The tongue “reflects and directs” the heart

March 26, 2014

One of the odd things about my sermon text last Sunday, James 3:1-12, is the analogies that James uses for the tongue. He compares it to both a bit in a horse’s mouth and a small rudder on a large ship.

Doesn’t this seem exactly opposite of the truth? How does “the tongue,” by which James means the words that we use, control our thoughts or behavior? Wouldn’t most of us say that the tongue merely reflects rather than directs? There’s a mind behind the tongue, after all, directing or willing it what to say.

It could be that James still has in mind the church “teachers” he’s addressing in verse 1, in which case a teacher’s words can guide or direct an entire congregation, the body of Christ (notice “bodies” in v. 3) for good or ill. This would be true enough, but rather obvious. At least a couple of commentators I respect, Douglas Moo and N.T. Wright, don’t think this is James’s point. As Moo writes:

But our reason for rejecting this interpretation applies just as much here as in v. 2: James has not prepared his readers for any such theological application of the word “body.” Probably, then, it is not so much “control” that James intends to illustrate but “direction”: as the bit determines the direction of the horse, so the tongue can determine the destiny of the individual. Believers who exercise careful control of the tongue are able also to direct their whole life in it is proper, divinely charted course: the are “perfect” (v. 2). But when that tongue is not restrained, small though it is, the rest of the body is likely to be uncontrolled and undisciplined also.[†]

This makes sense: there’s still a rider directing the bit and a pilot turning the rudder—just as there’s a mind willing our words. Our tongue reveal who we truly are, in the same way our “works” in the previous chapter reveal what we truly believe (speech is also a work). Listen to our words and you’ll know the direction in which our life is headed.

Still, I think our first impression of the analogy also holds: the tongue does control us to some extent. When I worked in sales many years ago, I had a colleague who told me that, unlike many of our office mates, he never complained out loud about his customers—even in the “safe” environment of our office, where there was little danger that his words would get back to his customers. He said he was afraid that negative things he said would eventually influence the way he treated them. Our words, he believed, have the power to give life to our thoughts. We can squelch negative thoughts easier than we can the words to which our thoughts give rise.

I thought this was a real insight, and it conforms nicely to James’s warning about the tongue.

In a sermon on this same text, “A Lifestyle of Self-Mastery, Part 1,” pastor Tim Keller agrees that the tongue reveals who we are, but that’s not all:

On the other hand, your words redirect your heart. Your words come from the heart but then your words go to the heart. The words, on the one hand, express the heart, but your words also redirect your heart. If you have an angry, bitter thought, and you clothe it in a word, you give it so much more power over your heart. The thought comes from the heart, but then, when you clothe it with a word, it goes back, and it strengthens itself. So when the Bible says you are cursed and you want to curse back, bless. Why? It changes your heart.

He goes on to say that only by coming to Jesus can we heal our hearts. “It is the worship and adoration and praise of his beauty that will move into your heart and heal your words.”

When I confess my sins in prayer, I rarely give a thought to the careless, malicious, or profane words that I’ve said. In my defense, I feel like I have so many bigger sins to confess! What James teaches me is that sinning with words is also a big sin!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 153.

2 Responses to “The tongue “reflects and directs” the heart”

  1. Domini Re-Darling Says:

    Didn’t see before our discussion last night and appreciate it drawing together what we talked about! Thanks for holding these meetings- I enjoy them and get alot out of them blessings domini

    • brentwhite Says:

      My pleasure, Domini! I’ll probably use a little of this in my sermon on Sunday, so act like you haven’t heard it before! 😉

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