Sermon 09-19-21: “Words Are Your Most Important ‘Work'”

Scripture: James 3:1-12

Back in 2009, I had the pleasure of chaperoning a youth mission trip to the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of New Mexico. This is near the spot where the “four corners” of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. One day, when we weren’t working, some Navajo guides led our group by horseback down the side of a steep, rocky mountain into a beautiful canyon down below. And I don’t know how else to describe the terrain—as someone who is unfamiliar with desert places out west… But it looked to me… like the real-life version of the old Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons. 

Remember when Wile E. Coyote would run off a mountain cliff, and then be suspended in air for a few seconds before going splat at the bottom of the canyon? Those were the kinds of mountains, cliffs, and canyons I’m talking about!

Well, I had those cartoons in mind as I was riding this horse… This was literally my only experience riding a horse and, like I said, we were going down the side of a steep mountain along a very narrow path hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. There was a sheer cliff on one edge of the path. And in some places there was, like, a 90-degree bend up ahead. Which meant that if the horse kept walking straight, without turning, we would fall off the side of the mountain to our certain deaths. And as we were approaching the cliff I was thinking, “Does the horse see the turn up ahead? Is the horse going to turn up ahead? What if he can’t see very well? What if he’s not paying attention? What if he has a death wish?”

These were thoughts running through my head… I have no control over this horse. I don’t know how to steer it! I am at the horse’s mercy. This horse is in complete control of me!

Fortunately the horse did make the turn successfully… So I was okay.

In today’s scripture, James compares our “tongues”—by which he means the words we speak… or write—to a bit and bridle on a horse. Like the horse in my illustration, our tongues determine the direction of our lives. And James suggests that our lives can quickly get off course and spin out of control because we so often fail to control or “tame” our tongues.

And this isn’t the first time in this letter, by the way, that James has used this image of a bridle… A few weeks ago I preached on James chapter 1, and I focused on verse 27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” But I deliberately skipped the verse immediately preceding that one because I knew that James would come back to this theme in chapter 3. I skipped James 1:26, which says this: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” 

And speaking of worthless religion, that’s what last week’s scripture was all about. Remember what James said? “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14. The principle James shared in last week’s scripture was this: Faith without works is dead. If our faith in Christ is genuine, then of course we will have good works to show for ourselves.

And in today’s scripture, James is not changing the subject. Rather, he’s applying this principle from chapter 2—faith without works is dead—to what we might be the most important work of all: the words that we speak… what we do with our tongues. According to James, the things we say—or even the things we write—might be the most important work we do because look at how potentially dangerous our words can be! Look at the potential destruction they can cause! James writes,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 1

He goes on to say that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”2

Whatever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? Not according to James! For him, words are uniquely destructive! They have the ability to harm us and harm others like almost nothing else in the world!

Have we come to grips with how deadly dangerous our words are? Have I as a pastor sufficiently warned my flock about the unique danger of the tongue?

So that’s what this sermon is about: the danger of the tongue, the direction in which our tongue leads us, and the doctrine that we need to believe in order to change this direction… Danger, direction, and doctrine.

I’m currently teaching the youngest of my three kids, Ian, how to drive. He has his learner’s permit—and he’s doing great as a new driver. But every time I’m in the car with him, I feel so anxious for his safety—and I’m reminded again how potentially dangerous automobiles are… We often take for granted that driving is no big deal, but the state doesn’t; that’s why the state requires a license to operate automobiles. 

Yet consider this: James would say that our words are potentially far more dangerous and deadly—both to ourselves and others—than even automobiles. Yet we speak them, we share them, we misuse them, we abuse them, we throw them around so casually… so freely!

I remember going to see that Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz in 1979 with my best friend Matthew Blue. Remember that one? I was nine years old, and next to Star Wars, it was probably my first PG-rated movie. And Matt and I were really excited. In part because we knew we were going to hear some grown-up language! We were going to hear some bad words that we were not allowed to say. And I remember we counted on our fingers every bad word we heard… We’d turn to each other and nod—and count them on our fingers. After the movie was over, Matt was like, “I counted seven bad words.” I said, “I counted eight.” “Which ones did you hear?” “Well, remember when he said…” Dot, dot, dot… Then we’d compare notes on the words that we heard.

