The Battlefield of the Tongue, James 3:1-12


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“The Battlefield of the Tongue”
James 3:1-12
May 17, 2020 – Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez

James 3:1-12
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 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. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 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. 5 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! 6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

When I was 14 years old, our church youth group decided to put together a soccer team and play in a city-wide tournament. We had been playing pick-up games all the time and felt like we were pretty decent. Well, as it turned out, we were horrible. So bad, in fact, that we were last place in the entire tournament. We never practiced and we didn’t know how to be a better team than what we were—that is, until my dad got us a coach and made some strategic changes on our team. We were pushed hard in many different areas. That coach made us run like we had never run before. The first time I ever thought I would pass out was during his training exercises. He made us drill different techniques until we couldn’t walk without groaning, and to the point where muscles in our body ached that we didn’t even know we had. Any area he noticed that we needed to grow in, he would zero in on and train us in that area. We went from last place that season to winning the tournament the next year.

There is a tremendous difference between playing a friendly pickup game and training to win a tournament. One is relaxed and passive, the other is aggressively proactive.

Training to be better at anything, be it education, music, or sports, all of this requires a focused discipline.

In the same way, there is a big difference between being a nominal believer who is getting by by the skin of their teeth, and a serious follower of Jesus.

James writes in such a way to exhort us to be a serious disciple of Jesus.

He calls for an aggressive and proactive approach against sin. He pushes us to overcome sin.

As John Owen put it regarding the mortifying of sin: “Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

This is the heart of this passage. This is the message. It is a call to bear arms, to fight against the sins of the flesh. As our spiritual trainer, James will zero in and focus us on the fight to tame the tongue.

Basis for James’ argument

Scripture often calls us to fight off sin in our bodies. Rom. 6:12: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”

While many would bear arms to defend the doctrines of our faith, it is much more difficult work to put to death the sins of the flesh. It is far easier to grow comfortable in our faith, and downplay the laws of Scripture as matters of the Old Testament.

It is difficult for us to see James’ call to fight the flesh as as high a priority in Scripture as he does.

To better understand where he is coming from with all these heavy calls to obedience, we need to go to his source.

Now, all commentators agree that James’ letter draws heavily from the Beatitudes and Proverbs. If you examine the structure and themes of James, you will quickly see that they closely follow Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7.

It is no wonder James writes as he does. Jesus himself places a high priority on obedience to the law. Listen to Mt. 5:17-19:

Matt. 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus did not waste words. He could have spoken only on the topics of mercy and grace, but in these chapters, he proceeds to give us the law afresh.

If the gospel is only all about mercy and grace, then why does Jesus tell us to cut off a sinning hand or to pluck out a lustful eye?

Jesus says these things because obedience is part of the good news of the gospel. The gospel is not only that Jesus died and took away our sins, but that he gave us his righteousness and has put us on the path of righteousness.

We can think of it this way. If you were heading to the hospital and were speeding at 15 mph over the speed limit, and you saw the red and blue lights in your rearview mirror, you would know that you were in trouble for breaking the law. If you were let off with a warning by the police officer, you wouldn’t think that his mercy in that situation meant that he didn’t care about the law. No, the law remains important.

John Calvin explains, “we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed.

….when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to break.” P. 278.

Jesus’ grace and mercy does not abolish the law. His forgiveness of our sins doesn’t do away with the law, and neither does his having fulfilled it. There is a sacred and inviolable tie between the law and the Gospel. They are bound together.

All these things motivate us to obedience. They change our hearts and our desires and bring us into a love for the law.

That is why James is so focused on helping us become obedient to the word—because the law is important to Jesus. It is part of who we are to be as his children.

We too must delight in God’s law. We should love following it and grow in obedience to it. James’ letter helps us do that. He is like a coach who sees our weaknesses and wants to help us grow in maturity and strength.

And in the passage we are focusing on this evening, James is pointing out that we are guilty of relaxing Scripture’s laws by sinning with our tongue.

Responsibility of the Tongue

At first glance, with so many other things going on in our lives right now, it might seem as though taming the tongue is not the most pressing of issues. But the truth is, with in-person gatherings and social events cancelled, our words have taken on greater value.

As you can imagine, when one of our senses is down, we tend to rely more on the senses that are stronger. In a similar way, we have become a people focused on talking, sharing, and giving our opinions.

James opens this section giving a strong caution. He says,

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

This verse gives a strong warning. Here we are given a glimpse into the weight that words carry. Not only are we judged for speaking evil, but we are judged when we teach. We will be held responsible. For every word.

Here James is showing his readers that our words are so important that even as we aspire to teach, we must take great care, because even in this good act, we will be judged with greater strictness.

But James isn’t breaking from writing to the church at this point to speak to teachers. He uses this example to show the gravity of the situation.

Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 12:34-37:

“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Here Jesus speaks to the teachers of the law, but we can see that he is applying a general principle to a specific situation. And James is doing the opposite. He is taking a specific situation (teachers) and demonstrating the general principle.

We are all accountable, even James, for our words. “By our words we will be justified and by our words we will be condemned.”

