We are constantly talking. We talk to ourselves. We talk to others. Yes, texts and tweets do count. We are a communicating creature created by a God who communicates via words, and so we are constantly talking, thinking, and sharing what we think. We are never not communicating.
One-fifth of your life, 20% of your life will be spent with your mouth open. That’s a lot of opportunity to bless and that’s a lot of opportunity to curse. So, in chapter 3 here, it should not surprise us that the Word of God would have some things to say about how we use a fifth of our lives, right? It shouldn’t be surprising that God has an idea, a design for how we are to use our words.
Already in the book of James, he has alluded to some of it. In James 1:19, he said, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak…” Be quick, be speedy to listen. Be slow, be patient when it comes to talking. In chapter 3:1-12, we’re really going to dive into this topic. Here’s the premise of verses 1-12:
Words are powerful. They bless and they curse. With that said, let’s read through verses 1-12.
Words are powerful. With them we bless and we build up. With them we curse and we burn to the ground. This is a very common theme throughout the Bible. Solomon said in Proverbs 18:20-21, “From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied; he is satisfied by the yield of his lips. Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
We all love to hear ourselves talk. And with the words that we say, there is serious power associated with them. Death and life both come from the tongue. That may sound overstated, but if you think about it for a little bit, you’ll realize how spot on this is.
Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of teenagers, college students, and young adults have ended their lives. Not because of a deep depression, not because of chemical imbalance. No, but rather, because the incessant, constant, non-stop ridiculing, mocking, and tearing down by other people either via social media or in their life led them to take their own lives. Words have the power of life and death.
James gives three illustrations. They all point to the same thing, but they are three different illustrations. Look there at verse 3. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”
The second illustration is the same. It’s a ship. “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. So also, the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” See, both examples here emphatically illustrate the power of speech. If it is controlled well, it is effective and wonderful, but if not controlled or controlled poorly, the disaster can be enormous. Then, his third illustration is that of a fire.
"How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.
It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” If you pay attention to history, the highest of heights in human history and the lowest, most depraved moments are marked by the same thing…words.
Think about Adolf Hitler. How did Hitler gather the Nazi party and set out to take over the world? He did it with words. There is no great movement in human history that did not have an amazing communicator somewhere in the midst of it, who used words to incite fury, love, or hate. See, one of the truths of human history is that words can lead us to some of the most awful, wicked things imaginable. Things we couldn’t fathom doing we’re now able to do because words have defined reality for us.
Words are powerful. With them we bless, with them we curse. Then here’s another point of James’ we need to spend some time on.
Words reveal our progress in our faith. One of the principal marks of maturity is self-discipline. Self-discipline with regard to one’s speech is rare. Look there in verse 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.” And then look at what he says in verse 10-12, “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.”
Now here’s something I need to clarify. James is not saying that if you simply learn how to control your tongue all your other struggles will magically go away. No, but rather the work of taming the tongue takes us right into the core of all that is wrong with us, namely our hearts.
Our words take us to the source of our problem – our hearts. You can’t give fresh water if your filling you bucket from a pool of salt water. This is the way Jesus would say it in Luke 6:45. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil…” Here’s the sentence. “…for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth…” What? “…speaks.”
So that one-fifth of our lives spent talking, the words that come out of our mouths, where do they come from? Our hearts. Why are they so powerful? They’re powerful because it’s our heart saying to another soul, “This is what I think about you.” Our words reveal what’s really going on in our hearts.
Now think about how good of a gift this is from God. You don’t have to wonder if you have an angry heart. You don’t have to wonder if you have a jealous heart. You don’t have to wonder what’s going on. Your words reveal it. Your words reveal what your identity is tied up in.
And what happens when your identity is threatened? If your identity is wrapped up in being the best athlete in school, what happens when someone else gets praise for their achievements? You say or do whatever you can to make sure everyone sees the flaws in that person’s achievement and you build up your own. You cut them down and make yourself appear bigger.
Our problem is this misplaced identity that results in us using our words for tearing down others. If your identity is not rooted in who you are in Christ, then you will have no choice but to point out the weaknesses of others as it relates to your identity, because you cannot be dethroned.
Because if you’re dethroned as the smartest, strongest, prettiest, or funniest ever, then you don’t matter anymore because your identity has been taken from you. And once your identity is gone, you’re lost. You don’t know who you are.
So, what causes such awful speech to come from our mouths? It’s a misplaced identity in things that can be taken from us rather than our identity being rooted in the one thing that cannot be taken from us – namely our relationship with Christ. Our identity should be that we are his, that we are called, loved, and kept by God. That I am being perfectly used by God in the measure that he would use me.
Once your identity is in Christ, it changes how you see the world. It frees you to see people as brothers and sisters and not rivals. When you’re secure in Christ, you know that you are loved so much and that you have been forgiven of so much that you can’t help but be loving and forgiving to everyone else.
What if everyone here in this room lived like their identity was in Christ? What would that look like? How might that affect this community? How might that affect the world? My prayer is that God would so establish this gospel identity in our hearts and that we would be a group marked by love and encouragement.
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