James: A Faith That Works – Part 6

James 3:1-12


 “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me!”  I think of all the limericks we learned as children that has to be one of the dumbest.  We usually chanted that to other kids who had just called us ugly names and then we ran home and cried our eyes out.  Because those names really did hurt when they said “fatso,” “four eyes,” “chicken,” “weirdo.”  We just didn’t want to let them know how deeply it hurt.  In fact, some of you here today possibly still carry emotional scars from the names you were called as children, or you mentally replay tapes of derogatory comments that were made about you in your youth.  Maybe that little poem should be re-written to read: “Sticks and stones my break my bones but they can soon be mended, names and words may hurt my feelings and the damage never ended.” 

Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death….” 

Well the 3rd chapter of James focuses on the awesome power of the spoken word.  James insists that if we’re going to behave as Christians ought to behave, then we have to learn to control our speech.  Now this is a message this morning that applies to everybody in this room.  Several weeks ago, when we talked about anger, I said that there were going to be some of you who wouldn’t relate to that lesson because you had a phlegmatic easy-going temperament.  But we all need this lesson about disciplining our speech. 

In verse 2, James says, “We all stumble in many ways.  If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man….” 

I take it that we don’t have any perfect men or women in this room this morning, do we?  And so, I guess all of us need to heed this lesson about controlling our speech. 

So would you look at this passage of Scripture with me today, listen, learn, and let’s all vow that we’re going to begin to apply what James teaches us about the way a Christian is supposed to talk.


James begins by emphasizing the POSITIVE power of the tongue.

Human speech has its dangers, but the ability to speak is a tremendous blessing.

For example, there’s the power of instruction

In verse 1 James says, Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” 

Now James is not saying that no Christian should ever teach, he’s just saying that we ought to seriously weigh the responsibility because there’s such power in teaching to mold and mature and ultimately save.  In fact, in 1 Timothy 5:17 Paul said, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” 

Those who instruct us about Christ make a very positive contribution to our lives and they merit honor.  But James warns, “Don’t accept that responsibility quickly,” because teaching has such power, both positive and negative.  You can teach the wrong thing and lead astray, or you can live an inconsistent life and really do damage.  So he said, “Understand, if you’re going to teach you’re going to be judged more strictly.”  If you know the truth, you’ve got a greater responsibility to abide by the truth.  If you’re a leader, you’re expected to live by a higher standard.  But since teaching has such potential for good, if you’re gifted to teach you are compelled to teach, but you do so reluctantly.

The tongue not only has the power to instruct, but there’s the power to direct. 

Look at verses 3 and 4: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.” 

What James is saying is that the tongue is such a small membrane, and yet it has disproportionate power to direct our character. 

Now we don’t normally think of the tongue as controlling us, we normally think of the tongue as reflecting what is really down inside of us.  Because in Luke chapter 6, Jesus said we will really know people by their fruit.  He said, “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.  For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). 

In other words, the readiest expression of what you are down inside is what’s overflowing across your tongue.  Somebody said, “The mouth is the billboard of the heart.”

But James insists there’s another side to that coin.  Just as our speech reveals our character, our character is also controlled by disciplining our speech.  You control a horse by the little bit in its mouth.  You control a ship by the little rudder underneath.  And we control our character by how we use our tongues.  Alex Motture said, “The control of the tongue leads to master control of our lives.”  The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity, it is the means to it.

For example, let’s say that you are entertaining the thought of revenge.  You’re really angry at somebody.  But instead of allowing your tongue to spew out venom against them, you speak words that are kind about them.  Honest words, but kind.  Now that very expression begins to alter your thinking and change your heart.  That’s why Jesus said in Matthew 5:44, “[You] pray for those who persecute you….”  Because when you verbalize a petition for your enemy it helps control your attitude. 

Or let’s say some teenagers are at a party and they’re offered alcohol or drugs.  If they discipline their tongue to say, “no thank you,” they begin to develop a reputation for not using drugs or alcohol.  So you begin to develop a habit by saying “no,” and that becomes a directive for your character. 

One of the first things that a visitor to Alcoholics Anonymous is taught to do is to verbalize the truth, to say in front of the group, “My name is Bill Wilson and I’m an alcoholic.”  That’s why the Bible says, “…confess your faults one to another and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).  Because verbalization of the truth is the first step to control.

Let’s say you and your mate are drifting apart a little bit.  Your marriage is losing its romance.  How do you regain it?  By controlling your tongue.  You say those three magic words that warm up your mate: “Let’s eat out!”  Or even better: “I love you!”  Or, “You look nice.”  Or, “I am sorry.”  And pretty soon if you control your speech you begin to control your behavior and the romantic feelings return.

The tongue has the power to praise, too. 

First Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  

One of the best things you can do with the tongue is to speak words of encouragement to other people.  And everybody needs encouragement.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy, just a simple word of thanks or a boost.

