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The Power of Words | James 3:1-12

As preached by Timothy O'Day.

1) You will be held accountable for your words, so beware of seeking influence (1-2).

2) Your words have destructive power, so beware of how you speak (3-6).

3) The tongue cannot be tamed so beware of pride (7-8).

4 Your words reveal your heart, so be aware of your words (9-12).

The Power of Words

Listen to these Proverbs,

“The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin” (Prov 10:8)

“The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence” (Prov 10:11)

“The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool. When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov 10:18-19).

“The Lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of sense” (Prof 10:21)

“With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Prov 11:9)

“Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov 11:13)

“The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood, but the mouth of the upright delivers them” (Prov 12:6)

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18)

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Prov 12:25)

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Prov 13:3)

“A soft answers turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1)

“To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov 15:23)

“A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends” (Prov 16:27-28)

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov 17:27-28)

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18:2)

“A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul. The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body” (Prov 18:7-8)

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov 25:11)

“Let another praise you and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Prov 27:2)

“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faith are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov 27:5-6)

“A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Prov 29:5)

“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov 29:11)

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov 29:20).

Clearly, God wants us to give heed to how we view and use words. We see that in Proverbs and we see it in the book of James. Already James has warned us about how we use words in James 1:26 and now, again, in 3:1-12. While last week we saw that words alone do not justify a person, only genuine faith can do that, James now turns in these verses to remind us that words are not meaningless. While he does not give us a fully developed theology of words, James does make one point very clear: words are powerful. And because they have such power, he warns us in how we use our words and view our words.

1. You will be held accountable for your words, so beware of seeking influence (1-2)

As we look at the beginning of the passage, we see the opening exhortation paired with a warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” A teacher is one who opens up the Scriptures in order to explain them and direct the people. It seems from the very beginning of the church this position carried with it a certain level of prestige so that lots of people wanted to have the role, but James is warning us not to merely look at the prestige that comes when you teach well and instead to look at the danger of the position. When one seeks to teach, he should proceed with caution. Why? Because he will be judged with greater strictness. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37?

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Jesus is saying in that passage that your words reveal your heart, so your words will be one of the evidences shown for you on the day of judgment either for justification or condemnation. But why will teachers be judged with greater strictness? Because teaching is aimed at the heart. Teaching is a matter of the heart because words flow from the heart, and teachers aim to move hearts, change affections, and stir desires. The Lord will hold everyone accountable for his words, but he has a higher standard for those who claim to know the Scriptures and direct the hearts of others.

Teachers are vulnerable to the judgment of words because, frankly, in order to teach you need to speak a lot. And as a teacher you can develop a dangerous confidence that draws you to speak when you should rather be silent. James highlights this danger not only for teachers but for all of us in verse 2. There he tells us that we all stumble—that is sin—in many ways. Notice how he says “we,” including himself. There is not a single person who is completely rid of sin in this life. Verse 2 continues saying that if anyone doesn’t sin in what he says is now a perfect man. Why? Because if you can cease from sinning with your tongue, then you are a person who is able to control his whole body and keep from sin in every way—that is how hard it is to cease sinning with your tongue! That this verse is saying is that if you have enough self-control to never sin with your tongue, then you have enough self-control to never sin at all. You are now perfectly mature.

James wants us to see that no one does it perfectly. The fully mature Christian is the Christian who looks like Christ, and none of us will be fully like him until we see him when he returns and we are glorified. Since that is the cause, we should be cautious in seeking influence as teachers because when we teach our words will be many and our danger to sin only increases when our words are many.

Maturity and Not Just Desire Needed

Make sure you are hearing the exhortation in these verses correctly. It is not saying, “none of you should be teachers,” but “not many of you should become teachers.” It is hard and it is dangerous work to teach because your words will be many and you will have frequent opportunity to sin with your words. This means that those who seek the role should pause and consider the danger, but it also means that those in the church should be careful in whom they elevate to the position.

HB Charles sums up the nature of the problem well when he says to young men who desire to preach and teach, “A passion to preach without a burden to study is a desire to perform.” Let me expand that a bit: a passion to preach and teach without the discipline to prepare is merely a desire to perform. Preparation is not just studying a passage but a conforming of character to the standard of Christ.

Here’s what this means for us. First, if you desire to teach, do not view that desire as a right. Instead, view the desire as a dangerous one. Do you really want it? Are you cultivating discipline with your speech or just longing to discipline people with your speech? Do you see yourself as one who will be held accountable for your words or do you just want to hold people accountable with your words? Brothers, as teachers we must be humble and submissive to our authorities—our pastors and most of all our Lord. We will answer to him for our words.