And of course this seems quaint now, doesn’t it? We’re not a culture that feels any shame about our language—even breaking the third commandment, taking the Lord’s name in vain.

But James isn’t mostly talking about profanity and blasphemous words—although that’s part of the problem; but he’s also talking about words that hurt others, words that put other people down… abusive, insulting words… He’s also talking about gossip… He’s also talking about grumbling and complaining and constant negativity… He’s also talking about boastful words… words that are spoken for the express purpose of making ourselves look good in the eyes of others… words that seek to bring glory to ourselves, rather than to God. 

And of course he’s also talking about words that are misleading, dishonest, untruthful.

Our words are slippery and dangerous. We must use them cautiously! 

And as a pastor, you think I don’t know that I bear a greater responsibility than many people! Because people like me use words for a living… and I know for sure I’ve hurt people and caused harm over the years! This is why James warns people in verse 1 against taking too lightly the decision to become a teacher… Not because he’s against teachers—he himself is a teacher! But because he knows that we teachers use more words than most people… and with more words comes a greater the opportunity to sin!

No wonder David prays, in Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” When he says, “set a guard,” he means that literally—like a soldier who stands guard! If only that were possible to have someone who’s full time job was to make sure that no harmful words were able to escape from the “door of our lips” and cause harm to people in the world outside!

Pastor Chuck Swindoll talks about today’s scripture in one of his commentaries… He writes:

If you ever see a wild animal prowling your neighborhood, you can call your local animal control agency to round it up and haul it off. The dog-catcher can take stray dogs to the pound or return loose dogs to their owners. Feral cats can be caught, skunks chased off, raccoons lured away. [By the way, one time I found a baby possum in my garage that I cornered and put in a box and took to Cavonna’s house, where we released him into the woods! Anyway, Swindoll continues:] All these wild and roaming  animals can be rounded up. Why not have a catcher and a pound for stray words? Now that’s an occupation that could earn a decent living in any economy!

He then asks us to imagine a couple of these “word catchers” showing up at our door one weekend:

“Excuse me, sir,” they ask, “does this word belong to you? We caught it running loose out there, backbiting everyone where you work. Your boss said it sounded like it was one of yours.” You take a long look at their catch and sure enough, you let that little gossip out on Wednesday and by Saturday it’s ruined a dozen weekends. Red-faced, you claim your nasty words and send the word catchers away.3

I told you one time about a work-related conference I attended many years ago. I knew the keynote speaker pretty well, and—to say the least—I was not looking forward to going to the conference. She was not a great speaker, and I did not think that what she had to say would prove helpful to me. And as she was talking, I did what many of us do in meetings, I got on my phone. Except it was a Blackberry, to give you an idea how long ago this was. But I texted Lisa. I said, “So-and-so is speaking. It’s actually not as horrible as I thought it would be.” And I pressed the “send” button.

Only… I realized that I didn’t send the message to Lisa, my beloved wife with whom all my conversations are “privileged,” as they say on all the cop shows. No… I accidentally sent the message to the person who was speaking at the conference!

Well, I had this person’s name and number in my phone!

Regardless, as you can imagine, I had to do some dancing as soon as this person got done speaking and checked the messages on her her phone! I had to try to smooth things over fast! I had to attempt to make this person feel better about what it was that I just said in my text message! “I promise that what I just wrote to you isn’t as bad as it sounds.”

Why didn’t I just keep my uncharitable opinion to myself? I didn’t need to say something negative and potentially harmful about this person. Clearly, this text message was not coming from a place of Christ-like love. 

But I share this because it goes without saying that we can apply James’s warning not just to the words we speak but also to words we tap on our screens—in private messages, group chats, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, you name it… Go on social media any day of the week and you’ll witness what James calls a “fire set ablaze” by the seemingly “small fire” of our words!

So… the danger is real! That’s the first point. Second point: Our tongues help determine the direction of our lives.

To see this, let’s go back for a moment and look at James’s images of a bit in a horse’s mouth and a small rudder on a ship in verses 3 and 4. Why does James use these figures of speech? Because he wants to prove that something very, very small can direct the course of something much larger. And his point is, of course, that the tongue is a relatively small part of our bodies… yet it directs the course of our lives. So we better get mastery over our tongues—or our thumbs tapping away on our screens—if we want our lives to go in a good direction.