Over the years, Angela has been real good at writing little notes of encouragement at the proper times.  She will hide notes or cards in my Bible or suitcase when I’m leaving home for a couple of days.  They’re usually not anything elaborate, just simple notes of encouragement.  For instance, I found a card in my Bible during a week of camp in which I was the Dean one summer.  It was just a little card that had a scripture verse on the front that read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  And on the back of the card she had written, “I’ll be praying for you and thinking of you at camp this week!  I love you—Angela.”  Just simple words she wrote on the back of a card, but those little words encouraged me so much that week.  I carried that card in my Bible for a number of years after that and would pull it out from time to time when I needed some encouragement.

Someone once made a list of life’s most meaningful words: “I love you.”  “You’re wonderful!”  “It’s benign!”  “The war is over!”  “It’s a boy!”  “It’s a girl!”  “No cavities.”  “Thank you.”  “All if forgiven.”  “God bless you.”  “Welcome home!”  “Good morning!”  “Merry Christmas!”  “Your car is ready.”  “You passed the exam!”  “Your child is beautiful.”  “You were right.”  “I’m ready to sign.”  Just words—powerful words, encouraging words. 

No wonder Solomon wrote in Proverbs 25:11, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” 


But the tongue has DESTRUCTIVE power, too.

James says in verse 5, “…Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” 

Now we’ve all seen those horrible pictures of thousands of acres of forest in places like California or Australia that are now nothing but charcoal.  Some of those destructive fires started because somebody carelessly threw a cigarette from a car or failed to put out a match.  And you know what?  There are people who throw a match or a cigarette from a car window, or just leave a fire burning, and they go thousands of miles away and they have no idea of the kind of destruction and devastation they’ve left behind.  And you can carelessly speak a word that’s just like a spark, and you have no idea of the damage which you’ve done. 

James says in verse 6, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” 

That’s how destructive it can be.

And down in verse 8 he uses another analogy.  He said, “[The tongue] is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

Poison is deceptive, but it’s deliberate.  Just a small amount of arsenic can blend in with the food and it can kill.  It works secretly, but it’s deliberate.  A malicious person can inject just a little bit of poison into the conversation, along with the truth, and it will spread, and it will destroy.  That’s why Jesus said that every idle word which we speak we’re going to have to give an accounting for on the Day of Judgment (Matthew 12:36). 

Now there are all kinds of deadly words. 

James mentions, in verse 9, cursing

He says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men….”  

And he says that’s destructive.  We call people less than human, we challenge their ancestry, we ask God to damn them and condemn them to hell, and that is not harmless.  And that does not belong in the life of a Christian.  It may not harm the person that we’re talking about, but it certainly harms us.  It destroys our witness.

Baseball great, Roger Clemens, swore at the umpire in the American League Playoff series a number of years ago (1990) and was thrown out of the game in the second inning.  You see, the uncontrolled tongue had disastrous consequences.  And after the game a number of people expressed concern that Roger Clemens was out of control.  His burst of profanity didn’t gain the respect of anyone.  He lost credibility.  And he severely damaged his team’s chances at winning an important game. 

Now if a pagan loses credibility by cursing, what about when people know you’re a Christian and you use profanity?  It’s devastating!  You may think nobody notices, but the witness behind you is charcoal.  Jesus said, Do not swear at all…  Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’… (Matthew 5:34, 37). 

Another damaging form of speech is boasting

He says in verse 5 that the tongue “makes great boasts.” 

Boy, when you do something good it’s so hard not to brag about it.  Somebody said, “Whenever you toot your own horn you invariably get the tune too high.”

Now what James is talking about is that we ought not to be bragging about our spiritual life all the time.  Don’t be trying to boast to people about how holy you are, because it turns the world off. 

“God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). 

Psalm 75:4 says, “To the arrogant I say, ‘Boast no more,’ and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horns.’  …[because] no one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man.  But it is God who judges…” (vv. 4-7). 

If God wants you to be exalted in your spiritual life, He will exalt you.  Don’t you boost yourself up.  Don’t be like the Pharisee who went into the temple and pointed at the publican and said, “God I thank you I’m not like that guy.  I’m better!” (see Luke 18:11).  The tongue is a fire when it boasts.

But lying is one of the most negative uses of the tongue. 