Second, church, we need to apply this to all who desire to teach. It is so easy to elevate someone into a position of influence because they speak well. Isn’t this risk obvious when you see a pastor disqualify himself from ministry and then, usually because he is a very good communicator, find himself back in ministry? We need to be careful who we elevate into the role of teacher because that person will be held accountable for speaking hypocrisy.

Third, we need to warn those who call themselves teachers of God’s word but have no business doing so. I think particularly here of LDS missionaries. These are young men who are going into homes to proclaim a false gospel. They are claiming authority to teach people about God and in doing so are heaping judgment on themselves. Often by their own admission they will say that they do not know much, have not read the Bible, and are not “Scriptorians.” We need to speak frankly to these young men that they should not teach people about God when they do not know him or what he has said in his word. Love and concern should compel us to do this.

But this problem of speech is not something that is only true of teachers. Teachers will be judged with greater strictness, but all will be judged for their words. So James isn’t just speaking to those who desire to teach but to all Christians. And at this point, you might be wondering, “are words really that powerful?” That’s the issue that James wants to address next in verses 3-6.

2. Your words have destructive power, so beware of how you speak (3-6)

James uses various analogies in verses 3-4 to make one point that he expressly states in verse 5, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” By this James means that the tongue is a small part of our body, but like a rudder on a ship and a bit in a horses mouth, this small thing has power to direct something much larger: a whole horse or a whole ship. In the same way, our tongues direct us even though they are small in comparison to the rest of our body.

The Need of Gaining Control of Your Tongue

This is why James said that if you can control your tongue in verse 2, then you are well on your way to controlling all areas of your life. While none of us will do this perfectly in this life, we should strive to gain more and more control over our tongues as they have great power to direct ourselves and others.

And the need to gain control of our tongues is seen all the more as James turns our attention to seeing how dangerous our tongues truly are. He first turns our attention to the danger of the tongue by use of metaphor in the second half of verse 5 and verse 6, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such small fire! And the tongue is a fire…” Being in the mountain west, we can all too well picture the image that James is drawing for us. A large forest fire is usually started by a small spark. And our tongues all too often offer up that spark.

Consider for a moment how a word spoken rashly, gossip, slander, and lies seem small at first but then burst into full blown conflict.

How many children are scared by the words of their parents? Many of you can still remember things that your mom or dad said to you years and years ago and these things still haunt you. Parents, your words are powerful. If you tell your child that he is the worst little boy in the world, then he will believe that is his identity. Right now we are seeing the power of words tear the lives of children apart because schools are telling boys that they might be girls and girls that they might be boys. Such words coming from a position of influence set the direction of these kids for years to come. These words are wreaking havoc on children and scarring them for the rest of their lives.

How many marriages are on the brink because someone could not hold their tongue or because one partner thought that a little lie was better than the truth? How many marriages end because, when they get hard, a friend gives one spouse the advice, “Just do what you need to do in order to be happy”?

How many local churches are ripped asunder because members slander and gossip about one another? In the holy name of “just getting something off your chest,” you tear down a brother or sister?

James lays out for us how and why the tongue can be such a destructive force by making 3 observations about the tongue…

The tongue is a world of unrighteousness, meaning that you find all of the unrighteousness of the world played out through the tongue. The tongue, that is, unlocks for you all the unrighteousness that is in this world. It is the link between our hearts and the sin in the world around us because it is the member of our body we use to say “yes.” We enter into conflict with people with our tongues. We become estranged from people with our tongues. We tear others down with our tongues. We lie in order to build ourselves up in the eyes of others with our tongues. We play out all of the sin of our hearts by using our tongues.

The tongue stains the whole body. In verse 6, we see James say that the tongue is set among our members, meaning that it is just one part of our body and a small part of us at that. But the sins of the tongue cannot be played off as just sins of the tongue. Sin effects all of you. You cannot make the excuse, “I just have a loose tongue,” like some people may say that they have a bad back. Since your tongue directs you, your whole person is corrupted by the sins of your tongue. Jesus specifically tells us that it is not what goes into us that defiles us, but what comes out of us that defiles us. He says in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” He goes on in verses 18-19, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” The tongue, then, is the bridge that connects our unrighteous hearts to the unrighteous world, but in the process our whole person is defiled.

