TAMING THE TONGUE
All right, we’re going to take a vote. You ready to vote? I’m going to ask you a question, and then you’re going to vote, and then we’re all going to submit to the vote, all right? Will you do what I ask you to do in just a moment, yes or no? OK, two people trust their pastor, the rest know him. OK, OK, I’ll ask again. In a moment, I’d like to ask you to do something. Will you do that, yes or no? Oh, look at that. Now we’re growing in faith. All right, the Holy Spirit is now working and you’re ready to obey. OK, here we go. On the count of three—if we did it individually, it’d be awkward, but if we do it together, it’ll be really awkward, so we’re going to do it together.
At the count of three, we’re all going to stick our tongues out. You ready? I know you’ve been wanting to do this since you first showed up, so now is your opportunity. On the count of three, we’re all going to stick our tongues out and keep it out for a second, OK? One, two, three.
That’s what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about our tongue, all right? So, before we can effect any change in the world, we’ve got to start pretty close to home. We’re in the book of James. We’re going to talk about the tongue today, and he’s echoing a ton of stuff in Proverbs. So, there’s a good book of the Bible for you to read to get more on this issue of taming the tongue.
TEACHERS WILL BE JUDGED WITH GREATER STRICTNESS
But we’re looking at Jesus’ tongue and your tongue, and we’re in James 3:1–12. And what we’re looking at is the instruction of Jesus’ little brother, who is now a grown man pastoring a church in a great city called Jerusalem, and he knows that the well-being of the church—because it’s not just you and Jesus, it’s us. God is a Father, and he’s made us a family, and how we communicate with one another could honor or dishonor him and help or hinder the well-being of our family.
We’re going to start with teachers and hearers in James 3:1–2. Here’s what he has to say: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers,” speaking of the Christians, “for you know that we “who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways.”
I’ll read that again. There’s a big idea there, and we’re going to revisit it a lot today. “We”—how many of us?—”all stumble in many ways. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body,” using language there from guiding horses, which we’ll get in to in a moment.
He starts with teachers, and then there’s something here for hearers as well. So, since we’re starting with teachers, let me start with me. The things I regret the most in 18 years of ministry since we started is when I said the wrong thing, or I said it to the wrong people, or I said it with the wrong tone. Hands down, for me, this text is the most convicting in the whole book of James. Before I teach you anything, I’ve got some things to learn.
He says that we shouldn’t just seek to be teachers because there’s a responsibility that comes with teaching. I love the fact that I get to teach the Bible but I also live under this tremendous weight that—I don’t want to make the sermon about me, so let me just deal with this briefly and then proceed forward. But I love you very much, and I want to do the best job that I can, and I’m devastated when I don’t, because Jesus gave his best, and you deserve the best.
When we started, I definitely was more of an angry young prophet. Some of you were here and you’re like, “Yes, he yelled a lot, he yelled loud, he was a good yeller—that guy.” It was like a drill sergeant for Jesus, right? Just very loud, very intense, all the time, oftentimes infused with anger.
As I’m getting older—I’ve earned all the gray in my beard—what the Holy Spirit has really convicted me of, especially in the last year, is that my role going forward is to be a spiritual father, that my tone needs to be fatherly, that what I say and who I say it to and how I say it has to be more like a father dealing with a son or a daughter, which means you can say hard things, but you say them in helpful ways and in appropriate ways. So, if you could pray for me, that’s really my heart’s desire: to be a better spiritual father and to help us become an increasingly healthy spiritual family.
That’s the heart of James here, the pastor, and why he talks about teachers. He’s talking about himself and the other leaders at the church of Jerusalem. So pray for me, pray for the leaders and the elders across the church.
THE MOUTH IS A REVELATION OF THE HEART
His main point is that, really, the mouth is a revelation of the heart. So sometimes we’ll say things like, “You don’t know my heart.” “Well, but I hear your words, and what they are is an overflow of your heart.” This is what Proverbs says. This is what Jesus says. “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
One of the ways that we get insight to our heart—the seat, the sum, the center of who we are—is by hearing our words and letting others speak our words back to us because sometimes we don’t understand what we’re saying, or how we’re saying it, or how devastating it might be. And so I want you to know up front, this is a personally, deeply, practically convicting section of Scripture for me.
As I seek to teach it to you, I want to teach it to you faithfully but also humbly, and say, I, by God’s grace, am not the man that I was, but I’m not the man that I should be, and that God has been working in me and on me on this issue for many years, and I’m a man who lives with some regrets. And I’m not the man that I was, but man, I’m not yet the man that I want to be. I’m somewhere on that continuum and process by God’s grace. And so I would invite you to also evaluate yourself, your heart, your tone, your language, and your words.
I would ask, how many of you do already hold a position of teacher? He starts with teachers because teachers teach, and then people learn, and if the teacher’s off, then the people are off, just like if the parents are off, the children are off. So, I’ve got a little list here.
