We look again this week at James’s words about taming the tongue and the connection between what we say and who we are. The tongue, James says, has the power to both reflect and direct our lives. James also challenges us to pay close attention to the motives underneath the words we say. How often are our words motivated by selfish-ambition and jealousy. The solution is to “speak the truth in love.” Easier said than done! But this sermon offers practical tips on how to do it!
Sermon Text: James 3:1-18
A video went viral on YouTube a few weeks ago. It starred actor Kevin Bacon. In the video, Bacon, in full “grumpy old man”mode, complains about the startling lack of what he called “’80s awareness”among millennials. He said, “All you guys born after 1985 have no idea how hard life was. If I was too shy to ask a girl out, there was no OK Twinder,”he says—mangling the name of a social networking app. No, he says, “I went to the White Pages—Google it—and called her house, and then you had to make small talk with her mom for, like, 20 minutes before Alicia even came to the phone. And let me tell you, when she turns down your invitation to Sbarro’s, you can’t just swipe away the hurt.
“You want to know my favorite app? Rubik’s Cube.
“I saw you tweet an article about Russia. You think Russia’s a threat now? Let me tell you about a little thing called the Cold War. They had nukes pointed at us for 20 years. You couldn’t even skateboard to a Blockbuster without getting nuked! My friend Tommy went out to rent a copy of Gremlins and never came back. You know why? Nuked. At least that’s what my parents told me.”
I’ve thought of these words in light of what’s happened in Crimea between Russia and Ukraine. Some people are worried about it, but I’m like, “Crimea? That’s nothing. Remember when Russia used to own that whole corner of the map?”
See, kids, when you get older, you develop a sense of perspective about these things! You may not be hip to all the latest trends in social media, you may not know all the names of the latest bands and singers, you may not know about all the latest video games—because the last time you played a video game, your controller had a stick and one red button… but you have something better than mere knowledge…You have wisdom. Or at least you ought to.
So wisdom is an important topic of today’s scripture. But James is really following up on what he talked about in last week’s scripture: taming the tongue…Godly wisdom, you see, is very much related to our tongue. Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise.” And in last week’s scripture, which we re-read today, James describes the immense and possibly destructive power of the tongue. And he makes an interesting analogy: he compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth. The bit is a small thing, but it guides the direction of a 2,000 pound beast. And he also compares it to a rudder—again, a relatively small thing that guides the direction of a giant ship.
What’s interesting to me about these analogies is that they’re not obviously true. What I mean is, How does our tongue—which is another way of referring to the words we say—how does the tongue guide our body? Some commentators say that James is saying that you can listen to our words and figure out what kind of person we are, the kind of character we possess. So the tongue, though small, has the power to reveal who we truly are.
Brothers and sisters…The Lord has convicted me in this area of my life recently. When I pray, I often confess my sins—as many as I can think of—and it hasn’t been until—well, frankly, it hasn’t been until reading James again recently that I’ve become convinced that I need to work on my language. I no longer view the harmful words I say as some kind of “little sin.” Not that I was ever happy about how easily profanity and cursing and verbally abusive words—or even just angry words—rolled off my tongue. I took my boys to the Truett’s Luau in Fayetteville recently, and in an effort to park my car, I accidentally drove through the Drive-Thru, and there was no way to exit the Drive-Thru lane once you’re in it. I was trapped. And I let fly a string of colorful and angry words, and my kids thought it was so funny that they later told on me to my wife!
And, see… It’s a laugh, the language that we use. Right? Except it’s not. Or it shouldn’t be. It’s deadly serious, James says. What’s going on in my heart—what anger, what lack of patience, what lack of gentleness or goodness or other virtues—that I so easily let fly all these terrible, destructive words?
While I’m on the subject, can I say a word especially to our young people. Because there’s an epidemic among you of saying, “Oh my God.” You’ve got to stop that. That is quite literally taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is breaking the Third Commandment. Please don’t refer to God except in prayer or in a respectful way. And that includes, by the way, the texted expression OMG. I know it could refer to “Oh my goodness,”but still…You must stop using either “Oh my God”or OMG. It’s wrong!
You know how when you go to the doctor for an exam, practically the first thing they do is ask you to stick out your tongue. That’s because the tongue has a remarkable ability to reveal a great deal about our overall physical health: its appearance and color can tell a lot about all sorts of different infections and viruses we might have. James is making the same point: just as our tongue reveals a great deal about our physical health, our tongue also reveals a great deal about our spiritual health!
When I worked in sales many years ago, I had a colleague, Don, 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 out loud would eventually influence or spill-over into the way he treated his customers. Our words, he believed, have the power to give additional life to our thoughts. We can squelch negative thoughts more easily when we don’t say them out loud. And that’s exactly right!
Pastor Tim Keller talked about this in a sermon on this text. He said, “Your words come from the heart but then your words go to the heart. Your 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.” When you “clothe a thought with a word,” he says, it strengthens the thought. I like that! He says this is why the Bible says when someone curses you, and you want to curse back, to do what? To blessinstead. Why? It changes your heart.
So our tongue both reflects and directs what’s in our hearts.
And in the second half of today’s scripture, James turns his attention to the stuff that’s in our hearts: “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts,” he writes, “do not boast and be false to the truth.”See, James is making the connection again between what’s in our hearts and how it comes out through our tongue.
