We are in week 3 of our series on the book of James called Friendship with God. In this series we’re thinking about questions like
“What if we’ve set our sights too low?”
“What if our faith is deeper and more life-transforming than we’ve ever imagined?”
“What if we are meant to live in deep friendship with God?”
As most of you know, I’m a relatively new pastor. Just over 4 years ago I was leading a team of a few engineers and spending most of my time coding software. Needless to say, there have been a lot of changes in the past 4 years. One of the funniest, though, is the way people have begun to watch their tongues when I’m around. There were a few people I used to work with who were incapable of uttering a complete sentence without swearing. Those co-workers never apologized to me. But now, I get apologized to all the time!
You know, my recently deceased mentor, Rev. Dennis Dorsch, mentored hundreds of people one-on-one in his years of ministry. (Incidentally, I was the 44th person who discerned a call to ministry while being mentored by him). In any event, he worked with a lot of people– a lot of really devoted people. But he told me that the people he mentored tended to struggle with three things. He called them the 3 L’s: language, lust, and laziness.
Well, today I’d like to touch on the first L: language. Usually when we talk about language, we think of it in terms of certain forbidden words. But James pushes us further to think about everything we say.
Two weeks ago, we read a passage from James chapter 1 that talked about this. “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” He goes on to say, “If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say [or in another more literal translation: “bridle their tongues”], they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.”
Clearly James thinks what we say is really important. Jesus certainly thought so, which is probably why James is teaching it. Jesus taught his disciples not to swear about anything, but simply to be people who mean “Yes” when they say “Yes” and who mean “No” when they say “No.”
Jesus isn’t just out to make nasty people well-behaved. He’s out to transform them into people who are loving because there is love inside them. In Matthew chapter 12, Jesus taught that “What fills the heart comes out of the mouth.” And he goes on to say, “Good people bring out good things from their good treasure. But evil people bring out evil things from their evil treasure. 36 I tell you that people will have to answer on Judgment Day for every useless word they speak. By your words you will be either judged innocent or condemned as guilty”
So yeah, Jesus takes our speech very seriously, and so should we.
James begins to tackle this subject by warning those who are teachers. Teachers can be such an incredible blessing. As I was preparing this message,
I began to think of several teachers who had an incredible impact on me. In most cases, they were teachers whose formal lessons I respected, but who went the extra mile for me– to speak even just a few words of encouragement or correction into my life. Teachers have an incredible ability to be a blessing.
But the same potential that gives teachers the ability to have a positive impact gives them the ability to have a negative impact.
Their words carry weight. Any mistakes they make have the potential to have severe consequences. It seems that because of this, God judges those of us who teach other with greater strictness, since we’re responsible for not leading the people that we teach astray.
In this passage, James uses tons of imagery to help us understand the importance of our speech.
The first is the image is my favorite, and it’s of a horse wearing a bridle. This image might not make sense to all of us, but I grew up around horses, so it definitely works for me!
James says, “When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies.”
Does that make sense? You’ve got the bit– usually that’s made out of metal– that goes into the mouth of the horse. The bits that are the kindest to the horse just put a little pressure on the corners of the horse’s mouth to allow the rider to communicate to the horse which way to turn. The bit is kept in the horse’s mouth by a bridle, which fits around the horse’s head. Finally the bit has reins attached to it, and it’s the reins that the rider uses to direct the horse.
I took it for granted growing up, but it’s pretty amazing that the bit, that tiny little piece of metal is able to be used to steer this huge animal. But reality is that if you control the bit, you can control the mouth. And if you can control the mouth, then you can control the whole horse.
James says, it’s the same with us. Control the mouth and you control whole body.
James doesn’t spell it out, because he’s moving to fast. But it begs a question, doesn’t it? Who controls your mouth?
We want to jump in and say, “I control my mouth!” But is that really so? I know many people who have wanted to clean up their language, but find themselves completely unable to do it. They’re not in control anymore. I know other people who are compassionate and gentle in normal circumstances, but in moments of frustration or offense, they lose control entirely and find themselves saying things that they have to apologize for later.
Is it possible that many of us don’t actually hold the reins? We certainly feel like we do most of the time. But then those times come when we find ourselves saying things that we don’t want to be saying…
As a child, I didn’t ride horses a whole lot– that was my sister’s thing– but I remember that when the horse is going the way you want, you can have a little slack on the reins. The horse probably thinks that it’s in control. But then the tension on the reins comes, reminding the horse that it’s actually the rider who is in control.
