Potential Misconceptions Dealt With
In the last section James insisted that words without works do not show us justified before men (vv. 12,14,16,18)
In this section we are obviously dealing with maturity in speech. But this isn't a totally new topic because this is connected to the previous section. There is a wonderful logic in the flow of this book. Because a lot of commentaries fail to show the relationship of one section to another and treat James as bringing up unrelated topics, I thought I would at least briefly show the logic in the flow of thought. In chapter 2 James insisted not only that faith without works is dead, but that words without works is dead as well. For example, take a look at chapter 2, verse 12. It says, So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. He says that your speech needs to be backed up by your doing. Verse 14: what does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit… And verse 18 is the same. There was lots of talk with no walk. And such talk will never justify you before men. They want to see your actions.
However, lest we come to the conclusion that words are not important, He calls for the demonstration of righteousness with our tongues as well
But lest we go to the opposite extreme and come to the conclusion that words have no bearing on the kind of justification he has been describing, James spends a chapter talking about the need to demonstrate righteousness with our tongues as well. He's saying, "Don't get the idea that our speech is unimportant." And so this really does tie in with demonstrative (or what some have called progressive) justification of chapter 2.
We don't mature in speech by abstinence (closed mouth)
James came down so hard on faith without works and speech without works that people might be tempted to think that they ought to just work and just keep their mouth shut. One of the proverbs in your handout is a Spanish one that means, "A closed mouth doesn't catch flies." You might assume that simply closing your mouth will solve your problem of the tongue. But we have seen in previous sermons that simple abstinence from a sin does not deal with the heart of the issue. When is a thief not a thief? You might think it is when he stops stealing. But that is not true. He might have stopped stealing for three whole weeks because he now has enough money from his last heist that he doesn't need to steal, but the moment he gets desperate, he will be back to stealing again because his heart has not been changed. Or he may have quit stealing because the police are out looking for the robber, and his fear of getting caught has gotten the better of him. But he still has a thief's heart, and (given the right opportunities) it will manifest itself again. According to Scripture, a thief is no longer a thief when he does the opposite of stealing in the situations that would have formerly led to stealing. He now works hard with his hands and delights in giving away things he has worked hard to get.
When is a drunkard no longer a drunkard? It's not when he has stopped drinking for a year. A drunkard is no longer a drunkard when he has so conquered the inward impulses to drunkenness that he can have one drink and leave it at one. Now while he is learning to conquer those inward impulses, it might be a good idea to avoid all alcohol for awhile, because that alcohol does have the power to do him in. And in the same way, because of the power of the tongue to do us in, there is a certain wisdom to keeping your mouth shut while you are working on the inward impulses that lead to immature speech. But simply closing your mouth won't help if that is as far as you go. James wants our mouths to be open in blessing and serving.
I think of the lady who talked incessantly to the doctor during her checkup. She was somewhat of a hypochondriac. But the doctor gave her a thorough work over anyway. Finally he asked her to open her mouth wide and stick out her tongue. While she was doing that he wrote up a prescription, gave it to her and said that this medicine ought to take care of the problem. She protested, "But you didn't even look in my mouth." He said, "I didn't need to. I just wanted some silence while I wrote in the charts." No one would think that she changed her nature just because she was silent for awhile. Not at all. In verses 13-18 James will deal with some of the motivations that lead people to bad speech: bitterness, envy, self-seeking, pride, deceitfulness, worldliness, sensuality and even the demonic. Until those things are dealt with, the tongue will not be tamed. The tongue reflects those inner motivations.
We don't mature in speech by making the tongue prominent (teaching)
So shutting your mouth is not a solution. Nor is putting on all kinds of spiritual speech into your mouth the solution either. I have met numerous new Christians who have desired to go into the ministry in order to show forth their faith. Their idea of good works that chapter 2 calls us to is to become a pastor. They don't see how being an honest plumber can be good works, or managing the household could be good works. And so they desire to go into the ministry to please God. That's a dangerous motivation. James says that the position of a pastor could actually be a liability if you have not yet matured in other areas. My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. That's the last place such a person ought to be given to show forth the progressive justification of chapter 2, since the tongue is the hardest member of all to tame. According to James and Paul, teaching should only be attempted when you have shown forth good works in every other area of life. Yes, we must be justified by our speech, but abstinence is not the solution and teaching is not the solution.
