So we are well into gardening season at this point in the year. I suspect that most of you who are going to plant a garden have pretty much all of what you are going to plant in the ground. I suspect that for many of you who have planted, you are already starting to see some good growth happening. We certainly are. In fact, there is one particular plant in our garden that is already bearing fruit. A couple of weeks ago I was out looking over the garden to see just how much work it was going to be to remove all of the weeds and I noticed that one little squash plant which had been planted at the same time as everything else had two little squash on it. Now, if this were a month or so from now I would not be surprised at all. I would actually be sorely disappointed if I went out and didn’t see any squash ready for picking. But now? The plant hadn’t grown any. It’s like it was genetically altered to be a tiny squash plant that yields tiny squash. I should probably ship the whole thing off to Tech’s Ag Department. Or perhaps the plant forgot to grow and went straight to bearing fruit. Whatever’s going on, I don’t really have a good explanation for it. Perhaps the only thing not surprising about all of this is that my squash plant is producing…squash. They may be early and tiny, but they’re squash all the same. What would be really wild is if I went out to dig up potatoes in a few months and found a bunch of tomatoes buried in the dirt. That wouldn’t make any sense at all. Then I really would be calling Tech’s Ag Department. But that’s not how things work. Squash plants produce squash. Potato plants produce potatoes. Blueberry bushes produce blueberries (lots and lots of blueberries this year, but they way for anyone who’s interested). Tomato vines produce tomatoes (particularly the Children’s Garden tomato vines—have you seen those things? Please help yourself to anything in there, by the way.)
That’s just how nature works. You can tell a plant by its fruit. If someone had walked out to our garden a couple of weeks ago (minus the aberrant squash plant) with an untrained eye, he may not have been able to tell what was what. It was all green and small. If this untrained observer was willing to wait, however, it would eventually have become clear what was what. You can tell a plant by its fruit. Each kind of plant only produces one kind of fruit. But there is one part of nature in which this general law does not seem to hold true: people. People are surprising creatures. You simply never know what to expect from people. A woman may work hard all day in a customer service job in which she is unfailingly kind to people such that many of her customers assume she is like that all the time and yet when she goes home she leaves that person at the office. At home she is tired and cynical, impatient with her kids, and is downright sardonic about all the customers who love her so much. A man may be a regular church attender who has served as a deacon several times and yet at home beats his kids and is verbally abusive to his wife. The more positive reverse is also true. People from whom very little is expected often come through with the biggest and most surprising things.
What is often the most surprising, though, in ways both good and bad, is what comes out of people’s mouths. Simply by looking at a person there is no way to tell what might or might not come out of his mouth in a given situation. Someone who carries a very gruff demeanor most of the time may have a sweet tongue. On the other hand, a sweet-talker may have a badly clichéd sailor’s mouth when there’s no one around to impress. The same person might one day offer devout-sounding praises to God and the next verbally strip away another person’s humanity in spite of their being created in the image of the same God they were so recently praising. Our friend James has one thing to say to this unnatural phenomenon: “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” And in the next phase of our journey through his letter to the Christians in the region around Jerusalem who were still figuring out how to do this whole faith thing, he unpacks just why he thinks this is the case. The reason is this: when our words come without any filter, our journeys through this life will be much more complicated. Perhaps some of you know that from experience. Put more simply: a wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
Now quickly, as a matter of review, we have so far in this journey traveled through some pretty challenging stuff. At the beginning of this month we were reminded of the three components of real religion. The religion that stays wisely obeys, James told us. And this staying religion is composed of some sort of a framework to help us successfully navigate the challenges of this life, a mechanism by which we can be encouraged to seek God’s way before anything else, and a reminder that if our religion is not concerned with putting others ahead of ourselves (but behind God) it isn’t doing anything for us. These three components of real religion are actually the three major themes James addresses in the rest of his letter. After dealing with all this introductory material, two weeks ago we got out a magnifying glass and began sifting through the first major theme: wealth and poverty. The first part of James’ words on this theme drew our attention to the great dishonor involved in showing favoritism. Then last week we talked about the need to make our faith an active part of our lives. If we are not doing this, there is not a good reason to think that we are really following the same Jesus revealed in the pages of the Gospels. With all of that out of the way, James turns to the next major theme in the letter: wisdom and speech. Here is where we find ourselves this morning. As James starts his development of this second theme in the letter, he begins in the most logical of places: the words of our mouths. After all, if we cannot exercise wisdom there, the rest of our lives are going to be a mess. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
Well, let’s get into the text this morning by doing something we’ve had to do several times in the past couple of weeks and will probably have to do a few more before our journey is through: speak the truth in love. If you have your Bibles handy, open them to James 3. We’re going to jump right into the middle of our passage this morning and work out from there. When you find James 3, find v. 5 and I’ll start reading from there: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Here’s the truth: our words have incredible power. They have more power than most of us understand. And unfortunately, when this power—which we’ll talk more about here in just a bit—is harnessed by someone operating out of her sinful nature, the destructive potential is vast.
