Taming the Tongue

22130-change2byour2btongue September 16, 2012

James 3:1-12

James has several themes that run throughout. Today we look at what James says about the way we talk.

Someone has counted the verses in James that refer to speech. 46 of 108 verses, that is 43% of James, refer to speech:

Listen to just a few:

1:26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Instead of talk, he suggests action: going out to do something for the people who are vulnerable, for example.

27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

  • Be quick to listen, slow to speak.

  • If you say you have faith, but do nothing that demonstrates it you delude yourself

  • Do not say to the poor “God bless you” and then fail to bless them yourself.

  • Do not brag about your calendar without acknowledging “If God wills,….”

  • Don’t boast about yourself.

  • Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. .. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?” 4:11-12 (NKJV)

  • Confess your sins to one another

  • Go to godly fellow members and ask them to pray for the sick.

In short, James maintains that how you talk, what you talk about, and how much you talk has everything to do with maturing in faith. Who would have thought that the tongue would end up being so important?

Look at some of the points James brings out. First he stresses the importance of listening. Of silence. You can stop your tongue

Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for being a man of few words. A story from the twenties has Mrs. Coolidge asking him the subject of a sermon he had heard. “Sin,” he answered. When prompted to elaborate on the clergyman’s theme, Coolidge is said to have replied: “He was against it.” (Coolidge remarked that this story would have been funnier if it had been true.)

But Coolidge had a point when he said “I have never been hurt by anything I did not say.” (Calvin Coolidge)

Ecclesiastes reads, “A time to speak and a time to remain silent.

It is a good thing to rein our tongue it. Someone said “Don’t let your tongue lick you.”

Talking too much can get you into trouble.

Like the stock boy at the grocery store. A lady asked him, “Can I buy a half of lettuce?” He walked back to the manager to ask, not realizing she was walking right behind him. He said, “You’re not going to believe this, there’s an old bag out there who wants to buy half a head of lettuce.” Then he turned around and saw her standing there and said, “And this fine lady would like to buy the other half.”

Later in the day the manager cornered the young man and said, ‘That was the finest example of thinking on your feet I’ve ever seen! Where did you learn that?” “I grew up in Grand Rapids, and if you know anything about Grand Rapids, you know that it’s known for its great hockey teams and ugly women.” The mangers face flushed, and he interrupted, “My wife is from Grand rapids!” to which the stock boy replied, “And which Hockey team did she play for?”

Some people need to be reminded of that phrase, “You have the right to remain silent.

Quick to listen. Slow to speak. What we say should show that we have heard the other person.

I had a Jesuit priest friend at Duke, who once told me, “While I tell you this story, you be thinking of an interesting story to tell me.” Well, that is the way a lot of people carry on conversation. While we talk, they are thinking about what they are going to say. And while they talk we half listen, while we think about skewering them with a good comeback, or of a better story, or of fixing an error in what they said. Not a dialogue but alternating monologues that have no relation to each other. That happens so easily.

Use speech as a way of showing that we are listening.

A few years ago a great little book came out, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.” By Faber and Mazlish. One of the most practical books on raising children that I know. It focuses so much on how you put the things you say to children, what you say and how you say it.

The book stresses “Quick to listen, slow to speak.” When a child is upset, or acting out, the authors advise not rushing to lecture, but stop to acknowledge their feelings, before trying to impose a solution. Mirror what they say back to them, “You want to buy that toy.” Be quick to listen, slow to speak.

So sometimes instead of telling them what is going to happen, it pays to take time to acknowledge the emotions they seem to be exhibiting first. Before rushing to give a verdict on what is going to happen, show them you have some understanding of how they feel.

Sometimes when we are around someone who is angry or grieving, we tell them not to feel what they feel, don’t we? We tell them in so many words, they are out of order, or they shouldn’t think like that. But feelings deserve to be taken seriously.

It might be the biggest help if we just hang in there with them and hear it out.

First you have to listen.

Our tongue can steer our lives in new directions.

James offers two comparisons to the tongue: a bit in a horse’s mouth can direct the whole animal; the little rudder of a ship does more to determine the direction it takes than the winds. James acknowledges how hard it is to control what you say. If you can control the tongue you probably can direct the whole of your life.

We should be careful of what we say because words are not just words. The Hebrew for words is Devarim which comes from debar, which means doing something, making something. Just as God spoke creation into being by his word, we call things into being by our speech, we create a world out of our talk. Worlds that then take on a life, and a reality, of their own. In this sense we talk ourselves into becoming who we will be.

James compares the tongue to a rudder on a ship and a bit in a stallion’s mouth. In both cases a little thing determines the direction of the whole. The tongue helps determine life’s direction. What we say to ourselves, the way we talk about things, shapes the general direction of our lives.

