As we get started, I have an important announcement, but I want you to promise me you will remain completely calm as I make it. Agreed? Here’s the announcement: Someone came to church this morning armed and dangerous. Now, before you get alarmed and start looking around, you need to know that the person is, in fact, you. Actually, it’s each one of us. And the weapon we carry has more capacity for destruction than a knife or a gun or even an explosive; it requires no license to carry or to use, requires no batteries, no wifi…

The weapon I’m referring to is our tongue – our words, and the Bible has a lot to say about how we use them. Our passage today calls believers to use words wisely. We must control our tongues. The Bible teaches us that we must use our words wisely.

Never has this topic been more important because never in human history have our words been as easily and widely distributed as they are today. Rewind the clock even a few decades and you would have needed a publisher or a lot of money or a lot of fame in order to reach the thousands or even millions you can today without spending a thing.

At the same time, never have we been inundated by so many cheap, hollowed out words, that have lost their meaning and substance. To be a faithful Christian that brings glory to God we should all be asking ourselves, How can we use our words wisely? Especially now.

Thankfully this is an issue that God’s Word – the Bible – dedicates significant portions to addressing. Any one of us would be blessed by reading through the Proverbs and copying out every verse about our speech. Verses like “a soft answer turns away wrath” or “When words are many, transgression is not lacking”; however, one of the greatest and most memorable passages of Scripture that speaks about the tongue is James chapter 3.

The letter of James is a New Testament letter likely written less than 20 years after Jesus walked the earth by his half-brother James the Just. It was written to provide very practical instruction to Christians facing trials regarding how to live out their faith. Chapter 3 comes on the heels of a discussion about faith and works and how a true and living faith results in good works. And as a side note, this relates to a very common misconception that people can get saved by doing good things. Almost every week I have this discussion. That is simply not true. “Not by works done by us in righteousness, but according to his mercy” He, that is Jesus, saved us. If you die tonight and stand before our almighty, perfect, and holy God and he asks why you should be allowed into paradise, you must never answer (as one pastor put it), “because I… because I’m a good person. Because I got baptized. Because I stood against tyranny.” The only answer can ever be “because of Jesus”. Because of him. He died for me. He raised me. He saved me. That’s the mindset of someone saved by grace. All the credit goes to Jesus Christ and all their faith and hope is in what he did. People like that “naturally” begin to desire to do good works. I say “naturally” because it is the most natural thing for the Spirit to motivate and bring about good works.

And so, as chapter 3 starts, James is explaining something about how we are to speak wisely. What comes out of our mouth matters.

And the first thing we see in James is that to speak wisely, you must commit:

Don’t speak carelessly!

James 3:1-2Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

James is very concerned that believers would not speak carelessly – especially when it comes to teaching.

His application point is simple “Not many of you should become teachers” and his reasoning is straightforward.

  1. Teachers are judged with greater strictness
  2. It’s also really easy to mess up in the role of teacher.

One of these reasons is pretty clear from experience – we all mess up in what we say – and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but the other one is very much something you need to hear from the Word of God and believe by faith.

God says, with absolute clarity, that those who teach will be judged more strictly. If a teacher gets it wrong, it matters a whole lot more than if a student gets it wrong. Ultimately, it’s God who does the judging and not a human court and we haven’t received our grade yet or had the opportunity to see our pastor – or that YouTube preacher – get their grade yet. So the tendency can be to shrug off the significance of this.

When James was writing this, presumably there was a lineup of people who wanted to be teachers. They didn’t have recorded messages, literacy rates were likely low, access to Scriptures limited, so oral communication and teaching was essential to transmit doctrine and the teaching of the church. Teaching, therefore, was a prominent role that could attract the attention of glory-seekers, not unlike what see at times today. James reminds them, that teaching may look rewarding from the outside looking in, but it carries a great weight of responsibility.

At one time Jesus said Matthew 18:6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Stop and read that again. Those are the words of Jesus: It would be better to die a miserable drowning death than to cause someone to sin. That’s the truth. If we could see the judgement coming for those who are false, careless teachers – the blind leading the blind – I’m certain it would send shivers down our spine and make us think twice before carelessly signing up for the next preaching slot.