Again, we have to hear what Jesus is saying here. These are not just sayings or deep thoughts shared for our consideration. When Jesus tells us that we should cut off our hands, he is actually communicating something incredibly serious. And in the same way, when Jesus says that we will be justified or condemned by our words, this is not just a throwaway comment. He is communicating that our words are deadly serious.

As I talked about this message with my wife, I told her that I was struggling to communicate the gravity of James’ words. She expressed that it made sense to her that I would be struggling because in many ways it appears to be such an elementary principle. And she is right.

Use your words carefully? Be kind with your words? Really, James? Didn’t we learn that from our parents when we were 5 years old? We may have heard it, but did we listen?

In Hebrews 5:12 we read, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Apparently, when James said, “not many of you should aspire to be teachers,” he was being kind and gentle.

Hebrews is a little more forceful. It says that, though you should already be teachers, you are so untrained, unpracticed, and immature that you are still on baby food.

We are being kindly reminded that this is an area of Christian living that cannot be ignored. While it is a basic teaching, it is a basic teaching that is fundamental to the faith.

The Power of the Tongue

One of the blessings of living in the PNW is that we are surrounded by water. We don’t always take note of it, but there are massive cargo ships coming in and out of Tacoma. Every once in a while, one of them will stop in the middle of the water and we can appreciate how incredibly large these ships are.

The Thalassa Axia, the largest ship to ever call in Port of Tacoma, came in Nov. 2018. It was 1200 feet long, and weighed close to 150,000 tons. These massive ships still use rudders to this day. Relative to the size of the ship, these rudders are very small, and yet they are essential to the steering of the enormous ships that come through there. Though small, it directs the ship.

In the same way, the tongue is like a rudder. It guides us and directs us. We rarely think about our tongue, unless we are at the dentist or we accidently bite it, but the tongue is of tremendous importance.

It steers us in and out of trouble. It communicates love and it communicates hatred. It shouts joy and it spews anger. “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”

Many of you might remember the horrific experience of getting your mouth washed out with soap. It was unpleasant, but didn’t it send a strong message? Our words come from our mouths and so the idea being communicated was that our mouths need to be cleaned from whatever words we had spoken to deserve such a cleansing.

But are our mouths really the issue? Will our words be cleansed by soap?

While soap sent a strong symbolic message, it did not address the heart of the issue. The issue is not the tongue, but the heart. The tongue is merely saying what the heart commands it to say.

In the same way that a rudder will not move without being steered, so our tongues don’t move without being steered by our hearts.

The issue of the tongue is that it reveals the intentions of the heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” (Mt. 12:34-35).

A heated argument often causes you to say things you might not say when you are cool and collected. You let your guard down and say things you had in the depths of your heart, that you never imagined saying out loud, until you were provoked and prodded.

Then in the heat of the moment you say things you can’t take back and after the fight is over you say, “I didn’t mean it, I really didn’t mean it!” But at that point we are simply trying to save face, aren’t we?

Often times we did mean it. We had those thoughts in our hearts and agreed with them, but we regret having said them out loud. We regret having been discovered and revealing what we really think.

What comes out of our mouths in those moments of intensity? What comes out of our hearts? Why does it come out of our hearts?

We cannot blame our eyes, hands, or tongue for committing a sin. We sin because of what is in our hearts. And what we find in our hearts is there because we put it there.

It is true that in Adam we all sinned, but we have our own actual sin as well—those sins which we commit now, and on a regular basis. And our words reflect those sins.

Our words work to serve the master of our hearts. If we have a good master, our hearts will produce good out of the good treasure in our hearts. If we have bad masters, they will produce evil out of the evil in our hearts. That which masters us steers our tongue.

Here is another way to think of it. Actors portray certain personas. Their accents, their tone, their behavior—all of these things are specifically calculated to produce a certain image that the writer wishes to portray. Seeing their body language, their glances, their tone, their attitude—all of these things tell us about who they are.

In the same way, our tone, our words, our behavior—all of these things are actively pursuing goals of their own. They are telling us and the world around us who we are.

What does your tongue say about you and your passions? Do you have two masters? Do both fresh and saltwater come out of your mouth? Blessing and cursing? If so, there is a problem. There is a discrepancy.

It is like those massive billboards you have in the South that sell “Beer and Fireworks”. No! Just stop it! That is a bad combination.

But it is worse than that. In this case, you are trying to unite polar opposites. Good and Evil. Love and Hatred. We cannot serve two masters.

Think about your words. What do they reveal about your heart?

Impatience and Anger (Haughty Eyes)
Do you sigh a lot? Do you roll your eyes? Do you have a common expression like “Come on!”, “Sheesh”, or “Seriously?!” that you express at least daily? If I didn’t mention your expression, just turn to anyone you know and ask what it is that you say when you are frustrated.

Do you get frustrated by the incompetence of those around you? How you could do something very easily, but others just don’t seem to get it?

What do those expressions say about you? If we think for a moment, they reveal quite a lot.

It certainly doesn’t express love, patience, or kindness. It doesn’t reflect grace or mercy. What does it portray about you? What does it reveal about you?