How many of you are a pastor, or an elder, a deacon, a Community Group—raise your hand, right, if you’re any of these. Pastor, elder, deacon, Kid’s Ministry, Student Ministry, Women’s Ministry, some other ministry—how many of you are teachers, coaches, trainers in a school, whatever the case may be? Professor, counselor, tutor, a mom, a dad, a grandma, a grandpa—Raise your hand, right? Blogger, right? Reporter, whatever. That’s a lot of people, right?
What he says is there’s additional responsibility that God lays on those who are teachers. He says you shouldn’t just aspire to be a teacher, so let me relieve some pressure from some of you. If you’ve been in church for a while, you can feel this pressure, like, “I need to be a teacher,” that there’s, like, junior varsity and teachers, and the teachers, that’s varsity. No, if you’re not called and gifted to lead, don’t feel any pressure to lead. If you’re not called and gifted to teach, don’t feel any pressure to teach, all right. Every family—everybody—has got some different contribution to make to the family.
3 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR THOSE CALLED TO BE TEACHERS
I want to pull the pressure off of you, because sometimes, especially when you’re a young Christian or a new Christian, you feel like, you know, you’re starting with your salvation and that ultimately, everybody should end up as a senior leader, and if you don’t make it there, you’re a failure. That’s not the case at all. If God has called you to lead, then grow and qualify to be a leader. If God has called you to teach, then grow and qualify to be a teacher, don’t feel any pressure to be a teacher, don’t feel any pressure to be a teacher.
The reason I teach is because God called me. When I was 19—some of you know my story. I was at a men’s retreat, and God spoke to me. He said, “Marry Grace, preach the Bible, train men, plant churches.” I brought that to the leaders in my church because I don’t believe you can just say, “God told me.” Those guys are dangerous.
So, I brought it to the leaders in the church. “I think this is what God told me, but you need to confirm that because I’m under authority.” They said, “We believe that’s what God told you, and we believe you’re not ready”—which was very true. They said, “So, here are some things you need to do to get ready if you want to be a teacher.”
Let me do that same thing for you. Three recommendations I would give to those of you who do feel called to be a teacher or you are teaching, and then I’ll have three for those of us who are hearers.
1. BE MORE PATIENT
Number one, I would say—and these are all out of regrets of mine, quite frankly. Be more patient. If you aspire to be a teacher, be under teaching. If you aspire to be a leader, be under authority. And I was not as patient as I should have been. I needed more time under authority. I needed more time on a team at a healthy church. There were a lot of things that I needed to learn and I wasn’t ready for. “Pastor Mark started at 25.” Yes, and ruined his life. So, wait a while, OK, because I love you, because I made some mistakes and I committed some sins that I wouldn’t have if I would have been under authority, instruction, and learning.
A friend of mine always says, “Let somebody else pay your dumb tax.” All right, the dumb tax needs to be paid. I paid all my own dumb tax, OK? And my encouragement to you would be allow someone else to pay your dumb tax. Be more patient. Be more patient, which especially, as a person who aspires to teaching, it can be hard to be patient.
2. BE A DEVOTED STUDENT
Number two, some people are teachers some of the time, but they must be students all of the time. Some people want to teach, but they don’t like to learn. They like to be in authority, but they don’t like to be under authority. They like to tell everybody what they think, but they don’t really like to do their homework.
I wanted to get a formal theological education because I didn’t have one, and so I decided I’d go to Western Seminary in Portland because they’re a good Bible school.
3. KNOW THAT TEACHERS ARE JUDGED MORE STRICTLY BY GOD
Number three, just something practical: teachers are judged more strictly. That’s what he says, right? “Not many of you should become teachers. “You know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This is by God and others. One of the most devastating experiences in pastoral ministry for me is when somebody’s a very gifted communicator and then they start to wander away from the Bible because people still follow them.
So, having done this a while, I personally know people who started off teaching the Bible, and then it’s like, “Yeah, I think the Bible maybe has some mistakes. “I’m not sure it’s perfect. “Yeah, maybe Jesus isn’t perfect. “Maybe he made some mistakes. “Yeah, maybe the resurrection was kind of a metaphor, “not really a literal, historical thing. “Yeah, maybe hell is just sort of a metaphor for grief “over what we’ve done, but it’s not actually, you know, “an eternity for people who reject Jesus. “Or maybe other religions can save as well, and you don’t—”
All of a sudden, they’re headed down a bad path, and some people still follow them because they see them as a teacher. So, you need to know, you know, when Paul says, “Save yourself and your hearers,” for those of us that are in a teaching position, we live under this weight of responsibility that, man, if I go astray, I know a lot of you are not going to follow me, but some of you will, and that haunts me because I want you to follow Jesus and I want to follow Jesus.
My hope is to follow Jesus and my hope is to follow Jesus with you, but when a teacher is no longer following Jesus and people are still following them, that’s devastating, that’s horrifying. And they’ll be judged more strictly because if you ruin your life, that’s one thing. If you ruin the life of your family, it’s another thing. If you ruin the life of the church family, that’s an entirely different thing.