Teachers communicate God’s truth from one generation to the next. They shape worldviews. They are used by God to shape the consciences of the listener. They have tremendous impact. If you thought the role of teacher wasn’t a big deal and was just a good way to get some airtime, think again.

Now in some ways this kind of a message feels like I’m shooting myself in the foot – we need more teachers – especially when it comes to training our children and especially men. Why would I quote James when he says, “not many should become teachers?”

Well, first, because the Bible says it, so we preach it, but second, because I’d rather have 5 teachers who take their role seriously than have 15 teachers who are just filling time. Now, praise God we currently have a great team of teachers across our various ministries and our church uses a very solid curriculum for our kids that helps guide our teachers, but I still want them to think carefully through what they say because it shapes the next generation and because of the second reason James gives… because we all stumble in many ways – especially in what we say. In fact, if you don’t stumble in what you say, it shows real maturity. “Perfect” here doesn’t necessarily mean without any sin ever, but carries the sense of “meeting the highest standard” (BDAG) or “mature” and it shows that you are the kind of person who is going to be able to demonstrate self-control in other areas as well.

This is a good and practical takeaway: if you want to gauge your self-control (or some one else), check their speech. If they are struggling in self-control, that’s where it’s going to show up. It’s like the “check-engine” light of self-control.

Our speech is like the “check-engine” light of self-control.

If you are like me, you’ve probably put your foot in your mouth more than a few times.

A little over a year ago, I was speaking at an event and afterward got into a conversation with a Christian brother that I hadn’t caught up with for some time. I asked how he was doing, and he mentioned he was great, and that he was celebrating the birth of their newborn daughter. Excitedly I said, “Congratulations!” then a split second passed where I glanced down at his hands and noticed he didn’t have a wedding ring on (and I didn’t recall if he had gotten married since I had last seen him), and I reactively said “oh, wait” as if to take back my “congratulations” now that I wasn’t sure if he was married or not. He quickly realized my stumble and spared me the embarrassment by explaining that he had left his ring off that day for work and then continued to talk about their newborn. Talk about a stumble! It’s hard to filter what we are really thinking.

The stumbling James is talking about here though isn’t really just humorous mistakes, they are clearly sinful mess-ups.

So what are some of the “many ways” we mess up in our words? Here are seven – and these are all things James references in his letter. Just listen to them and think about yourself right now:

  1. We say false things about God (James 1:13)
  2. We virtue signal like hypocrites by saying “be fed” without doing anything (James 2:16
  3. We quarrel (James 4:2)
  4. We slander/speak evil of one another (James 4:11)
  5. We boast/brag (James 4:13)
  6. We grumble (James 5:9)
  7. We speak falsely/swear casually/flippantly (James 5:12)

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably been guilty of every single item on the list.

Matthew 12:36 reminds us that “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” So, it’s not like we just pretend this stuff only matters for the preachers and the teachers – though it will be stricter for them. It matters for all of us.

Here are a few quick points of application to help drive home the concept of avoiding careless speech.

1. Do your homework. In your teaching, do your homework and remember you are handling the Word of God.

2 Timothy 2:15-17a “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth, But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene….”

When I was in my late teens and starting to teach and preach, I had a very clear reckoning of responsibility where I came to realize I could become a false teacher out of laziness or sloppiness. That was a major driver of me taking up Bible school classes.

2. If you have the gift of teaching, teach!

If God gives you a gift, you can’t just hide it or keep it in the box because it’s scary to use it. To whom much is given, much will be required. Don’t neglect the gift, steward it, use it well, and depend on the Lord in your teaching.

Those who are called to teach are often reluctant and those who aren’t reluctant at all are the ones you should watch out for. Watch out for self-appointed, attention-seeking, Bible teachers. A key trait of these people is that they rarely teach the whole counsel of God’s Word because some parts will drive away their listeners and decrease their audience.

3. Keep it focused.

If God has given you a teaching platform, commit to not using it for personal gain, whether to vent, self-promote, sell your most recent book, highlight your knowledge, etc.

4. Apply this point offline & online.

Online vs. offline doesn’t matter. You are accountable for your words and should think about the influence they have for God’s glory. In our Harvest Essentials 1 class I often talk about our 3 w’s and explain that we want to “Watch the wake.” Take a look at your influence. Is it leading people to worship, walk, and work for Christ? Or leading them to spin their tires, argue, puff themselves up, etc.

