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[Lesson 6] Wisdom in Our Speech: James 3:2-12

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This is part 6 in a 7-part series on the book of James. Below is a modified transcript of the audio lesson.

Today we are going to talk about the words that we use and how to use our speech and our words to please God. I’m sure many of you have seen all these e-mails that go around. Some are cheesy and corny and some are so funny I fall off my chair laughing! I’m sure many of you have seen this one. Actually my husband sent it to me and said, “I understand this but I thought you might need to see it.” It’s Words Women use:

The first word is “fine” and if you read the definition it should be pronounced “FINE!” This is the word women use to end and argument when they feel they are right and you need to be quiet! Never use fine to describe how a woman looks. This will cause you to have one of those arguments!

Only five minutes. This means half an hour. It is the equivalent to the five minutes that your football game is going to last before you take out the trash so it’s an even trade.

Nothing- after reading the definition this should be pronounced as “NOTHING”. This means something and you should be on your toes! Nothing is usually used to describe the feeling a woman has of wanting to turn you inside out, upside down and backwards. NOTHING usually signifies an argument that will last five minutes and end with FINE!

Go ahead- with raised eyebrows and/or up raised arms. This is a dare. One that will result in a woman getting upset over NOTHING and will end up with the word FINE!

Go ahead- normal eyebrows. This means I give up, do what you want because I don’t care. You will get a raised eyebrow and go ahead in just a few minutes followed by NOTHING and FINE! She will talk to you in about five minutes.

Go ahead. At some point in the near future you are going to be in big, big trouble! Go ahead, just go ahead! Oh, dear!

The list goes on with loud sigh, soft sigh, that’s okay etc.

The last one is thanks a lot. If you just read that it sounds nice but you know how a tone can make such a difference. This is much different from just thanks. A woman will say thanks a lot when she is really ticked off at you. It signifies that you have offended her in some way and it will be followed by a loud sigh. Be careful to not ask what is wrong after the loud sigh because she will tell you NOTHING!

Well, I think that this e-mail and others that go around illustrate that words have amazing power to communicate. Not only the words communicate but the tone of voice, the body language and the message that is sent.

The bible has so much to say about the words of our mouth. We have often pointed out or talked about in our study of James that this book is closely tied to the book of Proverbs, the book of wisdom in the Old Testament. There are many correlations between these two books. It’s a good thing to read through the book of Proverbs. There are 31 proverbs so you can read one a day and complete the book in a month. You will notice how many of them have to do with our words: whether it’s with lying and telling the truth, whether its with cursing, words of pride and arrogance, words of bragging, gossip, rumors, saying things we shouldn’t say. It covers every aspect of speech.

James follows his theme through just like the book of Proverbs. If you remember his whole thesis, the whole underlying theme of James’ book is that we would live what we believe. Right? Wisdom in living what we believe or say we believe.

The last time we talked about faith and works and how you can connect your faith with your works. Your actions in your life should show that you have faith in God. Really a lot of this book is about not being a phony or hypocrite and being and saying in reality what you say and believe in your heart.

James’ main thought, his thesis, is that our speech is an indicator of the condition of our heart. Our speech shows our heart. You know, it’s funny, if a child says bad words, what is the thing that you’ve heard parents say they’ll do? My parents never did this to me but it is to wash their mouth out with soap. But you know washing your mouth out with soap does not solve the problem because it isn’t your mouth that needs to be cleansed. It’s your heart that needs cleansing. I want us to start in James 3 and read most of this chapter today. We touched on this a bit in James 1:19 when he is speaking about the tongue and wisdom and coming through trials and temptations. “Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger because the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. I told the story of the Lord showing me this verse when I had not been swift to hear nor slow to speak with my 8th grade daughter. Can’t 8th grade girls push you to the limit so quickly? Boys too, I’m sure! This verse was brought to my attention and I’ve remembered it ever since. Not that I’ve done it ever since but I have remembered it! It’s almost as if James takes a lot of principles and scatters them out and he comes back and addresses them in more detail.