We mature in speech by going to the heart of the issue, which is the issue of the heart (vv. 11-18; 3:8)
The solution is to go to the heart of the issue, which is the issue of the heart. Now, just because of time limitations, I have to break up these passages into bite size pieces. But James' argument does not end at verse 12, where we are going to end today. In verses 13-18 he shows the movitations that drive our speech. In chapter 4 he addresses the role of passions, the demonic, world view, trust in providence and other issues as they relate to our speech. And until the heart underlying issues are dealt with, our speech will not mature. And so, that is kind of setting the context and showing how this section relates to chapter 2 and to chapter 4.
Steps to Gaining Maturity (vv. 1-5)
Be quick to hear and slow to speak (v. 1a with 1:19)
But let's dive into the text, because James gives us very practical steps that we can take to mature in this area. The first step is an application of chapter 1:19 which says, So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak… Here he says, My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that you shall receive a stricter judgment. We need to emphasize learning and listening rather than teaching and talking. Why? Because the Scripture says, "In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise." (Prov. 10:19) And that's exactly the reason that James gives in the next verse: For we all stumble in many things. His implication is that the more you use words, the greater the risk of sinning with your lips. We all stumble in many things. One of the down sides of my being a pastor is that the potential for sinning with my lips has hugely escalated. So James is saying that when you are a new believer excited about the Lord, grow in service and good works and maturity in other areas before you begin teaching. Closed mouths don't catch
Be aware that you will be held accountable for your speech (v. 1b)
The second step is simply having a constant realization that you are being held accountable by God for every word that you speak. When verse 1 says, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment, he implies that while we teachers will be dealt with more strictly, everyone is accountable for their words. It's not just teachers. Teachers will receive a stricter judgment, but others will receive judgment as well. In Matthew 12 Jesus said, But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. God will hold us accountable for every idle word we say. That word idle means literally "unemployed." Every word that is not employed for the Lord; that is not serving the Lord will be judged by Him. Now doesn't that blow your mind? Have you weighed your words? Is every word you speak employed to serve Jesus and others in some way?
And when you consider the sheer volume of words that come out of our mouths, that is an incredibly serious thought. It has been calculated that the average person speaks enough words to fill twenty, single-spaced, typewritten pages every day. That's a massive book the size of North's Tools of Dominion (1200 pages) every two months. That's a massive amount of talking! What are the chances of messing up when you ad lib 1200 pages every two months? It's hard enough to write 1200 pages without messing up; what about speaking? Jesus says that every one of those words that comes out of our mouths must be employed to the glory of God – whether it is loving endearments to your children, or scoldings, or jokings (which can be godly or ungodly). When the tongue involves so much of our life, we must think about the Lordship of Christ as it applies to speech.
Paul in Ephesians 4:29 says, Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary building up, that it may impart grace to the hearers. Our words need to be employed; they need to work for Jesus and for each other. E.C. McKenzie once said, "If silence is golden, not many people can be arrested for hoarding." There is such a thing as being too generous with your words. James 1:19 says, Therefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.
Acknowledge that you will always have room to grow in some areas of your life (v. 2a)
The third step is to acknowledge that we will always have room to grow. When James uses the term perfect throughout this book, you can translate it as mature. It doesn't mean that you are sinless. In fact, it is a danger signal when we do not recognize any sin. James says, For we all stumble in many things. He includes Himself in that. It is when we know we have an enemy within that we are not as easily taken in by him. Don't be surprised when your tongue is tempted to say something mean. When it comes up in the heart, you will know about that untamed beast and will be on guard, and you will be able to put Biblical principles in place that can keep the tongue from expressing what you want to express. Acknowledging that we are all prone to stumble can make us be on guard and less subject to stumbling.
But strive to never stumble in speech and believe that that is an achievable goal (v. 2b)
And so point D says that even though we all stumble in many ways, we must still strive to never stumble in speech. Verse 2 goes on to say, If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Now you might think that this is purely theoretical for a person to be perfect in speech. But James doesn't deal in the theoretical. You need to realize that the word "perfect" means mature – with an outwardly blameless conduct. And Scripture indicates that it is possible for a person to be perfect in that sense. Job 1:1 says, There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil. You will recognize by the word "eschewed" that it is the King James version. More modern versions translate "perfect" as "blameless," but it means the same thing. Though Job had inward sin, he didn't allow it to be expressed through his lips. His lips were blameless. In Job 2 it says, In all this Job did not sin with his lips. He may have had sin inside, but he was in such control of his tongue, that those words did not come out. Even at the end of the book God says to Eliphaz, you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. Job is so encouraging to me. The tongue can be tamed. And we must strive to tame it. And Paul says that officers should be blameless. That means that it is achievable. And James says that when you can tame the tongue, you will be able to tame the rest of the body. So believe that the goal is achievable and strive for that goal. You won't have the faith to gain victory if you do not think this is an achievable goal. That is a critical step. Maybe Job could be your pattern on this.
