The average person speaks upwards of 10,000+ words per day. Taken in one day, a person’s words write a few chapters of a book or a few lengthy blogs. In five days, a novel has been written. In a month, a series of books—take Harry Potter as an example—have been written. In the course of a year, our words could fill a library of books. The point is simple, people talk a lot.
Over the past few weeks, I have been walking our students through the book of James. To say that my heart has been impacted would be an understatement. Last night we tackled James 3:1–12, where James speaks of taming the tongue. Preparing this message was sobering. As James interrupted my life in a way and place that I needed it, maybe you need the same.
Here, James comes back around to an admonition given earlier, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19, CSB). We have two ears and one mouth. Our ears are open while our mouths have a cage. Our mouths can get us in trouble. People will remember what we say, even if we have forgotten it.
Words are powerful.
Being honest, I borrowed this outline from Deric Thomas, so it is not original to me.
With your flux capacitor installed and ready to go back in time, we can see words playing a role in the development of the universe in which we exist. The business of God’s words is creation—building up. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, CSB). God’s work was not destruction, but construction. To create and build up, God used words, “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good…” (Genesis 1:3–4, CSB). Everything that flows from the mouth of God is good. God is for the good, joy, and happiness of his people.
Words are powerful.
Not long after God speaks and converses with his good creation of humankind, a new voice comes on the scene and begins to speak. “Did God really say…” (Genesis 3:1, CSB) comes the voice of the serpent, Satan himself.
Satan’s words carry an objective opposite of God—to destruct and break down. “A thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10, CSB). Satan’s words are words of destruction.
Through words, God created.
Through words, Satan destroyed.
Words are powerful.
The tongue—our words—is powerful.
James uses two illustrations to show the power of the tongue.
First, “Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies” (James 3:3, CSB). Horses can be controlled not by a seasoned, veteran, adult, but also by a small child. There are two and three-year-old children that ride show horses and in rodeos. A little, thirty-pound child can control a 1,500-pound animal.
Second, “And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs” (James 3:4, CSB). We could control a fifty-pound canoe with our small oar. Or the largest ship in the world, the Prelude, at 1,601 feet (150 feet longer than the Empire State Building), weighing in at 600,000 tons, is controlled by a (comparatively) small rudder.
James’s point is simple, “Though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things” (James 3:5). The potential of your speech is great! As it has been said, with great power comes great responsibility.
The tongue—our words‚ is dangerous.
Much like a fire, words multiply (James 3:5–6). I remember one summer when I was little playing with sparklers with my neighbor. As kids always come up with great ideas, we had the bright idea to throw the sparklers across the yard. The summer was dry and the grass was dying. I’m sure you are beginning to see where this is going. As we threw the sparklers, expecting nothing to happen, some grass caught the flame emitting from the sparkler and the fire quickly spread. The first did not just stay in spot on my command. Thank modern technology for running water and a water hose, or this story could have ended very differently!
When it comes to words, there is no modern technology of running water and a water hose. When I held the sparkler in my hand, I held the power. The flame was contained. But the moment that I threw it, letting go of the flame, it was released of its containment. Landing on the ground, the flame was free to multiply and spread itself.
Gossip, unsaid, is contained. Gossip spoken, is a flame that will multiply, carrying sure destruction in its path. Though, even our thoughts should remain clean and gossip-free.
John MacArthur recounts the destruction of the great Chicago fire, “On October 8, 1871, at about 8:30 in the evening, a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, presumably kicked over by her cow, ignited the great Chicago fire. Before it could be contained, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, 300 people died, and 125,000 others were left homeless.”
Words are powerful.
We can tame a mouse and an elephant. We can tame a tiger and a lion, but “No one can tame the tongue” (James 3:8, CSB). Coming face to face with the tongue is far more dangerous than coming face-to-face with a family of lions, by yourself, in the middle of the night. It is nothing to toy around with!
Ever since the day that Satan spoke, the words of people are either reminiscent of God speaks or Satan speaks. It is an either/or, not a both/and. God’s good and constructive words can be seen in Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Satan’s bad and destructive words can be seen in Hitler’s Nazi regime and the brutal history of the Holocaust.
“With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth” (James 3:9–10, CSB). James sees people going to worship on Sunday, proclaiming words of praise to God, only to gossip about church members on the walk home. Of this James says, “My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way” (James 3:11, CSB).
Our words function as a revealer to who we truly are, “For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good person produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil person produces evil things from his storeroom of evil. I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:34–36, CSB).
The Church Speaks
God has given us a better word. Even teenagers can see this. One of our former students at a previous church posted this on Facebook, “I never post on Facebook EVER, but how can you claim to be a follower of Christ if you’re posting hate on Facebook- and this is to ADULTS. Cyberbullying isn’t just in high school, it’s on your adult Facebook page. If your constant criticism leads to someone deleting social media—you are cyberbullying. Being vague and not using names does not make your post any less offensive and you’re still a cyberbully. Grow up and keep your problems off social media (it helps nothing.) I am 17 years old and know better than to publicly bash and humiliate someone on social media. From what I’ve learned all my life is to be of Christ is to be of love, forgiveness, and compassion. Posting hate on Facebook, knowing someone will see it, is the complete opposite of the Gospel.”
If our speech is not centered on God, then we will tear apart friendships, families, and even churches. Our goal is to speak not for tearing down, but for building up, “No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29, CSB).
The Book We Write
Words have the power of life and death, to wound and to heal, to build up and break down, to construct and destruct, to lead to Christ or away from Christ.
“There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise beings healing” (Proverbs 12:18, CSB).
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21, CSB).
As Matt Chandler has noted, “Words reveal the progress of our faith.”
You will speak 10,000+ words a day in the coming days. Your words are writing a book. What story will that book tell? Is it a story of destruction or construction? Is it a story of Satan or God?