and we begin to labor at greater sanctification of our tongue. My challenge to you this week is to read this passage, and to read Ephesians 4:29 once every day, and after you read Ephesians 4:29, to ask yourself this: How are your words good for building others up, and how are your words giving grace to those who hear?
Because if your words are not good for building others up, and if your words are not giving grace to those who hear, then they're better left unspoken.
Lord Jesus, we cannot help but marvel this morning that because you are perfect, it means your language was perfect. It means you always spoke the right thing at the right time, fitting the occasion, giving grace to build up, and encouraging, but also speaking truth at the same time, but certainly there was no corruption that came as a result of your speech.
Having perfect control of the tongue, you were the one perfect man, and we thank you that you redeem us and call us to holiness, and we ask that in your mercy and by the power of your spirit, we would labor to having greater control of our tongue. Would you help us to be challenged by James' words, and to move forward, and to examine the language that we use? And each day, would you help us to ask, "Are our words building others up? Are they giving grace to those who hear?" When they are not, would you drive us back to your Word, that your words might become our words? We ask for your grace in this in Christ's name, amen.