Realize the incredible power that the tongue has upon your body for good (vv. 2c-4)
The fifth step is to begin realizing the incredible power that the tongue can have upon the body for good. The last phrase of verse 2 says that such a man is able also to bridle the whole body. [And then he gives some illustrations on how something as small as the tongue can have such a powerful effect] Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Later he will describe how the tongue can be used to arouse evil in our bodies. But here he is filling out how a perfect or a mature man bridles his body and keeps it in control – with what? With his tongue. Just as a bit causes a horse to serve the master, and just as a rudder on a ship makes the boat go wherever the pilot desires, we can use our tongues to make our bodies do what we want them to do. How does that work?
Well, it involves in part the principle of affirmations that we looked at previously. When you affirm the truth it raises faith (and faith always leads to action), it routs demons (remember Revelation 12? "they overcame him by the word of their testimony and by the blood of the lamb" – and so it raises faith, it routs demons), but it also can have an immediate impact on our very bodies.
And there are all kinds of illustrations that I could use. When I am sleepy, saying my prayers out loud – and sometimes very loud, not only keeps me awake, but gives me an energy that I would not otherwise have. When I am nervous or fearful there are psalms I like to sing, and I find that the words I speak to myself have a calming affect upon me. I have had many times when I didn't want to do something, but I grabbed myself by the scruff of the neck and talked myself into doing it. I say to myself, "Stop that Phil. You are going to do the right thing!" In a couple of the Psalms David talks to himself. He says things like, "Why are you cast down, O my soul? and why are you disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance." (Psalm 42:5). He was using words to help his depression.
But the effect of words on the body is far ranging. Many times you feel good physically when you joke and banter back and forth with a friend. And Scripture says that such joking and laughter is like good medicine. Just as the Proverbs speak of nagging words as being rottenness to the bones, it speaks of good words as being refreshing. Your words make changes in you. I have had times when just mentioning the death of my niece has brought tears to my eyes and made me choke up. I think you have experienced similar things. Words have power. I didn't choke up until I said the words. The words gave a focus that affected my body.
Realize the incredible power that the tongue has upon your body for evil (vv. 5-6)
On the other hand, I remember complaining to Kathy about someone who had viciously hurt me at the job I worked at when we were first married, and the more I complained the more bitter I became. And I found that I was becoming negative about the job, and wanted to quit. And that affected my work performance. It took away my desire to witness, affected my prayer life and took away my joy in serving. My tongue was progressively poisoning me inside. And I had to repent not only of my sins in the area of witness, prayer and service. I had to deal with the complaining. It was not until I began to change my speech and to focus my speech on the positive things in that person's life and tell Kathy all of the things that I was thankful for in that person's life that I began to bridle my body. Our words can have a powerful affect upon our attitudes, thoughts, motives, and actions. Words can send an adrenaline rush and make you weak, energetic, tired or relaxed. James says it is like a rudder steering a ship. It is like a bit in a horse's mouth. And if you can control your speech, you can bridle your whole body, and keep your body under control. Yes, I take this literally. Our tongue is a rudder that helps us to take the ship of our body wherever we want the ship to go even in the fiercest of storms. You see it on movies. A person is getting up the nerve to run out on what looks like a suicidal sprint, and he talks himself into it. Some people say that you psych yourself into it. But you do it through speech.
On the other hand, I have seen people talk themselves into sadness, anger or fear and at the end of the conversation be quite different than they were at the beginning. Other people's words can have a powerful affect upon us -yes, but our own words are even more powerful. Hastily said words can get the emotion of anger going and before long we are not just sinning with our mouth; we are sinning in action. Our tongues can definitely aggravate our problems.
