The Power Of Words--To Build Or Destroy
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
"Faith without works is dead" is at the heart of James' message. And when we hear that, we tend to think of all
the things we should be DOING--that is, we think about acting charitably towards
others, we think about doing something tangible
for another person.
In the third chapter of his epistle, however, James expands his definition of "doing" to include "saying". What we say, and how we speak to others, is either a good work or a bad work. It
either demonstrates our faith or it demonstrates our hypocrisy.
James prepped us for this message in chapter one when he says, "be . . . slow to speak"(1:19). If we do not "bridle" our tongue, James tells us,we show our religion to be "worthless"(1:26).
If you left church last Sunday wondering what good works you should be doing--if you
left wondering how you could demonstrate your faith in Christ to others--James gives
us our first assignment: "bridle your tongue".
James begins this chapter with a warning to teachers, "Let not many of you become
teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment"(3:1).
The reasoning for the added scrutiny for teachers comes from the nature of our vocation.
Most of what I do as a minister centres around WORDS--words that comfort, encourage,
admonish, and rebuke. And as the Proverb says, "When there are many words, sin is unavoidable"(Prov.10:19).
James basically starts us off by telling us it is an uphill battle
to bridle our tongue. This is not something we can easily do. James is, at least,
up front about how difficult a task we have ahead.
He points out that "we all stumble in many ways"(3:2). The word translated "many" is more appropriately translated as "various". That is to say that in each of our lives is different sins. We all sin, but in
"a variety of ways", James tells us. In contrast to this, James says that there is one sin
we all have in common--the sin of the tongue.
Now stating the situation in a more positive light, James says that "If anyone does
not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man, able to bridle the whole body as
As Christians, our goal is maturity--maturity in Christ. The key then to maturity
is bridling our tongue. Now someone may object, saying that maturity means having
a pure heart. Yes, that is more precise. But how can I tell what a person's heart
is like? I can tell by what they SAY.
Now this isn't something I've made up, this is what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of
Matthew, "For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart"(Mt.12:34). All this to say that what we say
reveals a great deal about our heart, and therefore, a great deal about the condition
of our walk with Christ.
I recently had a conversation with someone from the church, and this person described
his mother as "the most Christian person" he ever knew. His basis for saying this,
whether he knew it or not, was quite sound. His basis was that his mother would never
SAY anything bad about anybody. This person had equated Christian maturity with how
well one could control their tongue. This person is in good company as James does
James goes on to use a couple of illustrations to manifest the power and control of
our tongue. He likens it to a horse's "bit" which allows rider to direct their entire body(3:3). The illustration of a ship
is even more specific: the tongue is like a "very small rudder"--though small, the rudder can steer a great ship, even against "strong winds"(3:4).
From its ability to control
, James moves to the tongue's ability to do damage
. For the fact that our tongue steers us like a bit or a rudder would not disturbing
except for the fact that we have great difficulty bridling our tongue. And since
we struggle to control our tongue, James reminds us of the damage it can do.
He likens the tongue to "a small fire", yet this "small fire", this spark, is capable of setting an entire forest aflame(3:5). And though the
tongue is small compared to other parts of our body, James warns that it can "defile
the entire body"(3:6).
James does not want us to underestimate the damage our words can do. We all remember
the childhood taunt, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but WORDS will never
hurt me". As adults, we all know this to be false. Wounds caused by sticks and stones
at least heal. Wounds caused by words, however, sometimes never heal.
My guess is that all of us have been wounded at some point by someone else's words.
We may have even been wounded by people within our own church--yes, even fellow Christians
harm one another with words. Entire churches have been divided and brought down by WORDS. And I'm not just talking about heated arguments here. Subtle, critical,
words can do just as much harm.
Sometimes we don't even intend harm by our words, but they seem to do their damage
nonetheless. Isn't that what every husband would claim? If you are at all like me,
when a timely word of kindness is needed, you manage to botch everything with a flippant
response. As one church member related to me, the only time they seem to open their
mouth is "to switch feet".
Saying all of this, the application should be obvious: we must tame the tongue
. The difficulty is, that just when we are ready to smarten up and control our tongues,
we read verse 8, "But no human can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full
of deadly poison".
James goes on to describe how even Christians misuse our tongue, "With it we bless
our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men who have been made in the likeness
of God; from the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing"(3:9, 10).
And just when we are about to reply that "We can't help it! No human can tame the
tongue!", we read the last sentence in verse 10, "My brethren, these things ought
not to be this way".
How can James, on the one hand, say "no human can tame the tongue", and on the other
hand say, "these things ought not to be this way"?James is saying that "taming the tongue" is impossible, yet he expects us to accomplish the impossible. Why?
The key word here is the word "human". No human can tame the tongue. I think the better way to read this is "by no human
power can we tame the tongue". I say that is a better reading because JAMES EXPECTS
US TO TAME OUR TONGUES. When we don't, he exclaims, "these things ought not to be
Humanly speaking, we can't tame the tongue. It is our "bit" and our "rudder" and all
too often it steers us into evil. The good news is that Christians can rise above
our natural human faculties. Jesus says that we speak according to what is in our
heart. That is to say that our heart is the pilot which controls the rudder, our tongue.
While our tongue may always be the rudder, our heart does not have to be the pilot.
The Holy Spirit can, and should, be our pilot.
James expects Christians to control their tongues. He expects the impossible, because
where God is concerned, nothing is impossible. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit can
take control and steer your life to follow Christ.
The apostle Paul says much the same in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul begins by
telling them what not to do
, as James does, but then he goes one step further than James--Paul tells the Ephesians
what proper Christian talk should look like.
Paul says, "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word
as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give
grace to those who hear"(Eph. 4:29).
I am glad that Paul takes that extra step forward. Paul reminds us that taming the
tongue is more than refraining--it is more than not cursing, not gossiping, and not
speaking harshly--taming the tongue has a positive side. Taming the tongue means
that you also speak words that edify, and words that "give grace".
Now they warned me in Seminary not to talk about yourself too much in sermons, but
I should tell you that I really struggle here. Even if I pass James' test by not
speaking words that harm or do damage, I often fail Paul's test. I often fail to
speak words that edify and "give grace". I don't know if this is a gender thing or my upbringing, but encouraging words
don't come easily to me. I wish they did.
As we all strive to tame our tongues, we each have different battles. Some of us have
"unwholesome" language--especially in a Toronto traffic jam. Some of us struggle
with gossip. Some of us have an abrupt, harsh edge to our words.
For others, our challenge is not to refrain from saying something harmful, but our
challenge is to say something nice. We need to learn how to encourage. We need to
learn how to compliment. We need to learn how to build one another up with our words.
We come here on Sunday to worship God, but James highlights the futility of this when
we are at war with one another. Worshiping God is more than showing up on Sunday
and singing hymns. Worshiping involves stimulating each other to follow Christ. And
we do this with encouraging words. Amen.