4. KNOW THAT TEACHERS ARE JUDGED MORE STRICTLY BY PEOPLE
Fourthly, you’ll be judged more strictly not just by God. God says this is very serious. And I want you to know that I feel this continual weight of burden and responsibility. It’s not crushing, but sometimes it almost is, to think that we’re a big family and I bear the most responsibility. Grace would tell you that there are times that it is a load that is difficult for me to bear because I do love you and I do care. And he says that you’ll be judged more strictly. This is by God and it’s by others.
I’ve got a good friend. He’s a pastor way more successful than me. And I’m not going to name-drop, but he called me up one time and he said, “Just accept that 5 percent of people will always hate you if you teach.” I was like, “Well, thanks, Barnabas, “for all the encouragement. That’s super helpful.”
Let me say what that means to you. Let’s say you’ve got a large Community Group of twenty people. There’s going to be one person in that group that really doesn’t like you. Let’s say you’re a Community Group coach overseeing multiple groups and 100 people, it’d be 5 people really don’t like you. And if you’re me, it’s a parade, OK? It’s a parade. It’s a pitchfork parade.
Sometimes it’s because you did or said something wrong, and sometimes it’s because people have got it wrong. Nothing is ever 100 percent either way. And I would say this is why because I love you, I don’t want to push you all into teaching positions. If you’re going to get more strictly judged by God and more harshly opposed and criticized by people, unless God calls you to that, you won’t be able to sustain that. It’s one of the reasons my sons are here. I would never push my sons into ministry. Dad’s a teacher, be a teacher. No, no, no, Dad’s a Christian, be a Christian. The end.
If God wants you to teach, I guess you have to. But if God doesn’t want you to teach, Dad is not nominating you because you don’t want to put someone in the wrong position under that crushing weight. It’s not good for them. And some of you, you want more than anything to be a teacher, and because I love you, I’d say, “Check your motives. “Check your heart. “See if that’s what God’s called you to, and if he has, “make sure you’re ready, but understand you’ll be judged more strictly.” That’s the word for teachers.
3 RECOMMENDATIONS FOR HEARERS
How about for hearers? Well, I love this line because I think it’s helpful. “For we all”—what? OK, “For we all”—what? “Stumble.” You ever tripped? Maybe you’re like, “Gosh, didn’t see that curb. Should have tied my shoe.” You ever stumbled? Here’s what he’s saying. “We all stumble.” Just as we stumble physically, we stumble verbally. That’s what he’s saying.
How does this pertain to the hearers? I’ve got three points of pastoral counsel I would give you.
1. KNOW THAT WE ALL STUMBLE
Number one, if you’re looking for rocks to throw, there’s always a pile. All right, let’s say it’s a teacher or a leader. You’re like, “I want to throw a rock at them. Did they say anything wrong?” Yeah, in fact, a perfect teacher, hearer, writing the Bible, Jesus’ little brother says, “We all stumble.” What he’s saying is there’s a pile of rocks. Like, if you don’t like somebody, you’re like, “I want to find something they said wrong.” Well, there’s a pile because we all stumble.
But here’s the key, there’s a pile for you too. And what happens is we’re like, “Hey, put that rock down. “Don’t throw it at me. That was a bad day. “I didn’t mean to. You took it out of context. “It was Mardi Gras. It never counts on Mardi Gras,” right? You’ve got a reason. “Put the rock down.” What James is saying, “Everybody put the rocks down.” Because who stumbles in many ways? We all do.
So, there’s a pile of rocks that they could throw at you for things that you said wrong or didn’t say in the most effective way, but there’s a pile of rocks that could go both directions. It’s like the woman caught in adultery. Everybody grabs a rock. Jesus says, “All right, that’s fine. “The guy who gets to throw the rock first is the guy who’s never sinned.”
What does it say? Everybody dropped their rock and walked away. The only guy who could have thrown the rock was Jesus, and he didn’t throw the rock, he forgave her. The only one who’s never sinned with his speech is Jesus. We’ve all sinned with our speech, and if we don’t want them to throw a rock at us, we shouldn’t throw a rock at them.
The truth is, there’s a quarry. If you’re looking for a rock, they’re not hard to find. There needs to be a little grace, a little mercy, a little forgiveness. The Bible says it’s a glory to overlook an offense. The Bible says that love keeps no record of wrongs. The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins. OK, what rock do you need to drop like, “You know what? “I’m just going to let that go. I’m going to let that go.”
2. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING A CRITIC AND BEING A COACH
Number two, a coach is different from a critic. A coach and a critic can say the exact same content with completely different reactions. You know the difference? The difference is time and tone. When do you say it? How do you say it? A critic: public, not private because the goal is to crush you, not build you. A critic will wait until you’re vulnerable. A coach will wait until you’re teachable. A critic’s intent is to make sure that everyone is invited to join them in the criticism, and a coach is trying to protect you from the criticism to help you learn and grow.