The tongue sets on fire the entire course of life, meaning that lives are ruined by how one uses his tongue. Affairs start with flirtation and small lies set callouses on your heart that enable bigger lies in the future that seem unimaginable to you now. Whenever you talk to someone who has made a mess of their life, you will find that their words played a key part in it—both what they said and what they refused to say.

Here is the point of all of this: do not expect to play with fire and not be burned. Your tongue is like a fire and you are living in a very dry forest. And from where does this fire originate? From hell. That’s what we see at the end of verse 6. The tongue is a fire…set on fire by hell.” That is to say, our tongues are just tools. The reason our tongues are dangerous is because they are connected to our sinful hearts. Our sinful hearts treat our tongues like unlit torches and, dipping them into the fires of hell, spread the torments of hell on others in the present. Hell is the place reserved for satan and all those who like him oppose God. When we use our tongues in service to our own sinful desires instead of in service to our Creator, we are acting like satan, dipping our tongues into the destructive fires of hell, and seeking to please ourselves at the expense of others. Dipping your tongue into the fire of hell is really dipping your tongue into the lies of Satan and then spreading those lies onto others. What do I mean?

Do you know what gossip is? It is talking about another person in order to bring them down and make you feel superior. It is an accusation that tears down another person. What is Satan? He is the accuser who aims to tear you down. In gossip you are taking the lies of Satan on your tongue and playing his part. What is slander? It is telling lies about a person in order to bring down that person and also to build yourself up in the eyes of another. Satan showed us the way of slander by calling God a liar in the Garden and telling Eve that God was simply holding out on her. She shouldn’t trust God (“lower your estimation of him”) but should trust him (“Increase your estimation of me”). Do you see, then, that whenever you lie about someone else (even if you think it is just a little lie) you are playing the part of Satan? Don’t spread the flames of hell in this world! Do not think that you can spread those flames and not be burned!

But maybe you are thinking, “sure, others need to be careful. But that is because they are less mature than me. I don’t get into trouble with my tongue.” If you have any kind version of that thought going on in your mind right now, then pay attention to what James says next.

3. Your tongue cannot be tamed, so beware of pride (7-8)

James wants us to remain vigilant and aware that the destructive power of the tongue is never completely handled in anyone. He uses the comparison of animals. While every kind of animal can be tamed, he says that no human being can tame the tongue in verse 8. Why is this the case? He gives two reasons in verse 8.

First, the tongue is a restless evil. The word “restless” here refers to instability. The reason our tongues are not stable is because our hearts are not stable. While by faith we are justified and we are new creations, we are also still being renewed into the image of Christ. As long as indwelling sin remains in us, our hearts will not be stable so our tongues will not be wholly stable. You can testify to the reality of this all too well. Have you ever started off the day in a good mood, but then endured hardship and unexpected difficulty throughout the day, and then find that your words are sharp with anger at people by the end of it all? How does that happen? Your tongue reflects the instability of your own heart to remember the truth of God and to act in accord with it. By God’s grace, we get better at this, but until we are glorified we will have to deal with the instability that comes because of indwelling sin.

Second, the tongue is full of deadly poison. In short, our words can be deadly. While we may and should gain greater control of our tongues, we would be foolish to think that we have tamed them. The stakes are too great for such thinking. Imagine if I handed you a poisonous sake saying and thinking, “There is no risk here,” and then it bit you. My bravado, in that case, may very well kill you. While we may gain a measure of control with our tongues, do not fall into the trap of pride and think that sin does not still indwell your heart. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that for in doing so you endanger yourself and others around you.

The point here is not to give up all hope and not even try to control your tongue. The point is to remain humble as you gain control of your tongue. You will not, in other words, domesticate your tongue, but you can protect yourself and others against it.

There is a certain danger that your tongue will always pose to you and to others. Even as you gain greater control of your tongue, it will still remain dangerous.

It is in this mind of humility that we turn to the last point of this text.

