What is the most powerful muscle in your body?
In the New Testament book of James, which talks a lot about practical living out of your faith, we find in chapter 3 an answer to that question. James, who is a teacher in the church, writes to those who are eager to become leaders in the church. In it he talks a lot about the practical living out of your faith. James tells us that the most powerful muscle in our body is the tongue. It is as powerful as a rudder that controls a great ship, a bit that controls a horse, or a spark that can sets a forest ablaze. The author of the book of Proverbs points out that death and life are in the power of the tongue (18:20). It is a powerful, powerful muscle.
James tells us that how we use our tongue matters to God, especially as he addresses those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ. Speech can be a mixed blessing, for with it we can bless the Father, and with it we can curse those who are made in the likeness of Him. We can use it to praise God and tell others how wonderful He is. We can talk to God, and we can build someone up with positive encouragement. We can comfort someone by saying, “I love you, and I am here for you.” Or we can help someone by sharing the truth of Jesus Christ with them. The book of Proverbs also says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” and “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb. Sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
While it is true that we can do some wonderful things with our tongue, James goes to great lengths to point out to us how destructive that tongue can be as well. He describes it as a lit match in a dry forest, which can quickly turn into an out-of-control deadly fire.
We’ve all seen the deadly force of the tongue when berating others or using put-downs. Saying things like, “You are so stupid,” “You’ll never amount to anything,” or, “You can’t ever do anything right, can you?” are hurtful to others. The tongue can ruin a reputation by using character assassinations and gossiping.
A long time ago I heard the story about a man who shared an untruth about his neighbor. The word spread around his village. However, when the truth finally came out, the man was remorseful for what he had done. Not knowing what to do, he went to the village priest who gave him some strange instructions. The priest told him to place a feather on the doorstep of each person who heard the untrue story. Then he was to go back a day later, pick up the feathers, and take them to the priest.
The man did as the priest said, but when he went back the next day to pick up the feathers, nearly all them had blown away. So he went to the priest and said, “I did what you asked, but when I went back to pick up the feathers, they were all gone!”
The priest replied, “So it is with your careless words, my son. Once they are spoken, they cannot be taken back. You may ask forgiveness for what you said, but you can’t always take your words back, for the damage has already been done.”
Our tongues have a way of treating others disrespectfully as well. Some people have picked up the bad habit of profanity, a degrading form of communication. It is as if we don’t think the person we are talking with is worth the effort of being careful with our words. Profanity can be a real put down.
Finally, the tongue can also be used to lead someone astray with inaccuracies. James is telling us that half-truths in the church can ruin lives.
So we see the destructive nature of the tongue in these examples. James goes on to say that the tongue can be tough to tame. In fact, no man can tame the tongue. “For out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” Then he stops and says, “THIS SHOULD NOT BE!” And he points out the contradiction in one’s life if this is going on. “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” Lies and inaccuracies, profanity, gossip and berating words are an absolute contradiction with our nature in in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Earlier in his letter, James writes, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (1:26). As followers of Jesus Christ, our tongue needs a bridle. If James were writing today, he’d probably be talking also about texting and emailing. How easy it is, with this communication tool that is available to us today, to be mean with our words.
I just read a story about a girl, who is now a senior in high school. As an eighth grader, she was the subject of an online rumor that she had been promiscuous. Others wanted to believe it, and she had no way to refute it. She hurt so, she wanted to kill herself. It is a tough thing to tame this tongue of ours, which can be used to praise God and build someone up, but also to do some rather deadly things in another person’s life.
So the question becomes, how can we control our communication in order to be a blessing instead a curse? Another verse in James is helpful for us as we consider this question. It is James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Someone once said, “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a good reason.” It is important that we learn to be good listeners. Ask good questions, be willing to sit silently and listen to what the other person is saying. Listening can be difficult for us to do, especially when we are threatened by what the other individual might be saying, or when they have a view that is different from our own. Sometimes our defenses and our emotions get moving so fast that our ears cease to function. Suddenly those words are out of our mouths before we can even catch them, and the harm has been done.
Once we have listened, it is important to be slow to anger. Anger can be a precarious passion that is in all of us. Sometimes our anger can be caused by ego and pride when we feel threatened or put down.
Dr. Bill Hulme, a Lutheran pastor and a pastoral care professor, wrote years ago that anger is a secondary passion. It could be a reaction to fear, guilt, or hurt. Sometimes, when we feel our anger setting in, we need to just call a time-out and retire to a safe place. Then we can let out our feelings on a piece of furniture or a pillow. Even better yet, we can take it to God in prayer. Its important that we are slow to anger. Notice he doesn’t say never get angry. He says be slow to anger.
Finally, James tells us to be slow to speak. When I am in conversation with people, I sometimes have to ask myself some questions. Questions like: Is what I’m saying really true? Is what I’m preaching true to Scripture? Is it is necessary or beneficial information for the other person to hear? Is it going to help them? Do I have permission to share it, or am I breaking a confidence? And finally, Is my motivation pure in sharing this infor-mation? I think these are great questions to ask and keep us “slow to speak” (react).
I would recommend examining your own heart. Jesus one time said, “. . . what comes out of (man’s) mouth, that is what makes him Ôunclean'” (Matthew 15:11). The mouth speaks of what’s in the heart, so we need to ask ourselves, How is my heart these days? It is important for us to watch over our hearts and guard it with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.
What are you putting in your heart these days? What are you putting into your mind? What kind of language, what kind of thoughts are being put into your heart?
Finally, the most important tool to control our tongue is prayer. Pray that the Lord will stand guard over your mouth and keep watch over the door of your lips. Pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to be at work in you. For we who have been following Jesus Christ, who have entrusted our lives to His care, have also been breathed into by the Holy Spirit. God desires to give us the fruit of the Spirit Ð love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control Ð for it can help turning us into people whose speech is loving, kind, and a blessing to others.
In Christ, you have been blessed to be a blessing, both with your actions and with your words. May the Lord take care of you and help you as you work to control your tongue.