A second major point James wants to make about using our words wisely is this.

Don’t underestimate the power of your words.

When I talk about watching the wake – seeing the waves your words can cause, you need to know that they have the potential to cause a tsunami.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” James 3:3- 8

What luck. The greatest weapon we have for good or evil also happens to be the one that has the least likelihood of being tamed. No wonder we have issues!

James has a couple of different points to make here to his listeners, but his primary point is that our words have great power to influence and destroy.

Just like a rudder can change the direction of a boat, our words can change the direction of our lives. This isn’t about “manifesting” or speaking out loud what we want to happen as though “talking to the universe” or studying laws of attraction is a legit thing that Christians should practice. It’s not. It is sinful new age philosophy devoid of God and has no place in a believer’s life. The Bible does however teach that our words affect relationships, and that you can destroy your life or the life of someone else pretty quickly with a couple poorly chosen words. It is astonishing how much power and destruction can be wielded by such a small muscle.

Wars have been started because of the tongue. Marriages have been destroyed because of the tongue. Churches have split, lives ended, job’s lost, hopes crushed – all because of someone’s tongue out of control.

No other part of your body can sin in such significant ways. In fact, this is likely why James goes on to say “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

The tongue, when uncontrolled, gives full vent to the fire-like destructive depravity of our hearts (Mk 7:20). It represents most clearly the greatest evil about us – the “world of unrighteousness” and the source of a wicked tongue is not muted. It is hell.

Think about that the next time impure words come out of your mouth. Those words and the heart that they reflect are hellish. Those are hell-words.

The quickest way to destroy your life is to open your mouth and say whatever your heart wants to say.

There is a saying most of us are familiar with that says, “Talk is cheap”. And when we say that we mean it’s easy to say something and it doesn’t cost you anything. Actions are harder to practice for sure. But we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that talk is powerless. A match is also cheap, but the fire it starts can devastate.

Don’t assume your words have no power even if you don’t think you mean them. Just ask any politician that has had to go back and apologize for something they said that all of a sudden went viral.

Each year millions of dollars are spent fighting forest fires that were started by someone’s careless campfire, and each year millions of dollars are spent on counselling and ministering to, and correcting people wounded by careless words.

Knowing this truth, here’s one simply way to apply it. Call it relationship damage mitigation RDM.

We all have down days. Sick days. Stressful days. And it’s on those days when we are especially prone to sinning with our mouth. I know when I’m having one of those days that, if I say something foolish, I can end up destroying days, months, maybe even years of work. So those are the days I minimize interactions and keep my mouth shut as much as possible to minimize damage. Better to say nothing at all sometimes.

Actually, Proverbs has quite a bit to say about when it’s not advisable to speak.

Proverbs 17:27

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,”

Proverbs 17:28

“Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

Proverbs 10:19

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Proverbs 26:4

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”

Proverbs 26:17

“Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.”

That one might apply specifically to jumping into the fray of comments on a post that isn’t yours, but I’ll leave that up to you to ponder ?.

Now I realize that some people here are like pyromaniacs with their words and actually quite enjoy a good fire once in a while. Getting dozens of notifications from a comment thread lighting up might give you a shot of dopamine and entertainment for the night, but we should really take care to understand what impact our words are having in the short term and the long term.

While we’re talking about fire for a moment. Did you know that houses today apparently burn 8 times faster today than they did 50 years ago and produce up to 200 times more smoke? Check it out. Because of all the oil-based products we use in things like furniture, you now have about 3 minutes to get out of house that would have given you closer to 30 minutes to get out of 50 years ago [1]. That’s insane!

When it comes to our words, it feels kind of similar. The flare-ups we see right now are evidence that we are living in a powder-keg like culture.

You would thinking having the chance to filter our words by typing them before hitting enter would mean social media is a lot cleaner, but no way.

Sidenote social media hacks:

  1. If you ever get into a disagreement on social media, just tell them you’d love to talk on the phone and to private message. 9 times out of 10 it shuts it down.
  2. Think about what they are defending. Most people are defensive for a reason. If you can figure that out, it helps.