Perhaps it reveals that you are a person who is mastered by anger or impatience. Maybe your expression shows that you are quite arrogant and are “put out” that someone has just inconvenienced you. What does your expression tell you about who you serve?

Lying and exaggeration
What about exaggeration or manipulation, lying and controlling, if you have ever been late to an appointment or missed a deadline, or completely forgotten to reply to a call or a text? How ready are we to excuse our behavior? How many excuses do we have at the ready to make the other person sympathetic towards us instead of upset?

We use our words, or we exaggerate our words to justify the actions of the masters of our hearts. If we lose our patience, how often are we ready to admit fault and ask forgiveness? Or are we more inclined to explain how we aren’t feeling well, we are feeling overwhelmed, or we didn’t sleep well.

Rather than owning our need to repent, we turn the tables and use our words to manipulate people into feeling sorry for us. We paint a picture that is truly pity-worthy, to motivate people to overlook the sin that just came out of our hearts. Who is our master in that scenario? Who are we serving?

When we exaggerate our excuses and craft the way people see our situation, do we see that our tongues are not expressing truth, but the poison of deceit? Do we understand that we are crafting our words with craftiness – as the Serpent did in Eden? When we craft our words, it is often to serve ourselves rather than God.

Pride and abuse
What about being short with our words or forceful?
If you have ever watched a police chase, you know that it almost always ends with police yelling at the top of their lungs “GET YOUR HANDS UP! GET OUT OF THE CAR! GET ON THE GROUND!” These words are meant to be short, controlling, authoritative, and forceful. They leave no room for dialogue. They intentionally block out a two-way conversation because they have one goal, to submit their subject.

Being forceful or proud with our words is not much different. When we yell, we raise the volume of our speech intentionally, in such a way as to shut down other people’s responses.

But we can also be forceful and proud in our speech while speaking calmly and collectively. This is, after all, a quality of a good lawyer—communicating his perspective in such a way that anyone would be absolutely foolish not to see it his way. Do we do this? Do we have conversations where the only opinion that matters is yours? Where you state your case or opinion so powerfully and forcefully that you leave no room for conversation?

If we speak in this way, we should be aware that our words are communicating more than just opinions. Our words are making the masters of our hearts visible. Listeners are not hearing words filled with humility, grace, or love. They are hearing pride and love of self.

Gossip and discord and innocent blood
While we were living in San Diego, CA, in Oct. of 2007, we were called at 5 am by our friends, telling us to run outside. I said, “What is going on?”, and he said, “Run outside!” We did, and there was what looked like a huge wall of fire and smoke a few miles away. That fire destroyed 1,500 homes and came within feet of destroying the seminary I was attending, the church I was working in, and the apartment we were living in.

Though there were many factors involved with the start of that fire, one was a 10-year-old boy who admitted that he accidentally started one of the feeder fires by playing with matches. Playing with matches. A few small sparks destroyed the homes of 1,500 families.

In the same way as a little boy who meant no harm contributed to the destruction of the homes of 1,500 families, so also we can destroy the lives of those around us with a few small “innocent” sparks of gossip.

“Oh, and did you hear what happened this week?” “Did you hear______?” What does it say about us if our ears perk up when we hear those words? What does it say about us, if we don’t mind talking about others behind their backs, and speaking ill about their lives or character? If we enjoy critiquing people’s marriages, job choices, parenting styles, educational leanings, or other habits? Who do we represent when we destroy people behind their backs, and breathe out poison with our tongues?

These are the sorts of sins that the Lord hates. These are the sins that sow discord among brothers and destroy churches and families. These are the sorts of sins that reveal who is mastering our hearts.

In fact, all these ways of speaking that I’ve mentioned so far are things the Lord hates. Listen to Prov. 6:16
There are six things that the LORD hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
19 a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers.

My brothers, these things ought not to come out of our hearts or our mouths.

Jesus redeemed us from our helpless estate that we might no longer let sin reign in us, so that we might not be mastered by sin, but be servants of God.

God has called us to be a people that speak forth life and truth, blessing and love.

We are to be blameless in all our ways, and not only to have dominion over all things in creation, but also to have dominion over our tongues, letting no sin reign in our mortal bodies.

As we hear ourselves express our frustrations, or expressions of anger this week, as we hear people gasp or see them roll their eyes or speak ill of others—consider your tongue, and consider your Savior. Do not let your tongue be untamed. Seek to have dominion over it in the power you have in Christ, that Jesus might be master over your heart and your every word.

In Conclusion:

I’d like to conclude by bringing us back to my little soccer team in Peru. It was a pathetic little group, one that didn’t take anything seriously—that is, until we had a coach who could not only see our weaknesses, but could do something about it. That coach pushed us to have dominion over our bodies and over the ball. It transformed us. It helped us overcome our weaknesses and gave us victory over our opponents.

In the same way, God’s word is reminding us that if we are to graduate from nominal Christianity, and from eating out of baby food jars to eating the solid food of God’s word, we will take seriously the call to be obedient to God’s word in all areas of life.

Let us therefore, in obedience to him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, start by taming our tongue, adding to our Living Faith the fruit of Living Words, and presenting our tongue as a servant and instrument of righteousness, for the glory of God. Amen.