4. Your words reveal your heart, so be aware of your words (9-12)

In these last few verses, we see several analogies that are meant to highlight the last exhortation of our passage. The exhortation comes in verses 9-10. There we see at the beginning of verse 9 that with it, meaning the tongue, we bless God and we also curse people. So, as it is summed up in verse 10, from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. What is meant by blessing is praising God. We are saying what is true of God and rejoicing in what is true of God. This is the right and proper use of our God given speech. But with this same mouth we also curse people who are made in the image of God. By cursing, what is meant is not just saying mean things or using an explicative toward someone. To curse someone really means to call judgment on them. It is using our words to judge someone. This is not the same as handing someone over to God to be judged, but for us to pronounce our own judgment and then call on God to execute what we have deemed as the right judgment. This is the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches us to do when he tells us in Luke 6:28, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

When we bless God but then curse people, we are saying to God, “I love how good you are,” but then turning and refusing to practice what he calls good. This is inconsistent, evil, and defiling. As we see at the end of verse 10, “These things ought not to be so,” meaning this is not how we should live. Using our mouths for these purposes is unfitting in the same way that it is unfitting for a spring to pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water. It is like a fig tree bearing olives or a grapevine producing figs. It is like a salt pond yielding fresh water. It doesn’t make any sense and should not happen.

As you consider what is being said here, note who is being addressed: “my brothers,” it says at the end of verse 10. This inconsistent use of our mouths should not be when we are in Christ. Why? Because in Christ you are the first fruits of the new creation (James 1:18) and the word has been implanted in you (1:21). Yes, indwelling sin remains, but you are not who you used to be and you can change.

What we are being told in these verses is that these actions are not fitting for a Christian, not that a Christian will never do them. And when we see the sin of our hearts being revealed through our words, we should respond like James and say, “these things ought not be so.”

Since you are changed, prayer and not cursing should come from your mouth just as fresh water is expected to come from a fresh spring, olives from an olive tree, and grapes from a grapevine.

But note this as well: if you are a salt pond, you will not produce fresh water. That is to say, if you are not in Christ, then you will never grow in gaining control of your tongue because your heart will remain unchanged. In order for you to speak new words, you have to have the word of God implanted in you. Look back at James 1:21. If you are going to put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness it will only happen as you receive with meekness the implanted word. This is not merely hearing God’s word, but believing it, having the Spirit change your heart by writing the word of God on your heart. This happens by receiving Jesus just as he makes himself known. It happens by believing everything that Scripture tells us about Jesus: that he is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who for us and for our salvation assumed human nature, lived a life of perfect obedience under the law (the life that you and I should have lived) and died a substitutionary death on the cross by bearing the wrath of God on himself (the punishment you and I deserved for our sins), and then rose again from the dead showing that the sins of all those who trust in him are completely paid. After this, he ascended to the right hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead. When you believe this message and give your life to Christ, you are united to Christ, forgiven of your sins, and sealed by the Holy Spirit as belonging to God.

Only then is cursing what “ought not to be” because you are no longer what you used to be.

How Do We Do This?

If you are trusting in Christ, then you are able to grow in obedience to Christ. We all stumble in many ways, but by the grace of God and by constantly receiving his implanted word, we can grow in godliness and in properly using our tongues. What are some steps in this direction? I want to offer one suggestion that will absolutely revolutionize your life and the community of our church if we follow it. Here it is:

Pay attention to your words and respond to speaking sinful words in ways that accord with the implanted word. Here is what I mean:

  • When the Spirit convicts you that you are using your tongue in a sinful way (to make yourself look better by lying or by tearing someone else down, to “get even” with someone by offering them correction behind their back), be immediate in confession. When you catch yourself in gossip, stop and say, “I’m sorry. I’ve veered our conversation into gossip. Will you forgive me? Let’s pray right now for the good of this person instead of speaking of them behind their back.” Or when you catch yourself in a lie, be humble and say, “I’m sorry, I just lied to you. Here is the truth.”

  • When someone else veers the conversation toward gossip or slander, be immediate in lovingly confronting and stopping the conversation. Say, “brother, what good is this talk doing for this person?” Or, “sister, I think you need to talk to this person about what’s going on and not to me. Why don’t you set up a meeting with her right now and I’ll pray that you can be reconciled?”

And if you are thinking right now, “I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to be corrected by others,” just remember that the only reason you do not like confession and correction is because of your pride. Pride kills us when we are called to confess and when we are corrected. And pride keeps us from correcting because we actually like talking bad about other people because it helps us feel better about ourselves.

Remember, the restless evil of the tongue cannot be domesticated. You might set a fire that hurts others today, but that same fire can burn you tomorrow. Do not play with it. And imagine, if we carefully and lovingly practiced confession and correction, how Christ could be honored in our midst. Imagine how different your relationships would be. The world would know that we are Christians by the way we speak to each other. After all, how better can our love be displayed for one another than in how we speak? Let’s pray that this would be true of us for our good and the glory of God in Christ.


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