So the bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder on a big ship are like the words we speak and write…

But not so fast… Isn’t that strange, when you think about it? It seems like the problem is in our hearts… and the tongue—the words we speak—don’t they just give voice to the bad stuff that we find in here already[points to heart]? Isn’t the bad part what we think in our heads about that person whether we put those evil thoughts into words or not is beside the point?

I confess I used to believe that. Consequently, I used to be very forgiving of angry, hurtful, demeaning, and vulgar words that I often used… I just thought, “The sin is in my heart—not whether I give voice to that sin by saying it out loud. Saying it out loud is no big deal.”

But I now see I was wrong; that’s simply not what the Bible teaches. It’s not what James teaches. And it’s not what Jesus teaches, either. Matthew 15:11: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Jesus could have simply said, “What defiles a person is what’s in his heart.” But no, he makes a point of saying that what comes out of our mouths defiles. Of course Jesus teaches elsewhere that we do indeed have a seriously sin problem in our hearts, but his point is that we make the problem much worse—we make the sin much worse—when we put these sinful thoughts into words… by either speaking them out loud or tapping them on our screens for others to read.

And it makes sense! If you have Covid, for example, you’re sick. You have the virus. Not much you can do about that! But the best thing you can do under those circumstances, when you have Covid, is what? To quarantine yourself… So you don’t spread the virus to others. The words we speak are like that… it’s one thing to have a judgmental thought about someone. But when you share that judgmental thought about someone with a third party through gossip, well… this evil contagion of sinful judgment spreads. Like wildfire! Haven’t all of us been the victim of unfair gossip or slander in our lives? Of course we have!

Our sinful thoughts need to be “quarantined” before we let them slip out through our words!

Please don’t misunderstand: What I’m about to say does not apply to cases of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Okay? But most of us are not hurt in that way most of the time. In most cases, if someone has done something to hurt you or sin against you, then by all means, you might need to talk about it. But the first step—especially if it’s a brother or sister in Christ—the first step, Jesus tells us in Matthew 18, is not to go and talk to a third party about this person… and gossip… the first step—only if you can do so safely… the first step is to talk directly to the person that has sinned against you. 

But I get it… gossip is easier. And it’s evil. To say the least, we are breaking Jesus’ command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” when we put someone down behind their back. When I texted Lisa and said something nasty about the speaker at that conference, would that speaker have wanted me to text that to my wife… No, even if she knew I felt that way about her, she would have wanted me to keep it to myself. Just as I would have wanted her to keep her opinion about me to herself if the roles were reversed.

Our tongue, our speech, the words we tap on screen help determine the direction of our lives… they play a major role in determining the kind of person we are, and the kind of person we are becoming!

Think about it! Who are the sweetest, the kindest, the warmest, the most loving, the most encouraging, the most attractive people you know—the kind of people you want to be around…? Inevitably they will be people who have learned to control their tongues… who use their words only to bless other people, rather than to “bless and curse,” as James says in verse 9. 

Now look at verse 2: “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” And the word “perfect” doesn’t mean sinless perfection; it means spiritually mature.

You know, when you check a physical, your doctor always looks at your tongue… “Stick out your tongue and say, ‘Ah.’” I don’t know what he’s looking for when he look at your tongue, but he can make judgments about your overall health based on what your tongue tells him.

In a similar way, the Bible says that how we use or misuse our words is a symptom of our spiritual health

So how are we doing? Are we becoming holier… are we overcoming sin in our lives… is our life moving in the direction of greater love for Christ and for others? 

Look at your tongue… It will tell you!

Finally, let’s talk about doctrine… Something important that we need to understand and believe in order to help us with our “tongue problem.”

Let’s consider how Jesus used his tongue, for instance, when he was on the cross…

Both Matthew and Mark report that there were criminals on the left and right of Jesus while he was being crucified. And they tell us that both the criminals, alongside everyone else in the crowd—were mocking Jesus, speaking evil of him. “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”4 But Luke tells us that over the course of these several hours that Jesus and the two criminals hung on the cross, one of them had a change of heart… It’s likely that this man saw how Jesus responded to the mocking and ridicule, saw Jesus’ demeanor, saw his complete trust in his Father, and he knew that Jesus must be the Messiah that his disciples believed him to be. 