Notice, he doesn’t say, “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, what’s wrong with you? How could you call yourself a Christian and have that bad stuff in your heart?”No: he recognizes that we’re all works in progress. He knows that even though we’ve been born again, we still have bad stuff in our hearts. That’s not to excuse it. But one way to help us get it out of our hearts is not to feed it with our words. That’s a good analogy! Our words both reflect the sin and also feed the sin in our hearts. So don’t feed it by trying to cover it up with lies and boasting: confess that it’s there. Be honest about it. Tell the truth about it!
My boss—the district superintendent, Richard Winn—called me this week. Now, let me just say, it’s the end of March. We Methodist preachers don’t want to be getting phone calls from our D.S. this time of year! You know what I mean? Because they might be calling about a three-point charge in East Bumble, Georgia! But he wasn’t calling about that. He was just calling just to check in with me. See how I was doing. To be a pastor to me…Which was very sweet. But the whole time I’m talking to him, I’m on edge, you know? Because I want him to have a favorable impression of me and the work I’m doing. And then he asked me, “Did you preach last Sunday?”“Yes, I preached.”“Did the people like your sermon?”“I think they liked it?”And, I’m not kidding, he asked: “How do you know they liked it?”So I was nervous, and I might have misspoken. So, if you run into our D.S., Rev. Winn, would you tell him that you gave me a standing ovation after my sermon last week.
And, oh by the way, if he asks, would you also confirm to him that we had 508 in worship last Sunday?
See, I have this desire in my heart to boast… I want to look good in front of people, especially my boss!
We often get upset when politicians lie or stretch the truth or spin the truth.But can’t we totally relate to the impulse? Because, good grief, how often do I try to “spin”the truth—to put the best spin on things, especially if it helps me avoid looking bad! I am a spin machine.
I have a friend of a friend who’s a bit of a celebrity. I’ve only met him a few times, but on each of those occasions he’s made a point of working into the conversation something about how he was “on the Today Show last week,” or last month. Not that he wasn’t telling the truth but I wonder if he wasn’t forcing this fact into the conversation as a way of boasting. Of course, why did it bother me that he said he was on the Today Show? Probably because I was jealous of him. So maybe that’s why I’m sharing this with you now!
Do you see how tricky and subtle and dangerous this business of words can be? It’s because the devil himself is often working underneath them or behind them or around them! Our words are “ignited by the fire of hell”and the worldly wisdom they express is nothing less than “demonic.”If you haven’t noticed, Satan loves to do his work without anyone noticing that he’s there!
So let’s try to notice that he’s there from now on!
According to James, it’s never sufficient to merely speak the truth—because we have to also pay attention to our motivation in speaking it. It’s not enough to simply say truthful things. Because we can wield the truth like a weapon and harm people with it, right? Even if what we say is true true, we can speak it in order to hurt someone. And what’s motivating our desire to hurt someone with words? Isn’t it often jealousy?—we think, that person needs to be brought down a few notches, and I’m just the one to do it. Ha!
This is why the apostle Paul tells us to “speak the truth in love.” You’ve got to have both truth and love at the same time. If you don’t have both, then don’t say anything at all. Parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and enemies, this means that we don’t speak the truth to one another when we’re angry or our feelings are hurt. Whatever we say, even if it’s true, will only make things worse. Easier said than done, I know!
So if you want help taming your tongue, here’s an exercise you can do—a “tongue test,”if you will. It comes from a discipleship course I heard about. And here’s the tongue test: Write these six things down on a piece of paper or on your smartphone or tablet, and keep it with you at all times: Number one:“Do not complain or grumble.”Number two: “Do not boast about anything at all.”Number three: “Do not gossip or repeat bad information about somebody else.”Number four: “Do not run somebody down, even a little bit.”Number five: “Do not defend or excuse yourself, no matter what.”And number six: “Do always affirm other people.”Keep that with you for one week, and refer back to it often. I think you’ll find that going even an hour is hard enough.
But it’s not impossible! Because each one of these six things relates to what we say. It’s not concerned with what we think, or what’s in our hearts, because we often don’t have a lot of control over what’s in our heads or hearts. But as James well knows, we canhelp change what’s in our hearts by changing what we say. And that’s what this exercise is all about.
“Speak the truth…in love.”You know what helps us tame our tongues? Constantly reminding ourselves of the most powerful statement of truth and love ever made: The cross of Jesus Christ. God spoke the truth in love in the most profound way imaginable. See, the cross tells us the unvarnished truth: We are sinners who have sinned against a holy God. We have rebelled against God. We have rejected the way of life that leads to the Father—the way of self-denial and loving our neighbor and putting the interests of others ahead of our own—and chosen our own way instead. So we deserve death, and we deserve hell, and we deserve eternal separation from God. And that’s exactly what would have happened to us, except that God also loves us too much to let that happen. And so God came in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, and he suffered our death and our hell and our separation in our place in order to save us.
And if we understand the truth and love that the cross represents—if we remember the truth about ourselves: “I’m a sinner, too, so who am I to judge other people? Who am I to ascribe bad motives to other people? Who am I to put other people down? I’m a sinner. I don’t have to hide that truth from others, I don’t have to spin the truth or lie about it. I also don’t have to worry about what other people think of me, because the cross teaches me that it only matters what our Lord thinks of me…And what does he think of me? He loves me more than I can possibly imagine.”