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Worship Message - "Taming the Tongue"

Taming the Tongue
James Message #5


Today, we continue on a journey through the New Testament Book of James. A book that some Bible experts call the proverbs of the New Testament.

So far, we have discussed chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of James.

In chapter 1 are lessons about how to respond to the trials we face in life. Including the challenge to consider it joy when meeting trials because it is trials that help us grow in our Christian faith.

In chapter 2 are lessons about how to live out our Christian faith. Including that we are to show no partiality and that we are to display our faith in what we do to help others.

For today, chapter 3, which introduces another lesson. A very difficult lesson. The lesson of the importance of taming the tongue.

Interestingly, it is not just that lesson that is included in chapter 3 of James. The chapter begins with some important words about teachers. Some words of warning we also need to consider.

Verse 1 of James 3. “Let not many of you become teachers.”

Hmm. Isn’t teaching a good thing to do? Yes. But listen to what James added. “Let not many of you become teachers [in other words, be careful about wanting to be a teacher] for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

I did a bit of study on verse 1 of James 3. In that study I was reminded of how important Christian teaching was considered to be in the early years of the Christian church. One example of that is found in the list of great gifts described by the apostle Paul. On his list, first come apostles and prophets. That is followed by teachers.

Teachers were important in the early church because, while apostles and prophets were often on the move - they were skilled at converting people to faith in Jesus and were kind of overseers of believers in general - teachers were the ones who were parts of local congregations. Their responsibility was to stick around and work in individual congregations, teaching converts the facts of the Gospel and helping them become strengthened in the Christian faith.

Teaching was important. It was and still is critical, whether it happens in Christian classrooms or in pulpits. Being important, why should anyone be careful about becoming a teacher?

In my study, this is the way it was explained. It seems teachers in the Christian faith took the place of rabbis, with whom the Jews had been familiar. Rabbis were treated with the greatest of respect, and it is OK to be respected. But it could - it did for some rabbis and it can for some teachers - become a serious problem. Respect, if it goes to the head of the one respected, can ruin the teacher’s character. To the point of the teacher becoming a tyrant, as in my way or no way, or the teacher getting to love the respect and getting to doing whatever was or is necessary to keep it coming.
    
And there is this. If someone speaks Christian words, but his or her actions do not match what is taught, the effect of the words is reduced. We know the phrase, “talk the talk, but also walk the walk.” Both are needed. If the actions of a teacher do not match the words of a teacher, the judgment will be very strict. According to James, more strict than for those who are not teachers.

Therefore, be careful about becoming a teacher. If you do, you - we who are teachers - have some very serious responsibilities. First of all, knowing what we teach. Biblically, that means to know so we can teach the Bible rather than personal opinions or prejudices. Second of all, doing what we teach.

“Let not many become teachers.” For anyone who is a teacher, be careful. Especially with the use of the tongue.

Which gets us to the main teaching of James 3. A teaching that includes some comparisons. A number of them, one of which is sure to catch of attention of someone so everyone will get the message. Not only teachers, but everyone else as well. Every Christian.

Let’s consider the first comparison, which has to do with animal husbandry. Verse 3. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies.”

The point of James 3 is the importance of taming the tongue, whether teaching or in any other aspect of life. Some could certainly argue that the tongue is so small, compared to the rest of the body. The question could be, “What damage can the tongue do?”

James’ first comparison is to a horse. A horse is obviously - most of them, anyway - a very large, very strong animal. How is a horse controlled? By putting a bit in his or her mouth.

We know, do we not, that if we control the mouth of a horse, we can control its whole body, getting it to do what we want it to do? I am thinking of riding it or using it for farming or moving heavy objects.

The teaching is that if we can control our tongue, we can control our whole body to get it to do things that are right. Things that are helpful and pleasing to God.            

The negative side of it is that if we do not control our tongues, life is not controlled, which can result in going the wrong way, doing things that are not helpful - not  what God wants us to do.