Realize both its potential for building up pride and for destroying others (v. 5)
But then look at the other negative things that our words can do to body, pride, sin nature and to others. Verse 5: Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! While words are being used to build up and stroke your ego or pride, they are simultaneously being used to burn down and destroy others. They are just simple words that escape from our mouths, but you can feel the monster of pride growing as it is being fed by those words. And you can see others going down in flames through simple little words. That's why the Scripture calls the words we speak swords and arrows on the one hand or healing balm on the other hand. Scripture says that our tongue has the power of life and death in it.
Realize that the tongue can inflame the sin nature (v. 6)
Look at verse 6. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature… Once again he points out that there is a purely physiological relationship between our words and how our body feels. Even the world recognizes that. Some of you talk yourselves into depression because you tell yourself and you tell others every reason why God's way won't work; you remind yourself that you feel badly (which makes you feel worse); that everyone's against you; that life has always been hard; that you can't do it. And every word you utter is a poison that creeps into your body and poisons it and makes you feel worse and worse. You must begin affirming God's truth by faith and refusing to allow the words you speak to poison your body physiologically. There is just something about how God has positioned the tongue in our body that makes it have that effect.
The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, [but notice this next phrase: it's not just the body, but even our sin nature that is inflamed] and sets on fire the course of nature… We need to take this seriously. You will never be able to mortify your sinful desires if you don't get control of your tongue. You don't need Satan to get the sinful passions going. Your tongue itself sets on fire the course of nature.
Realize that the tongue can be manipulated by Satan (v. 6)
But then verse 6 indicates that Satan's kingdom can manipulate and inflame the tongue as well. We don't need Satan to help us start a forest fire raging. Our tongue is quite capable of that all on its own. But the last phrase indicates that this makes it play so easily into Satan's hands. The last phrase says, and it is set on fire by hell. This is saying that Satan can use a believer's tongue if we do not resist him. And it is no wonder. When you realize the power of the tongue for good or for evil, Satan would be a fool to not do everything in his might to gain control of the tongue. Some people will admit that Satan can manipulate an unbeliever's tongue, but they won't admit that he can use a believer's tongue. But this is clear. He is talking to brethren in the church. It is their tongues he is concerned about, and concerning their tongue he says, …and it is set on fire by hell. Yes! Believer's tongues can be influenced by the devil. Let me give you some examples: In Matthew 16 Simon has just finished giving one of the most awesome testimonies in the Gospels concerning Christ being the Messiah, and Jesus said, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. Peter may not have realized that God had revealed this to him. That's why Jesus had to tell him. He said in effect, "You've used your tongue in this godly way because of the Father's influence in your life." Jesus attributes this testimony to supernatural influence. But just minutes later, as Jesus explains how he must die and be raised again the third day, it says, Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me Satan! You are an offense to Me… Jesus saw another supernatural power influencing Peter's tongue to try to turn Jesus from His work. Peter was not aware of this influence either, but it was there. Looking straight at Peter Jesus addressed Satan who was using Peter's tongue to tempt Jesus. If it can happen to Peter, it can happen to us if we are not on guard.
In fact, everything that God does, Satan tries to imitate. When Moses performed his miracles, the court magicians performed miracles as well. God prophecies through his prophets. Well, so does Satan. 1 Kings 22 says that a lying spirit was in the mouth of all the king's prophets. And when Michaiah shared that bit of news, it says, Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah went near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, "Which way did the spirit of Yahweh go from me to speak to you?" He wasn't even aware of the fact that a demon was speaking through him. God gave tongues; well, so did Satan. Out in Ethiopia my father and Otto Shamabo heard a witchdoctor praying to Satan fervently in tongues. Everything that God does, Satan tries to imitate. Mark Bubeck is a prominent author who lives in Iowa and who believes in tongues, but in his deliverance ministry he said that many cases of the demonic in believer's lives has been demons who make them speak in tongues. My parents knew a Christian who had to be delivered of tongues because ever since he had hands laid on him in a Pentecostal service he was unable to pray. He was so excited when he finally delivered and was able to pray normally. Again, Satan is the great imitator. And when God treats the tongue as being important, you can bet that Satan does too. Usually it will be simply to motivate you to say the wrong things and to try to trap you.
I read an interesting account of trapping in the old days. There were all kinds of traps, and the one for the weasel was very clever. In cold weather its fur turns snow white and its pelt was very valuable. But if they used ordinary traps the white fur would be ruined; it would be stained. They couldn't coax weasels into cage traps because they were too clever. And so over time by studying the nature of the weasel they discovered that it likes to lick a smooth surface, especially if it was greasy. Some of these trappers must have had their tongue stick to a popsicle, or a lamp post. And that gave them an idea. But they smeared some grease on metal objects and chained them in the snow. The weasel would lick the metal and the moisture on his tongue would instantly freeze his tongue onto the metal and he couldn't get away. I've had my tongue stuck to cold objects several times and I know why they were stuck. The trapper would come along at the end of the day and pick up numerous live weasels.