How many of you have someone in your life that’s a critic? Every time they come to you, they’re like, “I want to talk to you!” You’re like, “What did I do? What did I do now?” How many of you have a coach in your life? When the approach you, like, “I need to talk to you.” You’re like, “OK.” They’re like, “Look, not in front of everybody else. “We’re not going to gossip. “This is—look, hey, I love you, I’m trying to help. “I’m for you. “I see this, so I’m pointing it out. “I’m praying for you. How can I help? Do you see this?” “Gosh, thank you. I feel loved by that, helped by that, served by that.”
There’s a difference between a critic and a coach. Being a critic is very easy, being a coach is very hard because you don’t have to know someone or love them to be a critic, but you have to know them and love them to be a coach. So, for those of you who are hearers, you hear something from someone, you’ve got to ask, “OK, will I deal with this as a critic or a coach?”
3. KNOW THAT WE ALL HAVE OUR BEST AND WORST DAYS
Number three, if we love someone, we present them on their best day. If we hate someone, we present them on their worst day. The truth is that we’ve all got our best day, we’ve all got our worst day, and it really reveals your heart how you present them. Let’s say you’re in a community, there’s, you know, social friendships, network. Somebody comes up, you know somebody better than they do, and they say, “Well, tell me about so and so.” Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
If you say, “Well, let me tell you about their best day. “They were loving, they were gracious, they were kind, “they were humble, they were teachable, “they were fruitful, whatever. Let me tell you a story about their best day. What you’re doing is you’re encouraging that person to see them in the best light and to want the best for them. But out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.
If your heart is bitter, or self-righteous, or judgmental, or envious, you’re like, “Let me tell you about their worst day. “Here’s what they said, here’s what they did, “here’s what they failed to say, here’s what they failed to do. “Do you see who they are? “Now interpret all of their data you get about them in that negative light.”
You and I have to choose, and I would hope we would learn I failed, you failed to mirror, to image, to worship, to reflect Jesus. When we stand before Jesus, it’s not going to be about our worst day. It’s going to be about his best day in our place, making that our best day. We need to be very careful the stories we tell, the details we share, because the heart is revealed in the words that are said.
Immediately, some of you get very defensive. How do I know this? Because I’m defensive. So, they put the hypocrite up front so you all feel invited to join us on this little conviction journey. And usually, what I like to say is, “It’s true,” and so is their best day, and so is the sinful nature of the heart that is communicating the worst day instead of the best day. That’s for teachers and hearers.
BIG THINGS HAVE LITTLE POWER
Pastor James then goes on to talk about taming the tongue: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses.” OK, let me tell you this. James is like Proverbs. It’s wisdom literature for the New Testament, lots of great, practical imagery. Do you want to learn more about the tongue and these kinds of illustrations? Read Proverbs. “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.” He jumps down. “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.”
Here’s what James says, “It’s amazing the animals we can tame.” We were watching Swiss Family Robinson not long ago. You’re like, “They got a tiger to be a pet, “and a bear. “That’s amazing. I still can’t get myself to say nice things.” What he’s saying is that the tongue is like a wild animal that refuses to be tamed. All other wild animals can be tamed, but this wild animal, the one that lives in my head, it’s the hardest one to tame of all. So, he uses the analogy—he’s going to use three analogies. He’s going to talk about bits in horses’ mouths, he’s going to talk about rudders on a ship, and he’s going to talk about a spark in a forest fire.
His point is this: little things have big power. Little things have big power. Your tongue is a little thing, but it has big power. Just like the tongue in your mouth, it’s akin to a bit in the mouth of a horse, OK?
THE BIT OF A HORSE
So, I’ve only ridden a horse once. It was for like three seconds. I was a kid. I fell off into some horse stuff, so I am now in my post-horse phase of life. But what I wanted to do is I wanted to bring up someone who rides horses, competes, and this is what they do.
So, I’m going to introduce you guys to Claire. Claire’s going to join us and we’re going to do a little bit of an interview about horses.
Claire: OK, so I’m Claire and I became a Christian when I was 16 years old. I’m the only Christian in my family, and I started riding horses just about the same time. And I love it and yeah.
Pastor Mark: And that’s you right there.
Claire: Yes, that’s me and my horse Tommy at the World Show last year.
Pastor Mark: So the good guys always wear the white hat, the bad guys always wear the black hat. I would have a black hat, but you’re wearing a white hat, that’s good.
Claire: There I am.
Pastor Mark: So tell us about your horse.
Claire: So this is Tommy, he’s an Appaloosa. He’s 12 years old, and he is 15.2. He’s a little—he’s a tiny dude, but he’s really sweet.
Pastor Mark: So how much does he weigh?
Claire: He weighs about 1,200 pounds, yeah.
Pastor Mark: That’s a lot.
Claire: Yeah, it hurts when he steps on you, so.
Pastor Mark: Do you have any other horses?
Claire: I do. I lease a horse, actually, and he is a Hanoverian Thoroughbred, and he is 17 hands.
Pastor Mark: So what is that?
Claire: So he, at his withers—which are, like, where his leg meets his neck—he stands about 6 feet tall, so he’s huge. And I jump him.
Pastor Mark: Jump him over?
Claire: Fences and poles and stuff like that, so it’s fun.