I found a book titled 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue. The author, Deborah Pegues, lists 30 things about our tongues that can cause problems. I will share a few in this message and some more in next week’s message, when we will continue considering James 3.

One of the chapters in the book is The Manipulating Tongue. An example is Delilah in the Old Testament. A woman Samson fell in love with.

Samson, a man of God - a leader of God’s people - should not have allowed himself to associate with Delilah. She was a foreign woman. A woman who was not a follower of God. But Samson did fall in love with her.

Eventually she got him to share with her the source of his great strength, which was his long hair.

Of course, maybe it was not his hair as much as it was his obedience to God in not cutting his hair. But how did Delilah, who, being a foreign woman, wanted to know the source of Samson’s strength so her people could defeat him - get Samson to share what he knew” She employed her manipulative tongue.

Three times she asked Samson for the source of his strength. All three times he kind of played games with her, not giving her the correct answer. Which I guess is also improper use of the tongue. He lied to Delilah.
    
But then Delilah turned to manipulation. “How can you say you love me when you don’t confide in me? When you mock me? When you don’t tell me what I want to know?”

Samson was not supposed to share the source of his strength, but Delilah used her tongue to manipulate him. It worked. He gave her the information she wanted.

The result? As Samson slept, Delilah called for a man to come and shave Samson’s head. When Samson awoke, not only was his hair gone. So, too, was his strength gone. Which allowed some of Delilah’s fellow countrymen to grab him, bind him, torture him, mock him.

Now, Samson had what could be termed the last word. Sometime later, as his hair began to grow out again, he prayed for a return of his strength. Which God granted. Which led to Samson being able to collapse the building where he was. Where a whole lot of the enemy were also present. With that collapse, Samson died, but so, too, were many enemies of God killed.

Delilah made improper use of her tongue. With that, not only did she do what was wrong in the eyes of God. So, too, did Samson do wrong. Without control of her tongue, things were done that were displeasing to God.

The first comparison given by James has to do with animal husbandry. The second has to do with naval power. Verse 4. “Look at the ships also. Though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”

Just like a horse is big and strong in the animal kingdom, so is a ship big and strong in the naval world.

Thinking of a ship, compared to the entire structure, the rudder is very small. But we know the point. By exerting pressure on the rudder, a steersman can control the course of the ship and direct it to safety.

The negative side of it being, of course, that if the steersman does not control the rudder, the ship can be driven into danger.

It is the same with the tongue. Compared to the entire body, it is small, but it can direct the whole course of life. Control the tongue and steer life in directions that are good and pleasing to the Lord. Do not control the tongue and horrible problems can arise.

That can happen in families. The author of 30 Days to Taming Your Tongue tells of a cousin of hers who loves to pick fights and start arguments at family gatherings. In the author’s wording, being a peace breaker makes the cousin happier than enjoying family camaraderie. The result is family problems, which is of course improper use of the tongue.

The third comparison presented by James is in verse 5. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.”

The idea of forest fires is common in the Bible. For instance, Psalm 83 has the words, “As fire consumes the forest and the flame sets the mountains ablaze…” That refers to the power of God. Isaiah 9. “Wickedness burns like a fire and consumes briers and thorns. It kindles the thickets of the forest.”

In the dry seasons in Palestine, the scanty grass and low-growing thorn bushes and scrub brush were as dry as tinder. If set on fire, the flames spread like a wave which there was no stopping.

The same is of course true other places. Remember the smoky air we had a few weeks ago in eastern Nebraska? The smoke came from fires in western Canada.

Consider two reasons the damage which the tongue can do is like a fire.

First, it is wide-ranging, so it can damage at a distance.

That was true with the smoke from Canada. The danger is that a word spoken at one end of the country or a town or a family or a congregation can finish up by bringing grief and hurt at the other end. With all the social media around, it can spread a lot further than that.

A hand can kill at close range, but the tongue is like an arrow. It can kill at a distance. I might be able defend myself from a blow with a hand, but someone who drops a malicious word or repeats a scandalous and untrue story can cause harm I am unable to do anything about.
    
