There was once a couple who had been married for 60 years. Throughout their lives they had shared everything. They loved each other deeply. They had not kept any secrets from one another, except for a small shoebox that the wife kept in the top shelf of her closet. When they got married, she put the box there and asked her husband never to look inside of it and never to ask questions about its contents.
For 60 years, the man honored his wife’s request. In fact, he forgot about the box until a day when his wife grew gravely ill, and the doctors were sure she had no way of recovering. So the man, putting his wife’s affairs into order, remembered that box in the top of her closet. He got it down and brought it to her at the hospital. He asked her if perhaps now they might be able to open it. She agreed. They opened the box, and inside were two crocheted dolls and a roll of money that totaled $95,000. The man was astonished.
The woman told her husband that the day before they were married, her grandmother told her that if she and her husband were ever to get into an argument with one another, they should work hard to reconcile. However, if they were unable to reconcile, she should simply keep her mouth shut and crochet a doll. The man was touched by this, because there were only two crocheted dolls in the box. He was amazed that over 60 years of marriage, they apparently had only two conversations they were unable to reconcile. Tears came to his eyes, and he grew even more deeply in love with this woman. Then he asked about the roll of money. “What’s with this?” he asked. His wife said, “Well, every time I crocheted a doll, I sold it to a local craft fair for five dollars.”
That calculates to 1.15 crocheted dolls every day of their sixty-year marriage! Our tongues are vicious things, aren’t they? I remember the first time that I cared about the viciousness of my own tongue. I was a high school student and my parents were going through an ugly divorce. During my Bible reading, I came across Proverbs 11:9 which says, “With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor”. I also remember reading the in Luke 10 where Jesus teaches the religious people who their neighbors are. That was the first time that I realized how often I destroy people with my mouth. For the past twenty-five years, taming my tongue has been an on-going battle. Our tongues have the ability to reveal Romans 3:23 very quickly. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
James warns us of the many shortcomings of our tongues. In fact, it seems that James follows suite with the rest of the Bible. Throughout the New Testament alone, the tongue is described as wicked, deceitful, perverse, filthy, corrupt, flattering, slanderous, gossiping, blasphemous, foolish, boasting, complaining, cursing, contentious, sensual, vile and the list goes on.
When we revisit James 1:14-15, we begin to understand the tongue only produces what is it told to produce by the heart. God knows when he has control of our hearts, he will also gain control of our tongue. Our holiness journey is a transformed heart that will lead to transformed behavior. James gives several reasons why we should control the power of the tongue. Let’s read James 3:1-6.
Scripture Text: James 3:1-6 (ESV)
1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For 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. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4Look 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. 5So 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! 6And 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.
Our tongue reveals our holiness – verses 2-4
This word, “perfect” keeps appearing throughout James. As we have learned, it could be translated as perfected, complete, finished, or mature. If we can learn to control the viciousness of our tongues through the Holy Spirit’s power, the perfecting process will be seen by others. Verse three tells us that if we are able to win the battle of our tongue, we are able win the battle of our bodies. Verses 4-5 give a great example of a rudder controlling a ship. Just as the rudder gives direction for the ships course, our tongue set the direction of our spiritual progress. Our tongue reveals our holiness.
We are on a lifelong journey of transformation. If your tongue seems to control you more than you control you tongue, it’s okay because you’re not alone. None of us control our tongues 100% of the time. Even in all of our failures, there is hope ~ Philippians 1:6 says, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” When God looks at you and me, he can see the “perfected” product of our lives. He has set forth a good work in us and he will ensure the mission is completed in our lives. The next five verses show us how powerful and vicious our tongues can be.
Our tongue makes us look better than everybody else – verse 5
5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. To boast literally means “to talk excessively about one’s achievements, possessions or abilities”. There are two primary we engage in this practice. Bragging is one. We can’t stop talking about ourselves. If you could have the same conversation alone, you’re bragging. Boasting happens on social media all the time. Trash-talking is the other. Trash-talking is really belittling another person to make your skills or talents look better. It’s boasting. We have compromised our values enough to justify this action as part of competition. It’s boasting and it’s dangerous.
Our tongue is the local landfill – verse 6
6And 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. Verse 6 tells us four things about our tongues. First, it is a world of unrighteousness. Our tongue carries a system of sin. It is the source of ungodly behavior. In contrast, the source of godly behavior is the Holy Spirit. Christians have both sources in our lives. There is no other body part that is as destructive as our tongue. Second, it stains the entire body. The tongue leaves a stain like a crayon that went through the dryer. You don’t know there has been damage until it’s too late. Our tongue often leaves a mess that we have to clean up later. I found it to be difficult, at times, to clean up the mess my tongue leaves behind. You could say the same. Third, it sets our course of life on fire. We spend years building a good reputation. It takes seconds for that reputation to spiral downward. Gossip, slander, false accusations, lying, vulgar speech and character assassination all can change the course of our lives. Finally, it is set on fire by hell. This last one has a use of Greek that is pregnant with deep significance. Every Jewish Christian would have stopped and asked if he really just said that. James is the pastor of the Jerusalem church and he just nailed his congregation. Our tongue is set on fire by hell. This statement refer to the continual burning of the valley of Himmon. “The valley was a deep gorge southwest of Jerusalem, where trash, garbage, and the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals were dumped and continually burned. The location had originally been used by Canaanite and some Jewish worshipers to sacrifice their children as burnt offerings to the pagan god Molech. When that practice was permanently halted by King Josiah (2 Kings 23:10), the place was considered to be unclean and wholly unfit for any decent usage. It therefore came to be used as a garbage dump, where all the filth of the city of Jerusalem was taken to be burned.”
James just called our tongue the local landfill that is unclean and unfit for any decent usage. Next week, we’ll look at the conflict associated with that because we worship God with the same tongue that James called a landfill.
Questions for the week
- What would your classmates, co-workers, or family members say about your holiness based on your tongue?
- What are the ways you boast about yourself? How do you subtly belittle other people?
- Is your tongue the local landfill? What are the characteristics that support your answer?
 MacArthur New Testament Commentary, page 157.