Pastor Mark: And how do you get a horse to do that?
Claire: A lot of training.
Pastor Mark: Because there’s a lot of people here that are trying to get their dog just to sit down.
Claire: Yeah, it’s a lot of work, a lot of leg. I can’t walk sometimes after ’cause it’s just so much leg. And it’s just controlling their body, and honestly a lot of it comes from the bit. It’s actually kind of crazy how much you use it to get the horse’s body to go where you want it.
Pastor Mark: Yeah, explain the bit. I mean, most of these are city folk, you know, they don’t know.
Claire: So this is a bit. [Shows bit] This is a little—
Pastor Mark: So that goes in their mouth?
Pastor Mark: How big of a horse could you control with that bit?
Claire: You can control a little dude like my pony Tommy right here, or you can control a 17-hand horse. It doesn’t really matter how big the bit is itself. It’s a lot of, like, the temperament of the horse and corresponding to what bit that you use. So my horse Tommy is a little stubborn, so he takes a little bit bigger of a bit than maybe my horse Spider does ’cause he is very sensitive in the mouth. So this goes in their mouth, and this is a Hunt-seat bit, so you would use this when you’re riding English, and it goes in their mouth like— well, kind of like that [demonstrates bit position].
Pastor Mark: I’ll help you. So it goes like this [holds bit up], just like this? Like right here?
Claire: Exactly, just like that.
Pastor Mark: How big of a bit would I need?
Claire: Uh, probably a big one.
Pastor Mark: Yup, it’s kind of what I expected. It’s OK, we’re in church, Claire. You can be honest, yeah, it’s alright. So it goes in the mouth, and then you’re in charge.
Pastor Mark: And so, I mean, the horses are ten times plus your size and weight, but all of a sudden you’re in control, you’re in authority. And what can you make him do?
Claire: Well, you can make him jump. What I do with Tommy is we do a lot of flatwork, so it’s really technical. I know where his body is at all times. I can tell you where his foot is and what it’s doing and when it’s doing it. So I can control his shoulders from which way I bend, which way I pull my reins. So if I bend his head to the right I pick up his right shoulder, or I can move his haunches, which are, like, his back legs.
Pastor Mark: So you control everything. What if you don’t have the bit in the mouth? What can you get him to do?
Claire: Probably not a lot.
Pastor Mark: Not a lot?
Claire: I mean, if your horse is really, really broke you can get him going. I mean, I can get my horse going. I don’t think I can get him to stop, I mean, you know.
Pastor Mark: OK, thank you, Claire. We love you. Thank you for serving and helping us out, alright?
Claire’s cute. She looks like my daughter so I really like her. We’ll leave the bit right here [sets bit down].
Here’s this analogy, right? Bit goes in a wild horse’s mouth, no control, out of control, all of a sudden under control and useful. It’s James’ analogy.
A SHIP & ITS RUDDER
He’s got a second one about a ship and a rudder. Any of you boaters? Any of you boaters? Here’s what James has to say, “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.” Again, his analogy is, the tongue is very small, but in the scheme of things, its impact is very big.
I’ll give you another analogy. I’ll share with you guys an old warship. It’s called, “The Bismark.” Pretty impressive, ay? Let me read this to you, the Nazis commission, the Bismark battleship in 1940. Imagine this technology in 1940. Stretching 825 feet, it was the largest battleship in the world. It boasted eight guns that held shells fifteen inches across as well as some five dozen other armaments. The Bismark’s onboard targeting computer was so precise that it blew away the HMS Hood, which had been the pride of the Royal Navy, with a single shot.
Think of a boxing match set for fifteen rounds. Two guys walk in, one guy punches the other guy, that guy passes out and it’s over in one shot. Nobody else wants to get in the ring with that guy.
As grand as the Bismark was, it had one small but fatal weakness. A vulnerable rudder was located right beneath its thermal exhaust port. In the darkness of night on May 24, 1941, the Royal Navy attacked the ship with little success until one torpedo hit this rudder. The boat was severely disabled, attacked fiercely, and defeated.
You can feel like your life is like this: big, strong, forceful, successful, impenetrable, but your tongue is the vulnerable point, and it can become the one thing that undermines everything.
His third analogy is forest fires. How many of you have ever accidentally set something on fire? I was a little kid, I remember I was outside, alongside the garage, playing with matches or a lighter or something, and I started the dry grass on fire one summer. And I’m trying to stamp it out—whoosh! It starts going and now is climbing up the garage. I was terrified. I didn’t know that it would move that fast.
I ran and got my mom who’d been in a kitchen fire, and so she was scared of fire, and she’s like—she grabbed the hose and she’s like, “OK, Marky, turn the water on,” but it wasn’t connected so it kept burning. And it was amazing how fast and furious it burned until we got that hose attached to put that fire out.
Here’s what Pastor James has to say: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” Well, it’s just a little thing. It was one little comment. It was one little—it wasn’t a—well, a little spark can be a big problem. “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 what? “Hell.”