So he repents and turns to him in faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

If there were ever a time for Jesus to use words to hurt someone, to inflict pain, now was that time! Imagine all that Jesus had gone through at this point. Imagine the pain. Imagine the feeling of betrayal and abandonment by people closest to him. And this man who’s now turning to Jesus, asking him to show him favor…? He was ridiculing him not long ago! How easily Jesus could have lashed out in words! No one could blame him.

By rights, Jesus could have said this: “No way. You had ample opportunity before to repent and believe in me… No. You don’t deserve it, especially after you treated me so badly. No!”

That’s what Jesus could have said. Instead, he used his tongue to bless the man in the most significant way possible: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”5

I’m not like Jesus. And you aren’t either. We fall so far short… especially when it comes to the words we use. 

What do we do about it?

Consider verse 12: “Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs?” The answer is no… In this analogy, we’re the fig trees who need to become olive trees. Or we’re the grapevines that needs to become fig trees.

But that’s impossible!

In fact, I take James quite literally in verse 8 when he says that no one can tame the tongue—by which he means no one… no one other than God’s Son Jesus. We sinners can literally do nothing to tame our tongues. We can summon all the willpower in the world. We can try really hard. We don’t possess it within our power to turn grapevines into fig trees, or fig trees into olive trees! It’s impossible. We are helpless.

You know what that takes? It takes a miracle. It takes God doing something supernatural within us… It takes the Holy Spirit within us… to change us, to transform us!

And brothers and sisters, he can!

The Saturday before last I went to the Tech football game with Mike, my best friend from college, and Steve, my best friend in ministry. I drove them to the game. And I promise you, when I dropped Steve off, I said something that I’d never said to Steve before. I said, “I love you.” And he’s like, “Oh… I love you. See ya!”

This may not sound strange to you, but I don’t tell my friends I love them. I just don’t! I never have! It embarrasses me a little. And as Steve was walking away, I thought, “Why did I say that?” I mean, of course it’s true. I do love him. But why did I say it? It just… came out. Naturally… Like I couldn’t even control it. It slipped out as naturally asthose other kinds of words… that slip out, for example, when I’m driving in Atlanta traffic.

That’s the doctrine of sanctification… when we naturally do what, in the past, our sin prevented us from doing… when we naturally do what used to seem impossible to do… or what we could only do through great effort.

So God is sanctifying even a sinner like me! And he can do that with you too!

First, confess that you have a problem with your tongue. And don’t kid yourself… As I’ve argued, this is a deadly serious problem! Think of specific instances recently in which your tongue caused you to sin. Confess those sins to God. And now pray that God will change you… and perhaps even pray that God can give you the faith to believe that he can change you!

  1. James 3:5b-6 ESV
  2. James 3:8
  3. Charles Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights, Vol 13: James and 1-2 Peter (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2014), 65.
  4. Luke 23:39 CSB
  5. Luke 23:43

One thought on “Sermon 09-19-21: “Words Are Your Most Important ‘Work'””

  1. This is very good! If I have any “nit” about it, then it would be as to looking to God to change our tongues. Of course, we must always look to God to change us, but we ALSO simultaneously have to put some effort into it to make the change happen. As Philippians 2:12b-13 tells us, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act….” In other words, assuming we have prayed and are looking to God for assistance, we then work at what God wants done, while recognizing that he works in and through our efforts to get the job done. But, I think, if we DON’T put forth any such effort on our own part, God is not going to just make the transformation happen regardless. In another place, Paul says, “No, I worked harder than all of them–yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10b. Thus, Paul worked hard, but then acknowledged that ultimately it was God who was “behind the scenes.” Even so with our controlling our tongues. Certainly there is some mystery in how this “working together” occurs, but I believe it is necessary to insist on our own efforts at the same time that we look to God. I’m sure you know that, but that’s the only thing that seemed a bit unclear to me from what you said. Anyway, I thought that what you did say was great!

Leave a Reply