Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Uncontrollable Tongue!

“The Uncontrollable Tongue” (James 3:1-18)

Words can have enormous power for good or for evil. The Nazi dictator of Germany, Adolf Hitler, was famous for making powerful speeches. His racist speeches and diabolical book of political theory, Mein Kampf, inflamed Germany into war with the world that cost the lives of 72 million people. For every page of the 720-page first edition of Mein Kampf, approximately 100,000 people died in World War II. What a horrible price for hateful words!

The New Testament letter of James, chapter 3, gives a wise warning about the uncontrollable tongue.

The chapter begins by warning teachers, who use their tongues quite a bit, of how our tongues can get out of control. Many inspiring movies have been made about influential teachers, such as Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers. But we have also heard horror stories of teachers who said the wrong thing and devastated their hearers. For example, Ward Churchill, professor at the University of Colorado, created a huge stir when he said that America got what it deserved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

My friend Dr. Chuck Pourciau, pastor in Shreveport, Louisiana, tells about the time he was doing a graveside service and the wrong words slipped out. He was burying Sister Bertha, and Sister Susie, her best friend, was sitting with the family under the tent. As he said his final prayer, Pastor Chuck said, “Thank you, Lord, that Sister Susie….” He suddenly realized that he had called the name of the friend under the tent instead of the deceased under the ground. What was he going to do if he continued? Say, “Thank you, Lord, that Sister Susie isn’t dead too?” So he just had to start over and say, “Thank you, Lord that sister Bertha knew you…” As James says, “we all stumble in many ways.”

We have all said things that we wished we had not said. Often they are harmless words, like my preacher friend Chuck. However, sometimes a slip of the tongue can cause great harm. During World War II the slogan “loose lips sink ships” reminded Americans to guard their tongues lest they reveal American secrets to the enemy. Gossip, hateful criticism and mean-spirited put-downs can leave emotional scars that last a lifetime.

Somebody might object that the tongue is a small thing, so how can it be so bad? In response, James gives three examples of small things that control big things. He uses the illustration of bits into the mouths of horses and a very small rudder that directs a ship. The tongue is like that, because it is small but has great power. Then James uses another illustration of the tongue as a small fire that can burn down a forest. Remember the fires around Waycross, Georgia in 2007? Within a day, the wildfire burned a 9-mile path through rural timberland. In the end, the massive fire would burn a footprint, up to 30 miles wide and 58 miles long. The total cost is estimated at more than $54 million.

James focuses on the tongue as a fire. He notes how it is set, how it stains, and who is its source. First, the tongue is like a fire set in the middle of what it destroys. It is “a world of evil among the parts of the body.” Second, the tongue stains everything, because it “corrupts the whole person.” Third, the tongue’s source is Satan, for it is “set on fire by hell.” The word translated hell is the word Gehenna, the continuously burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, which came to represent the eternal fire of the place of judgment in the afterlife. Thus Satan himself, the father of liars (John 8:44), is the source of the tongue’s evil.

"For every creature…has been tamed by man," James says. Yet even the most disciplined, kindest people have at some time said things that they wished they could take back. James adds that while man has tamed animals, "no man can tame the tongue."

So how do we get control of our tongues? James has already mentioned the solution to this problem earlier in his letter: “Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil excess, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you” (James 1:21). The only way for Christians to get control of our words is for Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh, to get control of us.

So let me give you two things that you can do to get control over your tongue:

First, if you don’t begin your day in prayer and Bible reading, start the habit immediately. As I said, we must receive the implanted word. We must let Jesus, who is the Word of God made flesh, get control of our words. By beginning the day with Christ, we set the tone for our tongues the rest of the day.

Second, try a 24-hour experiment. Let me ask you a question. Can you go 24 hours without saying an unkind word to another person or about another person? If you cannot, you have a problem. If you cannot go 24 hours with a smoke, your addicted to nicotine. If you cannot go 24 hours without a drink, you’re addicted to alcohol. So why don’t you break your tongue addiction? Make a conscious effort to go 24 hours without saying anything critical about anybody. Do it with your family. Make it a game, that if you say anything critical, you have to put money in your coin bank for world hunger. Try it for 24 hours. If you fail, put the money in the coin bank, and try it again the next 24 hours. Keep doing it until God gets control of your tongue.

Yes, the tongue is uncontrollable, but Christ can help us control our tongues.


Bloodiest of Ladies said...

I'm glad someone noticed how much pain can be inflicted by a person who doesn't even mean to. I am often amazed by the insensitivity of people's words.

I don't know why I feel the need to say this (here of all places), but it's a perfect example. I watched an older woman, who is genuinely a kind woman, tell a young man (young as in early 30's) that he was needy.

That doesn't sound like a great insult, and she didn't mean it to be. She was stating truth as she saw it without even thinking that he might be hurt. But this man was born with serious eye problems that have left him completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other, sustained an injury in his childhood that left him deaf in one ear, and has literally fought to earn 2 undergraduate and 3 post graduate degrees.

He teaches college English. He grades papers with a magnifying glass because he can't see. For a person who has fought to make a life and had little or no help along the way, the idea of being called needy is a devestating remark, but the lady never even thought about what hearing that would make him feel. I know this woman, she would never have said it if she'd thought first.

Brother Bob said...

Good illustration.
The day after I posted this, I read that Barack Obama was talking about his opposition, and he said, "You can put lipstick on a pig, and it's still a pig." Ouch! While that is a common metaphor, it sounded like a personal attack, since his opponent's vice-presidential running mate is a woman who wears lipstick.