A few weeks ago there was a wildfire not too far north of here that burned up a bunch of acres of land and threatened several homes. Even more recently than that, wildfires are still burning up tens of thousands of acres in northern Texas. Many, many homes have been destroyed there. Now, many times, fires like this are started by a lightning strike in dry conditions. But more often than probably gets reported, wildfires like this are started by a single ember from an unwatched fire set by people. For example, in 2002, the Hayman Fire in Colorado burned almost 140,000 acres of land, destroyed 133 homes, resulted in 6 fatalities, and nearly made its way to Denver was started when a forestry worked burned a letter and didn’t douse all the embers properly. It is to this kind of destructive power that James compares the tongue. The wildness of a raging wildfire has nothing on the wildness our words can unleash in our worlds. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
This isn’t the extent of the imagery, though. James goes on to describe the tongue—the source of our words—as a “world of iniquity” (which is Christian-speak for sin) among the parts of our body. His argument is that the tongue is responsible for more evil in our lives and in the world around us than any other part of the body. Our minds may think them up, but it is our tongue that serves them up. The tongue has the power to set our entire lives aflame in the fires of hatred, strife, bitterness, worry, anger, discord, gossip, and all manner of other things. James even goes so far as to say that the tongue is itself set on fire by hell. Now, that’s a pretty extreme statement and warrants a bit of justification. The word translated “hell” in most of your translations is the Greek word gehenna which itself comes from the Hebrew phrase “Valley of Hinnom.” This was an actual place on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was essentially the town garbage dump. All the waste from the city was dumped and burned there and it was said that the fires never when out because there was always fresh garbage to be consumed. More than that, though, the Valley of Hinnom was infamously a place of great evil. It was where several Old Testament kings of Israel participated in some of the abhorrent practices of their pagan neighbors like child sacrifice by live burnt offering—usually parents offering their own children. When the wind was just wrong the stench of gehenna overwhelmed Jerusalem and gave Jesus a very fitting image for describing the horrors of hell which has carried all the way into our culture today. There is debate over whether James is arguing that the tongue literally receives some of its destructive power from the devil or if he is instead talking about the fiery judgment awaiting the person who never learns to control his tongue. Personally, I believe that Satan on occasion does put ideas in our minds and words in our mouths intended for destructive purposes, but either way the imagery is disturbing. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
What more, no one has yet figured out a way to reliably harness and direct this power. Ponder the weight of that observation for just a minute. Humans have managed to harness the power of a lot of things in this world. If you think about it, every convenience we enjoy has come from harnessing the power of something. James uses the example of taming animals. We have conquered, not literally every animal, but every kind of animal no matter how wild they are. Animals are all instinct. If we can direct that instinct, we can make them do what we want them to do. But think bigger here. We have managed to harness the power of the wind, the sun, the waves, the rivers, the earth itself, the remains of ancient plants and animals, and even from the very atoms that compose our bodies. This is part of the job for which we were created: to manage this world for God. Noting some gaping exceptions, we do some of that very effectively. But the power of the tongue remains elusive. My translation calls the tongue a restless evil. A more expressive translation would be an uncontrollable evil, full of deadly poison. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
Let’s push ahead with James a bit further here. Find your place once again at v. 9: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” This brings us back to the idea we started with this morning: getting one thing where we expect another. Were people completely natural beings, a person who said negative things would always say negative things. A person who said positive things would always say positive things. But James argues and we know that this simply isn’t the case. We are natural and spiritual. With the exact same tongue we bless God and curse those who are made in His image. Or how about this: with the exact same tongue we look deeply into another person’s eyes and promise to be loving and faithful and true and a few years later say things to them in anger that we would not say to our vilest enemy. James is right: my brothers and sisters this ought not to be so.