Proverbs 26:28 says, “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” 

Hugh Mulligan wrote an article entitled: “Would I Lie to You?  Trust Me!”  In the article he lists statements that we often hear, but that we know aren’t the truth, we just accept them.  “Open wide, please, this isn’t going to hurt a bit.”  “No need to put anything in writing, a simple handshake will seal the deal.”  “It’s easy to assemble, just follow the simple directions.”  “Please, dad!  I’ll walk him, and feed him, and train him, and everything!”  “I didn’t get up here to make a speech.”  “It’s easy to find, you can’t miss it.”  “Two can live as cheaply as one.”  “Mother’s only staying for two weeks, dear.  You’ll hardly know she’s in the house.”  “The check is in the mail.”  And in conclusion, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” 

Now those lies probably don’t do much damage because we all recognize them as lies.  But the lies that really do damage are the lies that are like deadly poison—they sound truthful, and they’re cast in that which is good, but they’re deliberately there to twist the truth and get an advantage.  Liars in the trial of Jesus bore false witness about Him and contributed to His execution. 

Proverbs 12:22 says, “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.”  

“Please understand,” James says, “if you’re going to behave like Christ then you tell the truth.  You are people of integrity and you speak the truth in love, even when it hurts.”

Malicious gossip is another destructive use of the tongue. 

Proverbs 26:20 says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.”  

And yet we Christians think it’s so permissible just to spread a rumor, just to “talk.”  Most of us aren’t very confident of our ability to carry a conversation or to be interesting, and the surest, but the cheapest, way to get the attention of people is to talk about somebody else. 

Proverbs 12:18 says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” 

Psalm 64:3 says, “The wicked sharpen their tongues like swords and aim their words like deadly arrows.  They shoot from ambush at the innocent man; they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.”  

But the damage inflicted by gossip can be devastating and you don’t even know the charcoal that’s left behind.

Melanie Green wrote an article about gossip and she said, “As Christians we often hide our gossip in language such as, ‘We really need to pray for so and so because they’re having a terrible problem.’  ‘Oh yeah, what’s the problem?!’  And a whole lot more talking than praying actually gets accomplished.” 

She wrote, “If I had spent as much time on my knees talking to God as I did on my couch talking to friends, I’d really be quite the woman of God by now.” 

You see, some of us begin with the assumption that it’s okay to talk about the problems of other people as long as they’re true, or at least we think we’re telling the truth. 

But I don’t think that’s accurate.  Here’s what I believe to be a good definition of gossip: “Gossip is sharing anything about someone when the act of sharing it is not part of the solution.”  Gossip is sharing anything about somebody that’s evil when your talking is not part of the solution to that person’s problem. 

First Corinthians 13:6 says, “Love does not delight in evil….” 

If you really love a person then you’re not anxious to talk about the wickedness in their life.  That’s why Melanie Green said, “We have no right to go to anyone accept God and the offender unless we’re really at a loss as to what we should do.  And then we need to go to wise counsel, not to our favorite person to talk too.”

Proverbs 17:4 warns, “A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.” 

In other words, don’t even be quick to listen to somebody with a rumor or gossip.  Someone had on their telephone answering machine: “I’m sorry, I’m not a home.  But if you care to leave a rumor, please do so at the sound of the tone.”  Don’t be receptive to rumors. 

First Timothy 5:19 says, “Do not even listen to an accusation against an elder unless it’s confirmed by two or three witnesses” (NLT). 

I think that’s a pretty good formula to follow when it comes to listening to any gossip, because gossip is like a fire that can set a whole forest ablaze.

And James says when you do that, you’re so hypocritical.  He says with the tongue we’re praising God, and then we’re turning right around and cursing men (v. 9). 

And if you come to church, and you sing, and you claim to be a Christian, and then you go out and you curse, and you boast, and you lie, and you gossip, and you have a critical spirit about you … boy, it just damages your whole witness. 

He says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be” (v. 10). 

Verse 11: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?”  No. 

“…can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?” (v. 12).  No. 

So when you’re doing that you’re revealing that you have a hypocritical spirit and a divided heart.

Back when our kids were still pretty young, I was watching them at home at home one afternoon.  And while they were playing our son, Joshua, was trying to teach our daughter, Bethany, to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”  And somewhere about the middle of the song Bethany did something that irritated Joshua and he gave her a little shove, and down she went.  And immediately Joshua says, “Now come on Bethany, let’s sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’!” 

Now we smile about that in a little child, but isn’t that what we do with our tongues?  We come in and sing, “O for a thousand tongues to sing the praises of my King,” or “there is sunshine in my soul today,” and then we get in the car and drive down the street and say, “Blast you, get out of my way!  Move over you idiot!  Can’t you see I’m on my way to Monterrey’s!” 

And James says, “My brothers, this should not be.  If you’re going to behave as a Christian, then learn to control that powerful membrane of the tongue.”

Now how are we going to do that? 

Well first, let’s admit that we all have a problem here. 

No one is exempt.  I’m stepping on my own toes this morning.  But let’s come clean before God and say, “Lord, I want to do better.  I want to grow.”  And don’t rationalize, “Well, I’m a little flippant with my speech, I’ll admit that.  But at least I’m not a drunkard; I’m not an adulterer.  Oh sure, I gossip a little, and I slip up and swear once in a while, but that’s all.”  Understand that James says the tongue is a lethal weapon that can kill and destroy and do a lot of damage.

