Taming the Tongue

If the links don’t work for you, here is Nick’s video presentation Taming the Tongue, I Give You My Hallelujah, Raise a Hallelujah and May the Words of My Mouth.

Todays reading is James 3:1-12Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Today we return to our short series, looking at passages in the Letter of James.

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!’

I’m sure you’ve all heard that, but how many of you think its tosh? I do. I may be sensitive, but I don’t think I’m that different from most of us. The Bible has lots to say about the words we use. In the Book of Proverbs it says, ‘Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal’. And other cultures reflect this sentiment. There is an African proverb that says, ‘There is no venom to that of the tongue’.

My school days are many, many years past. But even now, I remember the things that some teachers said to me which encouraged me, and I also still remember—with feeing, things that others said to be which crushed me. Our memories remind us of the power of words.

Nick set the scene well for our bible passage from James 3Open Link in New Window today is all about the power of the tongue—for good and for evil. I have to say that I have been hugely convicted personally by this passage, and feel deep regret about how casually sometimes I have used words, either spoken out loud, or written down in emails, which have hurt people. I am deeply sorry for that, and I thank God for the loving guiding and correcting of his Holy Word.

Let’s just briefly recap a bit. James was a leader of the first church in Jerusalem, very probably a brother of our Lord. He had a pastoral heart and felt great responsibility for the spiritual growth of followers of Jesus, wherever they were.

James‘s letter is full of really practical advice about living a Christian life. In the previous two talks on James, we have looked at coping with trials, and that favouritism is forbidden. Now James address the knotty, but oh so human issue of how we use our tongues.

James says that the tongue is extremely powerful. Like many powerful things, it can be used for great good, but also be the cause of great destruction. And Jesus himself said that what is in a person’s heart, inevitably comes out of their mouth. This passage is not just about one small part of our physical bodies, but about our hearts, minds, habits and choices as well. This speaks deeply to our inner character, and what is reflected by what we say or don’t say.

James says a bad tongue is condemning. This doesn’t just refer to church leaders and teachers. We are all teachers in life, and people pay attention to how we speak and the words we use. Do our words point to Jesus or away from him?

A bad tongue is controlling. How well Nick illustrated this in our all age section, looking at James description of a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder. The smallest action can produce a large consequence. We are not here to control each other and pursue what we want. We seek Jesus’ ways, where God’s priority of loving and serving those most in need comes first. James says a careless tongue can consume us, like fire. From a small spark, or a few words, a huge blaze of hurt and damage can result.

And James also says that a bad tongue compromises. It can compromise our relationship with other people, as we wriggle away from personal responsibility, and it compromises our own integrity, as we try to compromise others in turn. Remember Adam in the Garden of Eden? God had given him and Eve all that was beautiful and perfect to enjoy. He had been asked just one thing by God, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Adam did his own thing, and then afterwards, tried not only to blame Eve for his actions, but also to blame God for giving her to him! It was everyone else’s fault.

I know I am not alone in thinking that at the beginning of this awful pandemic, we experienced something deeply encouraging, and which we don’t see enough of. We tasted a broad and wide generosity of spirit, which was reflected in how people spoke about and to each other. (Remember, in today’s culture, our tongues work through our emails, Twitter accounts and other social media, as well as the spoken voice.)

There was a coming together, right from the highest reaches of government and media, down to the streets where we lived, when, as one bishop put it so well, selfishness no longer became socially acceptable. Rather than the judgemental, opinionated and accusatory narrative we have become so used to, we heard something different—and it was beautiful and uplifting.

I am speaking as much to myself as to you when I say, please don’t be tempted to ascribe the downsides of contemporary discourse to others and not to ourselves. There is not one of us who doesn’t fall into the trap of using our tongue in the wrong way.

James finally challenges us – what are we doing and teaching with our tongues? Are we helping move people towards God, and glorifying God in what we say?

These are hard questions, but God’s grace is sufficient to give us the help we need. If we are struggling, it doesn’t mean we have failed, but that we are allowing God to work in us and help us.

Another proverb in the Bible says, ‘Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.’

The times we are living in give us a new opportunity to model and teach a kinder, godly way of using our tongues to build something beautiful.

Rev Ian Tomkins

There will be a video version of the service and a podcast of the sermon.

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