We’re going through James at Gages Lake Bible Church in a series we’re calling Authentic Faith. Currently we’re in the middle of chapter three, which gives perhaps the most specific, biting description of the tongue in all of Scripture and perhaps all of literature. It begins with a warning, in James 3:1-2 about the importance for spiritual leaders to master their speech, that this is a key sign of spiritual maturity.
But how? Well in the next ten verses, James offers us a three revealing insights about our speech. It’s interesting. We often look at these verses in James singularly, cherry-picking them and applying them. In some ways, we read James and then go home and beat ourselves up and say, “Yeah, I need to do clean up my speech.” But then we go and do the same things and wonder why we don’t change. But if you study James 3 in context you find a much richer prescription for real life change when it comes to the tongue.
I’d like to just discuss the three truths James reveals about the tongue and how the gospel provides the only cure.
1) You’re Tongue is Powerful. James disabuses us of the notion that words don’t matter. They do matter. The tongue is a “small member that boasts of great things” (James 3:5). It is compared to the bit in a horse’s mouth (James 3:3), the rudder of a ship (James 3:4), and the spark that lights a fire (James 3:5).
The tongue has great power. Words matter. We instinctively know this. Look at the sweep of history. Much of it has been shaped by words, for good or ill. Consider World War II. While the words of Hitler motivated the slaughter of millions of innocent Jews, the words of Winston Churchill inspired a nation to resist their enemies, against all odds. And on a personal level we see the power of words. We can cut deep wounds in those we love or we can lift them up with encouragement.
This is where we must see that God purposely designed the tongue to have power. James is not merely telling us we shouldn’t speak. He’s saying that it is a rare and mature person who skillfully knows how to bridle the tongue and harness it for good. A rudder doesn’t work well when it is not moving at all. It was designed to steer and to guide the ship somewhere. A spark can light a fire for good: in a combustible engine, for a campfire, in a stove to warm or cook. A bit controls the horse, not letting it go where it wants to, but moving it where the rider wishes.
Spiritual maturity is not shutting up. It’s the wisdom and skill to know when to speak, when not to speak, and what to say.