At the risk of going a little too far with the analogy, let’s go just one step farther. Who exactly is holding the reins? Check out verses 7 and 8:
People can tame and already have tamed every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish. No one can tame the tongue, though.
James is pretty clear: you’re not holding the reins. A horse doesn’t hold his own reins. If it did, then you’d be in control of your mouth, James is saying. But you’re not, so obviously something else has the reins.
James uses another image that’s similar. A sailboat takes a ton of wind to move it, but the tiny little rudder steers the whole big thing. If James were writing these days, he’d probably talk about the steering wheel of a tractor-trailer truck or the yoke or stick of a 747. You get the point. There is this tiny part that allows someone to control the whole thing.
And just to make sure we understand how bad the situation is, James uses one more image. James says the tongue brings about evil like a tiny flame brings about a forest fire. This is how the Common English Bible translation puts it:
Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell.
There’s little doubt who James thinks is in control of most tongues.
I’m sure that most of us don’t have to think long to come up with times when we’ve said something hurtful, and if we’d only been able to control our tongue, we would have saved ourselves and others lots of pain.
We have an enemy who wants to hold the reins to the tongue of every Christian and set fires of conflict all over the place.
We have an enemy who wants set tongues ablaze with careless words, causing pain and tearing apart relationships
We have an enemy who wants us to speak words of gossip about our brothers and sisters in the church. You know, gossip is really just saying something bad about people who aren’t present to defend themselves. Sometimes it’s just openly saying nasty things about someone behind their back, but often it’s sneakier than that. If someone comes to you and says, “I just need to vent”– you can be confident you’re about to hear gossip.
The tongue is serious business. I remember in my youth group growing up, one of the kids used some bad language around an older lady in the church. She turned to him– you’ve probably heard this one before– and she said “And you’re going to go kiss your mother with those lips!?”
That’s pretty much what James says. He says,
“With [the tongue] we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
Now, I know none of us would be like this, but there are some people who come to worship on Sunday and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” and “All I need is you…” and then with that same tongue, we go and grumble about our brothers and sisters. It’s messed up.
It shouldn’t be that way, James says. So what’s the good news? What’s the hope? Well, a plain reading of this little chunk of James doesn’t give a lot of hope. On the surface, James doesn’t really give us a path forward. He says we can’t tame the tongue. And it’s because of things like this that the great church reformer Martin Luther didn’t find good news in James. He called it an “epistle of straw.”
But look again at verses 11 and 12:
Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either.
James seems to have little patience for a heart that is divided.
Those verses remind me of this thing that Jesus said. “What fills the heart comes out of the mouth” (Mt 12:34 CEB). Just one verse before that Jesus says this: “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.”
In another place Jesus says, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
What’s the point? Switching the analogy a bit, you don’t tend to find out what’s inside you until you’re squeezed. What comes out of you when you’re squeezed? If you’ve got bad stuff inside you, bad stuff is going to come out. If you’ve got good stuff inside you, good stuff is going to come out.
For all of his harsh words, though, James point isn’t to discourage people. It’s get people who have fallen asleep to wake up. It’s to get people whose love for Christ has gone cold to fan the flame. It’s to remind them that they’re not just made to give lip service to God one day a week, but that they’re meant to live moment to moment in deep friendship with God, praising God, rather than cursing their brothers and sisters.
We can’t tame our tongues, but we can call in the reinforcements.
Ever been to the Renaissance Festival? Seen the jousting? You see, that’s what we need. We need Jesus on the White Horse to come in and knock the evil one off our back. And then, we need him to hop on and take the reins.
We might not be able to control our tongues. But we can ask the Lord to put bridles on us. We can say Jesus, take the reins. And then God does the miraculous.
It’s like that hymn that Charles Wesley didn’t write, sung by Duchess Underwood:
Jesus, take the reins, Take them from my hands, ‘Cause I can’t do this on my own
This is the essence of the Christian walk– and it’s a paradox that proves itself true If you want to remain in control, you’ll remain out of control. But surrender the reins to Jesus, give control away, and you’ll find yourself with a freedom you didn’t know you were missing.
Friendship with God isn’t something that happens one Sunday a morning. And usually it takes a lot of prayer to stop saying, “my will be done.” And it takes even more to say “thy will be done,” and actually mean it.
A wild horse isn’t broken over night. It takes lots and lots of training. That’s basically what Christian discipleship is– asking Jesus to train you, to form you, until at last you are transformed
So may you believe that Jesus is able to clean you up on the inside. May you believe that Jesus wants to clean you up on the inside. And may you renew your resolve for Jesus to take the reins, so that you can be the same person in every place at every time, and bring blessing wherever you go. Amen