“Taming the Tongue”
James 3:1-12 (3:8) – September 12, 2021
Who remembers the schoolyard saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” There’s a problem with that saying. We all know that words can hurt. And sometimes, people remember mean words, nasty words or harsh words years after they heard them. Sometimes even decades later. Words can come back to haunt us – either words we have said, or words we have heard. Internalized. Taken to heart.
Our letter-writer James would whole-heartedly agree. Remember, in this letter the apostle James writes a manual of Christian living. A how-to book on how to live a life pleasing to God. This is the point in the letter where he talks about the tongue, and how powerful it is. James begins by comparing the small tongue to other small but powerful items. “3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 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.” James does want to help us behave in a way pleasing to God. However, the tongue gets in the way of that, big time!
I am sure you and I know this, from long experience. Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a nasty argument, or angry words? We can use our tongues for positive words and kind comments, or for negative, hurtful sniping. This use of the tongue causes all kinds of bitter feelings and sometimes can escalate arguments and even cause fighting.
Who hasn’t experienced this negative use of the tongue? It’s no wonder that many people hesitate to jump in the middle of quarreling, arguing people. And, bullies? Gossips? Those who misdirect or misrepresent themselves or others? People who use particularly nasty or hurtful speech? Not positive ways to win friends or influence people.
Our commentator Dr. Derek Weber tells us that James wants to help us tame the tongue. It’s true that many Christians don’t take this recommendation of James all that seriously. However, “we’ve all experienced the sting of the tongue as we were growing up, and even as adults. We all know what it is to bear the brunt of rumors or misrepresentations or words spoken in anger. And just as likely we know what it is to watch our words bring pain to another, intentional or not. How can we get worshipers to take this text seriously?” 
I remember when I went to the circus with my children, when they were small. Watching the wild animals and their circus acts was truly amazing! Lions, tigers, other large animals – the oohs and ahhs coming from the audience were real, let me tell you! As often is said in YouTube videos and on reality television, “do not try this at home!” Wild animals are dangerous! It is so similar with the tongue! Trying to tame the tongue is often as difficult as trying to tame wild animals! (That’s why James uses this example in verse 7.)
We have talked about how dangerous the tongue is. Yet – is gossip THAT bad? Surely, a little gossip can’t hurt. Just letting people know the whole story. Just filling in the gaps. Surely, gossip isn’t as bad as murder, or stealing, or lying, is it? Is it? But, what would James say?
Instead of spreading gossip about people, how could we turn that around? How can you and I spread a good report about people? Sometimes, about the same people we gossiped about? Instead of saying something cutting or annoying, how can we say positive things? Have good, helpful words come out of our mouths? That would be kind, be caring, and even be forgiving!
I know it takes some time to correct bad habits. Perhaps our sometimes-bad, sometimes-mean, sometimes-thoughtless words are habits that many people need lots of help with.
Let’s face it, some do not want to start correcting negative words, malicious gossip, and rude comments. I can just hear some say, “Pastor, don’t we have bigger fish to fry? More serious sins to be concerned with?” Ahh, yes. But, a little thing like the tongue can be poisonous, hurtful, even mistakenly cruel and thoughtlessly punishing.
I do not want this sermon to be all negative! So, “let’s talk about the good we can do with our words. Let’s talk about what it means to bless. The internet is full of lists of ways to praise a child [or young person], for example – the words we can use for encouragement and for building up.” How did you feel, deep down inside, when you recall how you felt when someone said good, positive things to you or about you? Just think hard about the impact of these words! What kind of words were they? How were the words said to you? A compliment, a kind, caring word, an encouraging comment – all these are positive uses of the tongue! We then understand how powerful words are!
Speak positive, kind, encouraging words. (Think those caring, kind thoughts about others, too!) Just like with toothpaste, after you squeeze it out, it is impossible to put all the toothpaste back in the tube. Just like our hurtful or thoughtless words. Once they’ve come out of our mouths, they’re so hard to take back. That is why we need to be super careful about how we use our words.
With God’s help, we can tame our tongues. With God’s help, we can speak kind, helpful, encouraging words. Words that build up, rather than tear down. Positive words, instead of negative snipes or hurtful jabs. What would James say? More important, what would Jesus do?
Remember, in this letter the apostle James writes a manual of Christian living. A how-to book on how to live a life pleasing to God.
How would Jesus speak? Would Jesus speak kind, helpful, encouraging, positive words? Do that. And, God will be so pleased!