President Calvin Coolidge was nicknamed “Silent Cal” because he was a man of few words. When he was elected President of the State Senate in 1914 he delivered the shortest inaugural on record. It was ten sentences long! When he was re-elected without opposition he broke that record. His inaugural was four sentences,
Conserve the firm foundations of our institutions. Do your work with the spirit of a soldier in the public service. Be loyal to the Commonwealth, and to yourselves. And be brief-above all things, be brief.”
When he was campaigning for President in 1924 he noted: ‘I don’t recall any candidate for President that ever injured himself very much by not talking.’ He also said, “The things I never say, never get me into trouble.” Coolidge didn’t speak much, but when he did speak, he was worth hearing. Coolidge understood the power of words. When used carefully they have great influence, when used recklessly they can cause great harm.
As we move to the third chapter of the letter of James the apostle addresses this issue of the words we say. James is not necessarily telling us that we should be as quiet as Silent Cal but he does want us to learn what Coolidge knew: words matter.
A Warning to Teachers
James begins by talking to those who are placed in positions of authority as teachers.
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
The position of teacher was a prestigious position. James warns those who teach that this greater authority and responsibility also brings with it a greater accountability. The reason for this greater accountability lies in the influence the teacher has over his students. Students tend to believe what the teachers teach.
Jesus talked about the judgment that would fall on false or even lazy teachers. They would be judged much more harshly because their words, presented as truth (as from God) were really leading people away from the Lord. They would be judged more harshly because they squandered opportunities and led others astray.
This truth carries with it some practical applications. Those who teach
- Teachers should be chosen carefully. We must beware of merely filling positions with “warm bodies”. Teachers should also be trained appropriately.
- Teachers must prepare diligently. Teachers need to do their homework. They need to make sure that they are teaching God’s truth and not their opinions or prejudices or the opinions or prejudices of others. They need to check the facts and the conclusions drawn from those facts. We have an obligation to examine other viewpoints. Teachers are to make sure that what they teach is accurate.
- Teachers must live consistently. They must practice what they teach. Students learn as much or more from what a teacher does as they do from what they teach. A teacher’s behavior shows whether or not he/she believes what he/she is teaching. There is (and should be) a double standard. Teachers are held to a higher standard. One of the horrors of the fall of prominent teachers in the church is that their failures tend to negate everything they have taught!
- Teachers must keep learning and growing. Teachers in the school system are urged to do continuing education, so that their well of information and their enthusiasm for the truth is fresh. In the same way those who teach for the Lord must be growing in their relationship with the Lord so their teaching is vital and alive rather than stale.
These things are true whether you teach in a public school, preach, teach Sunday School, lead in AWANA, Children’s Church, a youth group, or a Bible Study. We must approach these jobs with ‘fear and trembling’ aware that God holds us accountable for the truth we pass on and the impact we have on those we teach.
A Word of Caution to All
James however, talks not only to teachers; he speaks to all of us. The Bible has much to say about our words. Jesus told us to let our “yes” be “yes” and our “No” be “No”. He called us to be people of integrity when it comes to the way we speak. The book of Proverbs is filled with cautions about our words. Let me give you a sampling of this wisdom,
- Proverbs 10:10-11 He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin. The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.
- Proverbs 15:1,2,4,7 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools.
- Proverbs 20:18-19 Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.
- Proverbs 25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
James adds to this wisdom.
We All Stumble. In verse 2 James makes a bold statement
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.
There are two implications to these words. First, we should approach this subject humbly. We ALL stumble. We all slip up with our words. We speak in anger, we distort facts for our own advantage, we “shade the truth” (translate “Lie”) to avoid responsibility, we sometimes paint others in a bad light in order to make ourselves look better. We all stumble so there is no room for arrogance as we work on what we say.
Second, we should approach this area of our lives diligently. He says if we can gain control over our tongue, we will gain control in the other areas of our lives. Jesus said,
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Jesus says our conversation reveals our character. What we say reflects who we truly are. To gain control of our conversation we must also gain control over our character. The two go together. Our conversation and our hearts are inseparable. Generally,
- Abusive speech reveals a violent character
- Sarcastic speech reveals a cynical spirit (or a superior attitude)
- Flirting and suggestive comments reveal a struggle with self-image or a lustful heart
- Innuendo, gossip, and slander show a disregard for others or a lack of love
- Lies reveal a lack of trustworthiness or a deceptive spirit
- Boasting reveals an arrogant heart
Controlling our tongue needs to be a priority in our lives. Our spiritual growth and our control of the tongue are related.
We Must Not Underestimate the Power of the Tongue. James uses three word pictures to describe the tongue. First, he says the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse. This small bit can (when used correctly) control a huge horse.
Second, the tongue is like a rudder of a ship. The rudder is a very small part of the ship but it is the means by which the ship is steered. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the ship wants to do . . . if the rudder steers it to the right, it will go to the right.
Third, the tongue is like a spark in a dry forest. That one spark can result in thousands of acres being burned. Think about that person who gives no thought to a cigarette thrown out of a car window into a dry forest. They don’t think it is any big deal . . . but it is. Think about the person who leaves the campfire that is “mostly” extinguished. They believe the final embers are inconsequential. In each case those little sparks can create great damage.