Some of you would say, “I’m not going to hell,” but you could unleash hell on someone else.
I was trying to figure out what is the biggest forest fire in the history of the U.S. There’s a debate on this, but perhaps this is it. The great Peshtigo fire burned 1.2 million acres. That’s about roughly 1,900 square miles. That’s about twice the size of Rhode Island, roughly. It killed around 1,500 people, and this was 140 years ago when population was far less dense. It was in northern Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. From October 8th to 14th, 1871, this fire burned and exploded. Some reports would indicate that people sought refuge in the rivers and it was so hot that people boiled alive in the rivers. Some reports.
Do you think the person that started the fire intended that? No. Historically, they don’t know how the fire started. They conjecture maybe a logger didn’t tend to and extinguish their campfire.
But here’s the big idea: once a fire gets going, it’s hard to know where it started because it moves so quickly and so fiercely. And our tongue is a spark. It can unleash hell. That’s what he says.
He uses language here that is echoed by Jesus. Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone in the whole Bible and he uses the language, I found at least on 11 occasions, of Gehenna. Gehenna was a place where godless people would get together to do godless things. Maybe illicit sexual sin, and worship false gods, and all kinds of horrible, despicable, deplorable, disgusting evil, and then they would sacrifice their own children, so there was child sacrifice in this place. Well, it became detestable to God’s people for obvious reasons, so they determined that they would turn it in to their dump.
All the garbage would be taken out of the city, out to Gehenna, this cursed place, and it would be set on fire, and you could see at a distance the garbage burning day and night. And it became an illustration of what hell is like. That’s where all the sin goes, and it’s set on fire, and it burns forever. Isaiah uses this language at the end of Isaiah, Jesus echoes this repeatedly, and here, James is picking up the theme of his big brother, Jesus.
This is deeply convicting in me because we all stumble in may ways, but it’s possible to go down to hell, get fire, and then set your Christian brother or sister on fire and boil them alive with your words. And you may say, “Well, that’s not what I intended,” but that’s what the spark does. How many of you have been set on fire by somebody’s words? Who have you set on fire? I find that I and we tend to be more aware of the ways that we have been set on fire than the ways that we have set others on fire.
James here is wanting us to not only be sympathetic toward ourselves, but sympathetic toward those around us. Friends, this greatly affects your marriage. This greatly affects your parenting. This greatly affects your community. This greatly affects our church family. And this can be the wrong information or the right information to the wrong person.
WITH IT, WE BLESS AND CURSE
And he concludes by saying that we need to look for blessing and cursing. In James 3:9–12, we read this. “With it”—the tongue, this little thing that has big implications. How many of you, you’re with me? The Holy Spirit has got you and you’re feeling convicted? It’s a good thing. God doesn’t want to condemn you, he wants to convict you. He wants you to see it so that we can change, and I need to change too.
So, I want to invite you to receive this with me. OK, my hope today is not to come to you as a critic, but as a coach, as a teacher who’s guilty with you, but we’re hearing from God to help us all. “With it we bless our Lord and Father.” God, we love you, we praise you. Put in more Christian music. I want to sing again. I want to sing in the car. I want to pray. Praise the Lord! I want to talk about the Lord. I want to go to Bible study, and Community Group, and I want to answer questions, and talk about the Lord. Yay, Lord! That’s good, right?
“And we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” You say, “Well, they’re not a good person,” but they’re made in the image and likeness of God, so they deserve dignity. What he’s saying is you can’t say, “Yay, Lord! I hate them. “They’re this, they’re that, they’re the other. “I’m frustrated by them. They did this, they failed me. Yay, Lord!” Positive, negative, positive, negative, life, death, life, death, life, death. Proverbs says that life and death are contained in the tongue. “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers.”
Hey, you’re a Christian. OK, are you a Christian? If you’re not a Christian, you need to become a Christian. You can’t just get your tongue under control. Jesus needs to sit in the saddle, right? Because it said earlier nobody can contain their tongue, nobody can restrain their tongue. You’re not supposed to be the Lord of your own life. You need somebody else on the saddle. His name’s Jesus.
But if you are a Christian, “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 salty pond yield fresh water.”
How many of you have a well on your property? You’re like, “I love my well because I can pull water and Coca-Cola out of it.” You’re like, no, it’s one or the other. He’s saying you can’t get fresh water and salt water. You can’t get two things out of one source. You say, “I have this awesome tree. It grows apples and oranges.”
Not one tree, it’s one or the other. I couldn’t go down to the Puget Sound and get a bucket of water and say, “Well, the whole Puget Sound is salt water, “but every once in a while I go down and I scoop a bucket of fresh water.” No. And sometimes what we like to do is say, “Well, look at the good things I said.” It’s like, “OK, OK, yeah, we get that, but there’s some other things too.”
GETTING TO THE SOURCE
What he’s saying is you got to get to the source. See, whether it’s the source of the fruit or the source of the water, the whole point is to get to the source. And in the Bible, the source is the heart. The heart appears about 900 times. It’s not just the physical organ, it’s the spiritual center. It’s who we are. It where Proverbs says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks,” right? That’s why the heart is the wellspring of life. That’s why Jesus says that our words come out of our heart.