Consider his argument here for just a minute because it’s subtle. With the same tongue we bless God and curse those made in His image. If we curse someone made in the image of God who are we really cursing? God! Think about this. What is it that distinguishes us from the other animals? Someone might argue that it’s our ability to reason and create; perhaps another our ability to give and receive love. Whatever the exact marks are, they can all be wrapped up by the same idea: the image of God. The image of God is what makes us different and unique among the creatures of this world. When we curse another human being made in the image of God, created and sealed with God’s stamp of approval, we are indirectly cursing God Himself. How can one person speak praises of God in one breath and curse Him with the next? The simple answer is that they can’t; not from the same nature anyway. As Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 12, no one led by the Spirit can offer curses of Jesus. On the other hand, apart from the Spirit’s leadership and indwelling, no one offers Him sincere praise. Jesus Himself proclaimed that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. And if by our words we indicate that the Spirit is not a presence in our lives such that our hearts are festering cisterns of unrighteousness, the road ahead of us is going to be rough and steep. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
Do you see what this means? It means that as it turns out, we are not actually exceptions to the natural rule about trees being known by their fruit. A spring only produces one kind of water. A fig tree only produces figs. A grapevine only grapes. An olive tree only olives. Salt water only salt water. Natural people only the effects of naturalism. And James is right: the primary revealer of our nature is our tongue. Our tongues reveal who we are more truly than anything else. Now, not everyone may hear the words that most indict us, but they come off our tongues all the same. That’s a lot of power for such a small organ. Just imagine it: if we could control what comes out of our mouths we could keep our entire selves in check. This is part of what James is saying back at the beginning of the chapter. Pick back up with me in v. 2: “For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet 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 exploits.”
The simple reality is just as I said a few minutes ago: there is incredible power in our words. Words can accomplish unbelievable feats of beauty and also inconceivable feats of destruction. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke four words and helped to push this country over the line in making equality in civil rights a legal right for every person. In the same vein, it was Adolf Hitler’s fiery words which galvanized the German people around the idea of achieving a truly superior race of humans to rule over the rest. The words of our Founding Fathers penned so many years ago have guided this nation in a world rife with opportunities to sail over the edge of oblivion. Just as a huge cruise ship is guided by a relatively tiny rudder, our entire lives are guided by the influence of our words. And a wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
So what do we do with all of this? I mean, most of you have heard the warnings to watch what you say. You’ve probably grown up with the warning: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” But this doesn’t work. You know it. I know it. We all know it. We just don’t like to admit it. We can’t control our tongues. James is right. We try. We try really hard. But then out of nowhere—or so we fool ourselves into thinking—something slips out that does all kinds of damage and sets back to square one. Though we are going to get into a fuller solution to the problem next week, here’s a preview. We have to make sure we are fully submitted to the Spirit. He must have absolutely free reign in our lives. He must be Lord over every part. This is not easy, but it’s good. As we make gradual strides to tame our tongue with His help we will start to smooth out some of the bumps in our path. This takes a lot of work, but a wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
The fact that it takes a lot of work to get this is plain in the examples James uses. Riding a horse and steering a boat are things that have to be learned. Yes, a beginner can grab the reigns or the helm and keep things going in a relatively uniform direction as long as the sailing is smooth. I mean, I don’t know anything about riding a horse, but the few times I’ve done trail rides in my life I managed to stay with the group all the way out and back. But let’s face it: the trail isn’t always smooth. There are places on the trails that go up and down and sideways and a beginner will face something like that and either panic or else steer the horse in the wrong direction, hurting both horse and rider. In these kinds of situations, it is the practiced expert who has the advantage. You can tell the novice from the professional when the going gets tough. Folks who don’t have good control over what comes out of their mouths because they haven’t yet fully submitted that part of their lives to the Spirit’s leading will say hurtful things in situations when they are tired or stressed or otherwise feeling badly about themselves. When we feel like we aren’t enough, the easiest thing to do in order to feel better about ourselves is to tear down the people around us. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! A wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