How do you talk to yourself? Do you constantly put yourself down? Do you look for the worst or do you express a hope for a better future? Do you rehearse old injuries and nurture bitterness? How you talk to yourself has a power to determine the direction you are taking.

One man writes: When I was a young father, I learned the difference between saying to one of my sons when he had disobeyed, “You did a bad thing” rather than “You are a bad boy.” If you repeatedly tell a child that he or she is bad, the child will live up to it. If you tell your child that he is fundamentally a good boy, but that in this instance he stepped out of character and did a bad thing, it’s a whole ‘nother ball game.

In baptism we say things that change our direction in life. We speak ourselves into the new reality God offers. We talk ourselves into being Christian

Romans 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

We shape our words and then our words shape us.” If you don’t like the way you’re headed right now, change the way you talk.

The Tongue can destroy.

James compares the tongue to a spark of fire than can set the forest ablaze. Words create things that have a life of their own. Words are not just words. A little spark can start a fire that is soon out of control. Here he is thinking of the damage that our talk can have.

Sometimes our speech increases heat and not light. There are ways of speaking that invite peace, and ways that incite further fury and division.

* Isaiah 50:4: “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”

* Proverbs 15.1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.

David and Vera Mace who in the end of their long years were in Winston Salem were among the founders of marriage enrichment. They used to insist that couples refrain from expressing themselves in ‘you’ statements, but rather make statements beginning with “I.” Vera Mace said when she got angry with her husband she would say, “I am angry with you right now and I don’t want to be angry with you. When would it be good time for us to talk it out?”

Thomas Jefferson :When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.

In the book and film, The Joy Luck Club; One of the characters is a little girl whose capacity, in her own words, to “see the secrets” of a chess board, makes her a national chess champion at age 8. Her only real liability is an absolutely driven mother who is both envious of her daughter’s gifts and selfishly using her to fulfill her own ambition for wealth and respect.

At one point, the little girl dares to speak back to her mother. The elder woman responds, first by giving her an icy silent treatment, and then finally by saying to her daughter: “You are nothing, nothing at all.” This is how the little girl describes the experience: “What she said was like a curse. This power I had, this belief in myself, I could actually feel it draining away… feel myself becoming so ordinary. All the secrets I once saw I couldn’t see anymore. All I could see were my mistakes, my weaknesses.And the best part of me just disappeared.”

In her powerful novel, Saint Maybe, Anne Tyler tells the story of Ian, a young man who’s eaten up with guilt because he wrongly suspected his sister-in-law of having an affair and of being unfaithful to his brother. She hadn’t. But he told his brother anyway. His brother, believing Ian, became so despondent at the news that he took his own life. Ian is haunted by the guilt of what he’d done that cannot be undone. He can’t sleep; he can’t eat. “Oh God,” he pleads, “how long will I have to pay for a handful of tossed-off words?… Can’t we just back up and start over? Couldn’t I have one more chance?”4

“Four things come not back: the spoken word, the spent arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.” –Arabian saying–(Omar Idn Al-Halif, The second Caliph)

, which sums up this point:

The boneless tongue, so small and weak, Can crush and kill,” declares the Greek.

The tongue destroys a greater horde,” The Turk asserts, “than does the sword.”

The Persian proverb wisely says, “A lengthy tongue — an early death!”

Or sometimes takes this form instead, “Don’t let your tongue cut off your head.”

The tongue can speak a word whose speed, Say the Chinese, “outstrips the steeds.”

The Arab sages said in part, “The tongue’s great storehouse is the heart.”

From Hebrew was the maxim sprung, “Thy feet should slip, ne’er the tongue.”

The sacred writer crows the whole, “Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.” (anonymous,Joseph Friedlander, comp.  The Standard Book of Jewish Verse.  1917)

Words can bless

Words can curse, but they can also bless: story of the teacher who told a 1st grader that his purple teepee wasn’t realistic, and his art project wasn’t good enough to hang on the wall. That little boy took his purple teepee, and completely covered it with a black crayon. This story has a happy ending. In 2nd grade, when the child was told to draw anything he wanted, rather than risk rebuke again, he left the page blank. But when the teacher came to see his work, she complemented him on his beautiful picture of a snowfall. The little boy remembered both incidents, years later.

Encourage one another. 1963, Lincoln monument. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had originally prepared a short and somewhat formal recitation of the sufferings of African Americans attempting to realize their freedom in a society chained by discrimination. He was about to sit down when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about your dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

How you talk can turn your life to proper direction and be the difference between peaceful solutions or fights. The same tongue can be used to curse or bless. James tells us to bless.

Sidlow Baxter: “The proof that God’s Spirit is in your life is not that you speak in an unknown tongue but you control the tongue you do know.”





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