The point is clear, the tongue may be a small part of the body but it is very significant. The tongue can destroy. In the course of history we have seen the destructive power of the words of Adolph Hitler, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Saddam Hussein. Their words led to genocide and oppression. The words of false teachers have led too many away from the faith. Our words
- Can destroy a reputation or career (unfair statements about a business, doctor, etc)
- Can create an unfair prejudice
- Can undermine sound doctrine
- Can push someone away from the gospel
- Can erode a marriage
- Wound a spirit
- Divide churches
On the other hand . . . think about the words of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and scores of great writers. Think about the loving words of a spouse, the encouragement of a teacher or coach, the sympathetic words of a friend, the caring reflections of a counselor, or even the upbeat words of a total stranger. Chuck Swindoll writes,
Without the tongue no mother could sing her baby to sleep tonight. No ambassador could adequately represent our nation. No teacher could stretch the minds of students. No officer could lead his fighting men in battle. No attorney could defend the truth in court. No pastor could comfort troubled souls. No complicated, controversial issue could ever be discussed and solved. Our entire world would be reduced to unintelligible grunts and shrugs.
A carpenter must learn to respect his power tools and use them appropriately. A mechanic or race car driver must respect the power of the car’s engine. The fireman must respect the destructive power of fire. Medical professionals must respect the danger of the drugs they prescribe. In the same way we need to respect the power of words and use them cautiously.
The Goal: Consistency
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
What is the problem according to James? It is inconsistency. We sing praises to God on Sunday but deny Him in our business practices on Monday. We profess our love on Sunday and then exalt the Devil during the week. We sing of God’s love and then we victimize each other. We talk about God’s sufficiency for every need and then turn around and talk like someone who is defeated. This is inconsistent. The child of God should sound like a child of God. When we are inconsistent we diminish our testimony. Paul writes,
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
What is “unwholesome talk”. Author Jerry Bridges gives us some good places to start,
- Gossip….is the spreading of unfavorable information about someone else, even if that information is true. Gossip tears down others. I love this analogy: “The difference between a gossip and a concerned friend is like the difference between a butcher and a surgeon. Both cut the flesh, but for different reasons.”
- Slander….is the making of a false statement or a misrepresentation about another person that defames or damages that person’s reputation. It is saying behind a person’s back what we would never say to their face. We do this when we ascribe wrong motives to people, even though we can’t see their hearts. We do this when we call another “not committed” simply because they do not have the same priorities that we do. We slander when we misrepresent another’s position on an issue before we have taken the time to understand that position.
- Critical speech…is negative comments that may be true but don’t need to be said.
- Innuendo…a subtle (or not so subtle) implication of something negative
- Flattery…saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind their back. It is a blatant attempt to manipulate another person.
- The way we talk to one another may be unwholesome…harsh words, sarcasm, insults, ridicule. All of these tend to put down or humiliate, and hurt another person.
Like a cancerous tumor in our body must be removed before it robs us of life; unwholesome talk must be cut out of our lives before it robs us of spiritual growth and victorious living.
Since we all stumble in many ways . . . especially in the way we speak, we need a strategy; a battle plan. What can we do? Let me give you some simple suggestions to help us gain control over our tongue.
First, speak slowly. We need to take a lesson from Calvin Coolidge. I know from personal experience that I get into the most trouble when I speak before I think. In those times when I am trying to be “witty” I often end up looking foolish. When I try to answer questions before I have understood the question, I often end up frustrating the other person. When I quickly answer before thinking, I am often just talking in the hope I may stumble onto something profound. When I monopolize a conversation I alienate others. We must learn to think before we speak. The best way to do that is to be more deliberate in our speaking.
Second, memorize Scripture. One of the best ways to improve our conversation is to fill our hearts and minds with something better. There is nothing better than God’s Word. We all know that if you work in a factory or some place with many non-Christians, the influence of those others will creep into our conversation. If you spend any time in the south you will gradually pick up a little drawl. By the same token if we will continually expose ourselves to God’s Word (and memorizing is the best way to do that) His Word will likewise begin to influence our thinking and talking. God’s Word will keep us on task. It will point our heart in the right direction. It will help us grow to love others more fully. These things will be translated into our speech.
Third, develop a deep relationship with the Father. As we get in touch with the love of God He will change us. As we understand His love we will be more likely to share that love with others. When we feel secure in His embrace we will no longer feel the need to advance our cause at the expense of the truth or another individual.
Fourth, never say something about someone that you would not say to their face. Another good rule of thumb is: never say anything negative about someone unless they are there to respond to your charge.
Fifth be intentional about speaking positively. In other words, make it a point to look for ways to build up and encourage other people. Intentionally work to spotlight the positive in another. We need to view life as those who are looking for reasons to praise God rather than as people looking for reasons to complain. Surround yourself with as many positive people as you can listen to. Be on the lookout for those who turn your focus in a negative direction and limit your time with those people.
James reminds us that though we can tame all kinds of animals, it is much more difficult to train the tongue. James does not say this to defeat us . . . he says it to remind us that controlling our words will take constant attention and fervent prayer. We will need God’s help and lots of it.
The tongue has great power. Like “Silent Cal” we need to work at harnessing that power. The challenge is to use this power for good rather than evil; to build up rather than to destroy; to honor God rather than dishonor Him. It’s a great challenge and it’s a challenge worth pursuing with all of our energy.