So some of you, you’re like, “I made a list of words I will not say.” I’m not saying that’s bad, but unless the heart changes, the tone, the time, they don’t change. So, I want to ask you some questions, for you, for your relationships, especially with your spouse, your kids, your community, your Community Group. What I want to do is I want us to get to the heart of our speech.
1. WHOM DO I IDOLIZE?
Number one, whom do I idolize? I want you to ask yourself that question. The great American theologian, Jonathan Edwards—you’ve heard me say it before if you’ve been around. He said that if we idolize, we what? Demonize. If you idolize someone—”I want to be like you. “You’re the best. “Help me, save me, fix me, bless me. Never leave me nor forsake me.”
If you hand them Jesus’ resume, they’re going to fail you and then you’re going to demonize them. You’re going to speak evil of them. You’re going to oppose them. You’re going to slander them. You’re going to gossip about them. You’re going to destroy them. You’re going to set them on fire. Don’t idolize anyone. If you idolize them, you’ll demonize them. If you set them up, it’s only so that eventually you can set them on fire. And don’t allow yourself to be idolized. It only works until it doesn’t work, and then it doesn’t work at all.
2. WHAT DO I COVET?
Number two, what do I covet? “I wish I was married. I wish I had kids. “I wish I had their job. I wish I had their parents. “I wish I had their car. I wish I had their house. “I wish I had their position. I wish I had their gifts. “I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish I had. “So what I’m going to do is I’m going to say bad things about them because I’m jealous of them.”
In the next chapter, you’re going to hear—if you read ahead the next section of Scripture, I should say, in James 3, he talks about bitter envy and selfish ambition. Envy. Selfish. “They didn’t deserve that. “You know, they shouldn’t have that. You know how they got that.” You can’t rejoice with those who rejoice. You can’t celebrate God’s grace. You’re angry at it. You’re covetous of it. And that affects your heart and that comes out in your speech. “So, I’m going to take it from them or I’m going to make it not enjoyable for them.”
3. WHAT LIES DO I PERPETUATE?
Number three, what lies do I perpetuate? I’ve heard something that I’m sharing. I don’t know if it’s true or not. Or I heard something, I know it’s not true, but I’m going to let it go because it benefits me. Number four, what gossip do I enjoy? Oh, so-and-so, such and such, this and that. Oh, do tell.
Sometimes, Christians, let’s just be honest and say we say, “Oh, you know, I’ve got a prayer request.” No, what you have is a gossip request masked as a prayer request. “Oh, pray for so and so.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. The answer needs to be, “You need to go talk to them, you don’t need to talk about them.”
See, this is Matthew 18. If somebody sins against you, go talk to them, don’t talk about them. That’s gossip. That’s gossip. Who am I bitter against? When someone sins against you, you’re really at a fork in the road. You’ve got two options: bitterness or forgiveness.
Forgiveness is, “You know what, I’ve got a rock. “I could throw it. I’m going to drop it. “I’m not going to throw it. “I’m going to treat you the way Jesus treated me. “I’m just like the adulterous woman. “I’m guilty. “Jesus could throw a rock at me. “He didn’t throw a rock at me, he forgave me, “so I’m not going to throw a rock at you, “I’m going to forgive you. I’m going to forgive you. “Move on. “Not going to bring it up, not going to talk about it. “We’re going to have a funeral for that. It’s over.”
Or bitterness, “Oh no, I will not forgive. “I will not let it go. “I’m going to be, you know, an emotional archeologist. “I’m going to continue digging back, and feeling it again, “and maybe adding to it, and encouraging others “to have perspective on it, and to give me their input. “Have you experienced this? Have you seen this? Yes, let’s set it on fire!” Satan’s in a moment of rejoicing. “Yes! Set it on fire!”
Jesus is in a moment of weeping. No, bitterness—bitterness is the enemy of forgiveness. That’s where Paul says in Ephesians, you know, “Watch against all bitterness and forgiven one another as God and Christ forgave you.” Who has hurt me? Here’s what I find: hurt people tend to hurt people. You say, “Man, they really hurt me.” It may be true, but if you take that into your heart, then you’re a hurt person who’s going to hurt people and that’s not helpful.
Here’s what I’ve learned: when I’m tired, when I’m angry, when I’m frustrated, when I’m hurt, when I feel betrayed, I tend to be a counter-puncher by nature, OK? Swing, swing, right? And when I’m hurt, I tend to respond in a way that I wouldn’t if I waited. Any of you experience that?
Here’s my encouragement: when you’re hurt, wait. When you’re hurt, wait. Say, “You know what, I can’t talk about this right now. “You know what, I don’t think now’s a good time. “I love you. I want to work this out. “I’m not ready. “I want to get ready because I want to do this right. “And I need to go work out my hurt with Jesus so then I “can work out my issue with you. “Jesus will take care of my hurt and then I’ll be ready, but I’ve got to get with Jesus first.”