Fire, like the damage of the tongue, can do damage at a distance. It can also be uncontrollable. In fact, in the tinder-dry conditions of Palestine, a forest fire was almost immediately out of control.

We used to live just six blocks from Savannah Pines Retirement Community. While it was still being built - just days before the sprinkler system was to be installed - there was, early on an Easter morning, a fire that destroyed about half what had been built. What happened was that someone, I assume as a prank, started a fire, either in a dumpster or in the back of a pickup right behind the building. Just a small fire - that very quickly became a major conflagration. At least at the time, it was the most expensive fire in Lincoln’s history.

It started as a small thing. It grew uncontrollably. Likewise, the tongue can cause uncontrollable damage if it is used improperly.

It has been said you can reclaim lost health and lost money, but you cannot reclaim time. Once it is gone, it is gone.

It is the same with our words. When we speak them, we cannot get them back. Which, if we say nice, good, positive things is just fine. It is when we speak poorly or badly or critically or manipulatively, it can be very damaging. As damaging as a horse not controlled. As damaging as a ship not being steered safely. As damaging as a fire out of control.
    
We must remember to think before we speak, for once a word is spoken, it is gone from our control. That goes for teachers and preachers and everyone else. For every Christian.

And do not think you are exempt from improper use of the tongue. Verse 2. “For we all make many mistakes,” which refers to slip ups. Not necessarily intentionally saying hurtful things, though that is possible, too, but even unintentional things. Or words we do not intend others to hear.

We all make mistakes. As it is worded elsewhere, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Those words were written by the apostle Paul. The apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and lie.”

We all make mistakes. Many mistakes. It is at least suggested by James that few sins are as easy to fall into or have worse consequences than the sin of the tongue. So again, watch what you say. Think before you speak.

Next week we will get into the point that we will never, on our own, be very successful at watching or thinking. We must involve God. We must ask for His help. We must ask for His wisdom. We must allow Him to be our bit and our rudder. But watch what you say. Think before you speak. That is the only way to make sure your life is controlled to the point of being good and encouraging, even with your words.

And one more example of the need to tame the tongue, this coming from the chapter of the 30 Days book on The Hasty Tongue. For that, the author refers back to chapter 1 of James. To the verse that challenges us to be slow to speak, but quick to hear. As mentioned in one of our messages on James 1, there is the point that God gave us two ears and only one mouth, which is perhaps a hidden way to teach that we ought to listen twice as much as we talk.

One scenario in the book - have any of us been guilty of this - is offending someone when quickly trying to add humor to a situation, not realizing what is said might be offensive to someone who is hearing us.

Perhaps consider using this from the author 0f the book as we pray that our tongues may be tamed in all circumstances. “Lord, set a guard over my mouth and keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Today’s closing song is the chorus The Greatest Thing. Actually, three great things are mentioned in the song - knowing the Lord, loving the Lord, and serving the Lord. As we know Him, let’s take advantage of His desire to help   us  in  all  aspects   of  our  lives. Including taming our tongues. May the fact that we allow Him to help us be part of our display of love for Him. May our tamed tongues make us better servants of Him.

The greatest thing in all my life is knowing You;
The greatest thing in all my life is knowing You;
I want to know You more,
I want to know You more;
The greatest thing is all my life is knowing You.

The greatest thing in all my life is loving You;
The greatest thing in all my life is loving You;
I want to love You more,
I want to love You more;
The greatest thing is all my life is loving You.

The greatest thing in all my life is serving You;
The greatest thing in all my life is serving You;
I want to serve You more,
I want to serve You more;
The greatest thing is all my life is serving You.

Next Sunday, more on James 3. More on taming the tongue. Including the wisdom needed to do the taming.
 
For now, like a horse needs a bit and as a ship needs a rudder, so you and I need help with our tongues. May we allow God to be our bit and our rudder so we will be able to be avoid causing spiritual fires, instead being worthy servants of the Lord. May that be one way we live out our Christian faith, on good days and on days of trials. Amen.

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