So how do we get there? How do we use our words in ways that bring life instead of death? How do put fires out instead of causing them to flame up? I’ve got one word for you: encouragement. If you want to put your faith in action one of the best places to start is by being more intentionally encouraging. Did you know that the average person says six to seven discouraging things to the people they interact with most frequently for every one encouraging thing? Think about that for a minute. And let’s get close to home: think about your normal conversations with your spouse and kids. What’s your ratio? Men, do you want to keep your wives happy and responding to you lovingly? Be more intentionally encouraging of them. Ever feel like she’s lashing out at you or tearing apart your manhood from out of nowhere? Perhaps the reason is not that she’s just hateful and spiteful. Perhaps you’ve been tearing her down and you weren’t even aware. A wild tongue makes for a rough ride. So here’s something off the wall: start building her up. And guys, let’s be honest: we have to get past her food and her looks. Every woman in this world struggles with the question of if she’s enough. They all struggle with it in different ways, but they all struggle with it. Study your wives, men. Figure out her place of insecurity and speak life into it. If you want to get really radical ask her where it is. I guarantee you she knows it. She may metaphorically (or literally) slap away your initial attempts if you don’t have a well-established pattern of encouragement, but if you start establishing this pattern and keep wooing her—kind of like you did in order to get her to be your wife (she still wants to be pursued by you)—she’ll eventually respond.
Women, do you want to make it so your husbands are delighted to come home to see you at the end of the day? Be more intentionally encouraging of them. Ever feel like he’s in a hurry to get to work in the morning and isn’t really interested in wooing you when he gets home? Perhaps the reason is not that he’s just an uncaring, unloving oaf. Perhaps his manhood is affirmed and he is recognized as capable at work whereas you have unintentionally made it your mission to remind him that he’s a sinner saved by grace. So here’s something off the wall for you: start building him up. Guys are pretty simple creatures with fragile egos. Those egos shouldn’t be stoked dishonestly, but still should be built up each chance you get. Every guy in this room secretly longs to know the answer to the question: do I have what it takes? Am I man enough? This is a place where success begets success. Wives, again, don’t be dishonest, but start looking for ways to actively let your husband know how much you appreciate him and that you believe he has what it takes. This will pay you great dividends. If he believes he’s man enough for you, then he’s much more likely to be the man you want him to be. Where you know he’s falling down on the job, see if you can remind him in a way that lovingly calls him forth to be the man you were first drawn to. And remember: a gentle word accomplishes a lot more than a big stick. How great a ship is controlled by a small rudder wherever the pilot desires to take it! A wild tongue makes for a rough ride, but a soft one will always call forth smooth sailing.
And parents, your kids want to grow up to be knights and princesses. They need to know from you that they have what it takes. Dads (and moms): every time you point out your son’s failings you send him the message that he isn’t good enough for you, that he isn’t man enough for you. If he doesn’t think he can measure up to your standards he will find a lower one to which he can. You won’t like that one. Moms (and dads): your daughters need to know that they are of infinitely great value. If she doesn’t get that message loudly and clearly from you, she will look to someone else to affirm her worth and will do whatever they want her to do in order reach that carrot. One more thing: your kids see both how your treat both each other and their siblings. That will dramatically impact the kind of person they will seek to marry. I hope there’s no doubt that a wild tongue makes for a rough ride.
Let me say this and then we’re out of here: I don’t care if you are a late bloomer or start producing fruit before any growth happens. You will always produce fruit consistent with your source. Make sure your source is good and the rest will fall into place. And this source is revealed in your words. Start paying attention to what comes out of your mouth. Force yourself to take ten extra seconds to think before you speak. Work every day to make your words absolutely consistent with what you confess to believe. If you believe in the source of all life, then make sure that your words bring forth life. Our words have the power to speak life into dead places. They can transform a dark and defeated life into one radiating with light and energy. They can take a failing heart and make it dance once again. They can do this because if we are Spirit-filled followers of Jesus Christ our words carry the Spirit’s life-giving power with them. But know well that a wild tongue makes for a rough ride both for you and for everyone else around you. Our words can just as easily speak death and destruction into a situation sucking the life out of another person like a vacuum. So my friends: Speak smooth roads. Speak the words that will call forth the kingdom. Let the Spirit tame your tongues and speak life.