That is what Satan seeks to do with us. He tries to trap us with out own tongue. And if you are anything like me, you have been trapped by your own words and caught many times. You are no match for Satan. Jude tells us that even Michael the archangel was no match for Satan, but said, "The Lord rebuke you." We need God's grace and His strategies if we are ever to become mature in speech.
Realize that we cannot tame the tongue in our own strength (vv. 7-8)
Point J says that our own strength is not enough. Look at verses 7-8 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. [Did you get that? "No man can tame the tongue."] It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. I hope by now you are realizing that this isn't a subject that you can just ignore. So pervasive is the potential for either evil or good in the tongue, that we must systematically and perseveringly seek to mature our speech and make it fit for the master. If we strive in our own strength, our striving will be futile. But if we strive in the power and enabling of the Lord, we can have success.
But have faith in the power of God's grace to do what you cannot do (vv. 10bff)
Realize that "these things ought not to be so" in the "brethren" (v. 10)
And God does empower the believer to have everything he needs to be perfect or mature in speech. For a believer, the things described in verses 9-10 absolutely should not be so. He says, With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. [In other words, since men are in the image of God, you are still cursing God when you curse men] Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. "These things ought not to be so." He does not say, "Don't worry about it; you can't help it anyway. God has not given you enough grace to conquer your tongue." No. He doesn't say that. In ourselves we cannot tame the tongue, but we are not by ourselves. If God is for us, who can be against us. A believer has been so changed by God's grace and so empowered by the Spirit, and so blessed with the means of grace, that James won't take any excuses from us when we fly off the handle with out tongues. He says, "These things ought not to be so." You are believers. You have been changed. And then he goes on to give some reasons why these things ought not to be so.
Realize that God has given you a new nature (vv. 11-12)
First, you have been given a new nature, and such actions are inconsistent with the new nature. When you persist in ungodly speech, you give evidence that you are have no justifying faith. He says, think about it: can a regenerate person spew out unregenerate behavior? Or to use the language of verses 11-12: Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. God has given you the resource of a new nature. Sadly, we have habits that flow from the old nature. But if you are making no progress in the conquest of your tongue, you need to question whether you have a new nature.
Lay claim to the wisdom from above (vv. 13-18 with v. 1)
Next, he has given you wisdom from on high: verses 13-18. And we will look at those verses next week. Next, the Spirit is replacing the motivations that promote ungodly speech, such as bitterness, envy, self-seeking, pride, deceitfulness, worldliness, sensuality and even the demonic – he is replacing those with purity, peace, gentleness, willingness to yield to others, mercy, good fruits, hatred for hypocrisy, etc. You can see how those motivations will affect our speech. If God has replaced self-seeking with a willingness to yield, it will make a huge difference in how we talk. And like I say, we will look at verses 13-18 next week.
Lay claim to the indwelling Spirit (4:1-6)
Next, chapter 4 shows that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and we can call upon Him to enable us to do what is not possible in ourselves. He is an expert at taming the tongue. And Jesus said, How much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. And James talks about the Holy Spirit who is yearning within us.
Submit to God and Resist the devil (4:7)
Then on another Sunday we will look at the principles of submitting to God and resisting the devil. When we do that, Satan cannot set our tongues on fire with hell. He cannot. 1 John 5:18 says he can't touch the person who guards himself.
Measure everything you say by God's law and His opinion (4:11-12)
And even the worldview mentioned later in chapter 4 helps in this process of sanctifying the tongue. We won't delve into those issues today. But what I do want you to do this morning is to acknowledge the problem, to realize the remedy, to have hope that your speech can mature, and to commit to walking in the Spirit. Don't justify your speech when it is sinful. Immediately confess it. Confess it to God and to others and receive His cleansing. Evaluate your speech to see if it is employed to the glory of God. And if it's not, begin evaluating and making the needed changes. If necessary, ask someone else to hold you accountable and to point out areas of speech that are not honoring to God. Make your life goal to become perfect or mature in speech as Job was. And may God receive great glory through our lives as men see our speech and glorify our father in heaven. Amen.