In fact, in Proverbs 6, verses 16 and 17, the Bible says that there are seven things that God hates.  There are seven things that are detestable to God, and three of the seven have to do with the tongue: bearing false witness, and lying, and sowing discord among the brothers.  Two of the ten commandments have to do with control of the tongue: don’t take God’s name in vain, and don’t bear false witness. 

So, the first thing we need to do is recognize the seriousness of the offense.

And the second thing we need to do is repent of it. 

Now to repent means we have a godly sorrow for sin.  We don’t giggle about it.  We turn from our transgressions and we walk toward Christ.  And we say, “God, I’m sorry for the injuries I’ve inflicted on others.  And there’s probably a lot of damage I’ve done that I’m not even aware of, because my tongue is so sharp.”

Would you turn to 1 Corinthians 6, beginning with verse 9?  Take a careful look at an incredible list of horrible sins.  Look at what Paul writes: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (vv. 9-10).

Now in that list are the sins that we would normally categorize as the worst sins imaginable — adultery, stealing, drunkenness.  And then right in the middle of it all he says slanderers, or people who hurt another person’s reputation through gossip or rumor.

But the next verse is a great one.  It says, “And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). 

He says, “Some of you were homosexuals, some of you were drunks, some of you were thieves, and some of you were slanderers.  But you’ve been changed, you’ve been washed, you’ve started all over again.” 

And now that you’re cleansed you begin to talk differently.

To control our tongues, I think we also need to ask for help

We need to ask for help from two sources. 

First, we need to ask for the help of God’s Holy Spirit.  James says, “…no man can tame the tongue” (v. 8).  You can’t do it on your own.  You need to pray regularly, “Lord, help me today.  Fill me with your Holy Spirit that I may control my speech with your help.” 

In Psalm 141, verse 3, David prayed, “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.  Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil…” (vv. 3-4). 

And we need to ask the Lord, “Help me to guard my tongue, give me your Holy Spirit today so that I can speak the words that I should speak.”

But secondly, we also need the help of people who are close to us.  We need to be accountable to other people.

Bob Philips is a preacher from Illinois.  He tells the story of being invited to play a round of golf with a member of his church.  As they started their round of golf a man who was by himself asked if he could join them in the round.  He was a better golfer than either of them, but he swore a lot.  With almost every shot he cursed.  And about the seventh tee, they hadn’t said anything up to this point, the man said, “By the way, where do you guys work?”  And Bob said, “Well I’m a preacher here in Bloomington, and this is a member of the church.”  And he said you could just see the blood drain from the guy’s face.  He swung his club and his next shot was terrible.  He just dribbled the ball about 50 yards down the fairway, then he put his hands on his hips and said, “Well nuts!” 

It’s amazing how people can control their language when they’re around people where it becomes important for them to do it.

Now if you seriously want to do better, then talk it over with somebody really close to you.  Maybe a member of your family, or somebody who works with you, and say, “Look, I’m going to make a vow to God that I’m going to quit gossiping.  I’m going to quit using profanity.  I want you to help me overcome my critical tongue.  And when I say something that’s wrong, would you point it out to me?”  Now if they have the courage to point it out to you, don’t curse at them!  Learn to be big enough to thank them if you’re really serious about doing it. 

That’s why Galatians 6:1 reads, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”  And the next verse says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2). 

Learn to be accountable to other people and say, “I want to do better with my tongue.  Will you help me?”

But the last suggestion I’d give you this morning about controlling the tongue would be to turn it around and use our tongue for a positive purpose. 

To repent doesn’t mean just being sorry, it means to turn completely around and do the opposite. 

Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 

Where we’ve been tempted to misuse our tongues, we need to use them in a positive way to praise God, encourage other people, give testimony about our faith, give thanks to people. 

Someone told me just last Sunday, “I just think so much of your wife.  She’s so sweet and I never hear her say anything bad about anybody.”  What a great compliment.  But there’s an even better compliment when we can say, “You know, what you hear out of that person’s mouth is always positive, it’s honest.  It’s not always flowery, but they speak the truth in love.” 

That’s why Colossians 4:6 ought to be underscored in our Bibles.  It reads, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  

Let your conversation be full of grace.  Let it be seasoned with salt so that when they hear you talk it makes them thirsty for the things of God, and you’ll know how to answer them. 

And when you’re full of that which is positive, your tongue will have the power of life.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that when we give our lives to Christ it includes the use of our tongue. 

Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (vv. 9-10). 

There’s a direct connection between the heart and the tongue.  And when we believe in our heart that Jesus has risen, and we confess with our mouth that He is Lord, He said he’ll save us.


David Hall
First Church of Christ
August 2, 2020