Number seven, this is a question for us all: how do I like to play God? And playing God is this: “They all stumble in many ways. “They all stumble in many ways, but I don’t. “I sit on a seat alongside of Jesus who never stumbled “in any way. “And we judge people, and we question motives, “and we evaluate their life. “And we demand that they come forward and give an account. “And we render verdicts of guilt or innocence. And sometimes we punish them and make them pay.”
Jesus would say, “Number one, “that’s not how I do it, and number two, you don’t get to sit next to me.” We all stumble in many ways. None of us gets to sit in the saddle for anyone else. “Well, I’m going to be in control of you. “I’m going to judge you. “I’m going to be the authority. “I’m going to—I’m going to—I’m going to. And if you don’t, well, I’m going to pull a little harder.” No, no, no, no, off the saddle, friend, right?
Jesus needs to sit in the saddle, the Holy Spirit needs to pull the reigns, and we all need—we all need forgiveness, we all need a new heart, we all need the power of the Holy Spirit so that the new life in us starts to come through us. No one has had more evil spoken against them in the history of the world than Jesus Christ, and Jesus is the only person who’s ever lived that never stumbled in any way. Everything he always said was the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, perfectly. How amazing is that? Jesus never had to walk up to anybody and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. My attitude was sour. My tone was angry.”
How many times have you had to do that? I’ve had to do this a lot. Jesus never had to do that. He was perfect, and to this day, the most horrific, evil, untrue things are said about him.
Here’s what I love. Here’s the good news, because right now, we’re probably all feeling pretty convicted, amen? Jesus gets the last word. He who does not stumble in any way goes to the cross to suffer and die for we who have stumbled in many ways. And while shameful, horrible things are being said about Jesus, Jesus gets the last word. And what’s the last word? As he’s atoning for the sins of the world, the Lord Jesus says this, “Father, forgive them.”
None of us would have said that, friend. We would have defended ourselves, we would have picked a fight, we would have made sure that we unleashed hell, and instead, Jesus unleashed heaven on those who were unleashing hell.
Here’s the good news: we’re all guilty. Everybody today, put your rock down. And if you belong to Jesus, you’re forgiven. He knows that we all stumble in many ways. He forgives us. He alone should sit in the saddle. Starting with me, we all need a bit in our mouth, amen? Otherwise, we run wild and out of control, like an animal. We drift into danger, and devastation, and death like a ship that is out of control. And we set people, people we love, on fire with the flames of hell.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND
This is an opportunity for us all to respond. We’re going to collect our tithes and offerings so that the message of Jesus can continue to go forth in the teaching of the Bible. I want to encourage you to take this opportunity to talk to Jesus in prayer. Anything he’s convicted you of, anybody you need to speak to, anything you need to learn from this, it could be out loud or it can be silent, talking to Jesus, right? He’s alive and well, seated on a throne. He’s available to help, and to love, and to serve.
We’re going to partake of Communion. As we partake of Communion, we remember Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, how God has loved us, and forgiven us, and saved us. As we take the elements representing his broken body and shed blood into us, we’re asking him, “Jesus, also change my heart so that out of my heart, my words are different.”
And if there’s anybody you’re here with, and you’re like, “I just need to apologize before we take care of Communion. I just need to admit and own some stuff,” I would encourage you, don’t resist, or grieve, or quench the Holy Spirit, submit to him and do that. We’re going to sing. You know why? Because this mouth was made to praise God. That’s why it was made. So when he says, “Hey, don’t praise God and curse people “because you weren’t made for cursing, you were made for praising.”
What I want to do is I want to invite you, after we go through this bit of emotional process together, I want you to get to the point where you’re thinking about Jesus, not just yourself, and you’re praising Jesus, not just talking to yourself, and that you’re celebrating Jesus through singing to Jesus. And we do it together because we’re asking Jesus to help us treat one another in a way that the love, and the grace, and the mercy of Jesus is made manifest in the language and the relationships of the people that are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Lord Jesus, I thank you for the Scriptures and that I get to go through books of the Bible, because I love that. And I thank you, Lord Jesus, as we go through books of the Bible, we hit things that maybe we wouldn’t have hit because they hit us so hard. Lord, I pray for those of us who are teachers, that we would grow in godliness, particularly with our heart and our speech. God, I pray for those who are hearers, that they would be gracious with one another and gracious with us all.
And Lord, thank you for the honest word of the Bible that we all stumble in many ways. There’s not one of us who can say, “I have my mouth under control. It used to be an issue but no longer is.” It’s a wild animal. It’s a forest fire. It’s a ship without a rudder. Holy Spirit, please take the reigns. Lord Jesus, please sit in the saddle.
God, as we come to sing, help us to do what we were made for, and invest our words and not waste our words, to be good stewards of our words so that Jesus would be glorified and we would be changed to become more like him. We ask for this grace in his good name, amen.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.
Once a fire gets going, it’s hard to stop. James says our tongue is a spark that can unleash hell. Though you may not intend to, you can boil your Christian brother or sister alive with your words.