But it’s not just short-term damage the tongue can do. It’s also long-term. Probably each one of us has a couple of moments in our lifetimes when someone said something that has scarred us. Something we have a hard time forgiving and definitely a hard time forgetting.

Taking that pain from our own lives can serve as a constant reminder that what you say, in a moment of weakness, might be remembered by someone else for a lifetime.

The Christian call is to overcome evil with good. Your dad may have called you stupid, but you don’t have to hit the replay button for your kids. Your friend may have slandered you publicly, but you don’t have to return the favour.

It is true that no one can fully tame the tongue, but we are still called to bridle it. To put the leash on it and control it as much as possible.

But I don’t simply want you to have a good control of your tongue so you can hide the condition of your heart and not deal with that. That leads us to our final point that James wants to communicate.

Don’t speak inconsistently

James 3:9-12With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, [that’s good!] and with it we curse people [that’s no good] who are made in the likeness of God. [That makes it even worse!] From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”

The point is clear. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” and that’s not the way it is supposed to be.

I want you to remember this for tomorrow when you are making your morning coffee. Can you imagine for a moment brewing your coffee and wondering, “is it going to be salt water coffee today?”

That’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. For a 1st century resident of the ancient near east water supply was critical and towns and villages would have been designed around their supply of water. To have a predictable water source was critical.

And having a predictable reputation regarding the character of your speech is also critically important. Are you the kind of person that talks the good talk on Sunday or around believers but than has no problem cussing up a storm or gossiping or slandering Monday morning? That shouldn’t be. Not only does it reflect a heart-level issue, which we’ll get to in a minute, but it destroys your reputation, your witness, and your ability to grow in ministry. It makes people question, “who is this person really?” It destroys trust and pushes people away from you making it incredibly hard to build meaningful relationships.

What makes this hard for many of us is the external influences that affect what comes out of our mouth. If you surround yourself with people and media that talk trashy – even if they talk truthfully in a trashy way. That’s going to have an influence on the way you speak. That’s why James reminds his listeners – having both blessing and cursing come out is not okay.

A Christian should aim to consistently speak like a Christian.

One of the most difficult times to do this is in significant trials. You know what I mean. Many of you are facing some of the most trying days you have ever faced. Emotions are running high, nerves are shot, and there are endless opportunities to lash out or say something you’ll regret.

You may not like it, but there is perhaps no better window to the state of our hearts than the words on our tongue – especially in trials. What’s in here comes out (point to chest) before we even know it.

There is perhaps no better window to the state of our hearts than the words on our tongue – especially in trials.

Just think about Job. God allowed Satan to take away his wealth and his children in one day. He received the brutal news, and Scripture records that he “arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and…. Worshipped! And he said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” And then the passage says, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”

After that Satan took Job’s health away. And Job’s wife even goaded him saying “do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But Job said to her “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God nd shall we not receive evil?” And Scripture says that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips.”

That is consistency. That is a pure heart. It reminds us that we are not defined by who we are on our best days.

When things are going well, when you’ve got the job, when you’ve got the wife and kids, when you’ve got your health, that’s not the definition of who we are. But get this.

Nor are we defined by who we are on our worst days. At least, in Christ, we aren’t. He has forgiven us so that our worst days, if we don’t measure up to Job, we can find our identity in the cross of Christ and the sacrifice that Jesus made.

But, and this is important, we are refined by the knowledge of who we are on our worst days. Your worst days reveal the part of your heart that was hidden and is now exposed. Often, it’s ugly. But it’s good to get it out into the light and deal with it.

So often I am not even conscious of how desperately wicked my heart is until, in the midst of difficulty, I spout things that reveal a problem. That’s why James later goes on to tell his listeners to “purify” their “hearts” (James 4:8).

The only way we do this is by coming back to the start. Acknowledging our sinfulness to God and our inability to save ourselves, finding forgiveness in Christ, and allowing him to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. Then we go apologize to those we’ve hurt and get back on track.

We have to take this call seriously. James 1:26 reminds us, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Your control of the tongue is critical. It’s by grace we can even start to see a change, but we must start, and we must start today remembering not to speak carelessly, not to underestimate the power of our words, and not to speak inconsistently.

Let’s pray.

Keep your eyes on Christ! (Hebrews 12:1-2)