The Epistle of James - Godly Values
Part 19 - The tongue
7th September 2018
This is James talking. He was one of the greatest church leaders of his day, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem - the most important church in the world at that time. James, known as James the Just, says, "we all stumble in many ways". It's not just you. Even James admits that he stumbles in many ways. We all do. All Christians are sinners.
That's why we don't judge each other, and it's why we welcome anyone who comes through the door of the church - because we're sinners too. We should welcome anyone because we're all sinners together. I suppose if somebody started smashing the windows they might not be welcome but, as long as they behave, anyone should be welcome in church.
If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he's a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check, which means of course the last thing you ever nail down, the last part of you that you ever sort out, is what you say. You can stop doing stuff with other parts of your flesh – I don't want to go into examples at this point – but you can stop doing all the other fleshly sins more easily that the sin of saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing in the wrong way. That's the last thing we fix, and we've all failed to fix it completely. Every one of us still stumbles in how we speak to people.
James gives us some metaphors:
A horse is much more powerful than a man but, if there's a bit in a horse's mouth, its rider can turn it. A ship is much larger than a man, but the man at the wheel can turn the ship by moving the rudder. And the tongue can change the course of a person's life - for good or for evil.
Here's another metaphor:
The tongue makes great boasts. "If only you saw it as clearly as I see it". "It only you understood what I understand." "If only you were as wise as me, as godly as me." "The church would be fine if everyone were like me." "Be reasonable; do it my way".
The tongue is powerful. You can turn a life round with what you say to a person – for good or for evil. You can turn a church round by what you say – for good or for evil. Your tongue's a very small thing, but you can change a church with a kind or an unkind word. You can change a life by encouraging or discouraging a person. Your tongue is far more powerful than you probably realise. It's more powerful than we remember when we're steamed up about something. We're so focused on the subject we're discussing that we forget to be kind and encouraging. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14, "let all things be for building up" but sometimes we don't build up. Sometimes we tear down. And God will judge us because of the damage we do when we tear someone down.
A forest is a beautiful, peaceful place – until someone lights a fire, and it gets out of hand, and the forest burns down. There are churches that have been destroyed by one person lighting a fire. Be careful what you say.
If you say something negative often enough, you will end up believing it, whether it's about yourself, or somebody else, or your country or anything else. If you keep saying "that person's no good at this", "that person's has a bad attitude", "that person will never be any good", "I'm stupid" "I'm ugly", "I'm hopeless" – you will end up believing it. You will condemn another person, or you'll condemn yourself. You can destroy a life, possibly your own, by the things you say. But if you choose, every time you speak, to be gentle, to be positive, to build up and not tear down, to be constructive not destructive, you will change a life for good. It's your choice every time you open your mouth.
We can get better. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can reduce the number of times we hurt others, and increase the number of times we help others. But, on earth, the day will never come when you don't need to keep guard on your tongue. You can get better at keeping guard, you can get closer to God, so you've got a more positive outlook anyway. But the day will not come this side of glory when you haven't got to remember to build up and not tear down - all the time.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father. We do it every Sunday morning, and it's wonderful to sing praise of the King of Kings. But with the same tongue, you and I can curse people.
I don't know exactly what James means by that. He might mean "Even a Christian can utter a curse" or he might mean "your negativity can curse your brother or sister". Every time you put your arm round your brother in Christ and say "God bless you, brother, but you really are hopeless, aren't you?" you curse him. You give him an attitude of negativity towards himself. You give him spiritual and emotional pain that can take decades to recover from. How can the same tongue give glory to God and cruelty to others? But we do. God grant that we do it a great deal less from this moment on.
We're supposed to be humble. We're supposed to be meek. And yet we say, "You're hopeless". "Your attitude stinks". We say: "you haven't got the hang of this, have you? You just don't understand, do you?" "You're so unreasonable". We say all sorts of things, because the world teaches to win arguments by being unkind. The world teaches us to get our own way by being unreasonable. The world teaches us to stand up for ourselves even if it involves crushing somebody else. But we're supposed to be different from the world.
I like James because he says it as it is. He doesn't muck about, he just sticks it between your eyes, so you can't miss it: Do not be unkind to your brother or your sister, ever.
James gives us one more metaphor:
In other words, the best way to fix your tongue is to fix your attitude. The best way to change what you say is to change what you think. As our Lord and Saviour said in Matthew 12:33, "Make a tree good and its fruit will be good. Make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit... Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil things stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give an account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned."
Be very careful when you attempt to correct your brother or your sister, because you might do it carelessly, and you will be the one who is judged. See how seriously our Lord takes the problem of the tongue. May God grant us the ability to be kind at all times to all people, including whoever it is that irritates you the most.