Beginning with James 3 he puts an interesting verse before he goes into the topic of our speech. James 3:1- Dear brothers and sisters (remember he’s writing to the persecuted church scattered all across Asia and Asia Minor because of the persecution Christians were receiving at this time) not many of you should be teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged by God with greater strictness.” Now he just has this little verse about teaching. I want to acknowledge this verse and talk about it for a few minutes because I think it’s very interesting and there aren’t many other verses like this. There are a few others that tie into it. James addresses teachers, people that teach the bible, in his section on the tongue. I would be curious to know how many of you have some kind of responsibility in your church or organization, maybe an office, where you teach a bible study or you teach Sunday school? I don’t care if it’s 2-3 year olds or someone 95- years old anybody teach in here? Okay. I thought we would have several and we do. It’s important that those of us who do teach understand the responsibility, the seriousness of this that James is talking about. In the workbook that we’re using there’s some interesting words that Ken Boa has written. He reminds the reader about studying the background of scripture and explaining it. He reminds us that during the Babylonian exile the Jews were taken into captivity around 500 B.C. The Jews because of their rebellion against God were punished. The Babylonians, modern Iraq today, came and took them into captivity. They plundered and destroyed the temple and took most of the Jews back into captivity for 70 years. Now while they were there many of them forgot the teachings of God. They didn’t have the temple. Many of the younger generation were not taught the things of God. They became acclimated to the land and culture there. In fact when they were given the freedom to come back with King Darius (you can read about this in the book of Nehemiah and Ezra) some of them didn’t come back. Esther was one of those for example. She was from a Jewish family that stayed there because they had become at home there. While they were there many did not learn the word of God. Secondly, that’s when synagogues popped up. They didn’t have the temple or temple worship but they could have local quorums, ten Jewish men, and form a synagogue. So some of the religious Jews would meet weekly and there the Levites, the tribe that were the priests, would stand and take a scripture, a text, and explain it. It’s interesting we have so many traditions from Old Testament Judaism in the church and this is one of them. If you go to a church or bible study where the teacher or preacher stands up and takes a verse and reads it, explains it and gives it some application, that’s really in the tradition of the Jewish priests, the Levites. This is what was happening when they came back from captivity. They continued to meet in local assemblies, synagogues, and stand and teach and preach and explain the word of God. It is in that tradition that we still do that today. So there is a strong tradition of teaching. There are individuals teaching, not only preachers or high priests, who have been called or gifted in some way. He says there is a warning. When I read this verse I think of when I first began to teach, of course I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve never had any idea of what I was doing! I remember I was in a bible study with a woman named Grace who was an excellent teacher. I lived near her and got to know her pretty well and I noticed something about Grace. She never walked up to that podium that she was not prayed up and studied up. She had about 300 young women in her group. One of the many things I learned from her was to study. If God calls you to teach then I don’t care if it’s a Sunday school class of four 8th grade girls, you need to study! You need to be prepared. You need to take that seriously. She used to say to us in our prayer time that you never know when there is someone that needs so much to hear a word from God, needs to be comforted, needs to hear a verse, needs to be reminded of a truth. She would say she wanted to be very sensitive to that. I so appreciate her example of being prepared and of studying and of realizing that what you teach is very important. This verse implies that there is a degree of judgment. James says you will be judged by a stricter standard if you teach. So those who teach false doctrine, those who teach wrong, don’t take time to really study the word of God and know what it means and explain it, will be held responsible for it. We’ll be judged by God with greater strictness. It’s very interesting in Luke 12:48 Jesus said; People who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” There’s an implication here that those who teach have a very serious responsibility. I want to tell you I always remember that. I don’t think I’ve ever taught or spoken anywhere where I did not think as I was getting out of the car that I wish I had one more hour or half hour to look up a few more verses. I don’t know if you ever feel like you’re finished! But I do remember this example and thank God for it. We want to be faithful to what God has called us to do whether it is in a small group setting or a large group setting. Scripture says someday we will be judged on that so take it seriously.

Secondly, he not only talks about the responsibility of teaching but also about the power of speech. This is found in James 3:2-12; “ We all make many mistakes, but those who control their tongues can also control themselves in every way. We can make a large horse turn around and go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a tiny rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot wants it to go, even though the winds are strong. So also, the tongue is a small thing, but what enormous damage it can do. A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is full of wickedness that can ruin your whole life. It can turn the entire course of your life into a blazing flame of destruction, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

People can tame all kinds of animals and birds and reptiles and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is an uncontrollable evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it breaks out into curses against those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh and bitter water? Can you pick olives from a fig tree or figs from a grapevine? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty pool.” Now he is saying when there is inconsistent speech something is wrong. There’s a lack of integrity, a lack of consistency. He talks about the power of the tongue and the power of speech and uses analogies of proportion. Words have power. When Patrick Henry stood and declared, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,” those words inspired a new nation to fight for liberty. I believe when our former president Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbichev, tear this wall down!” Those words had such power and they resonated into people’s hearts and that’s exactly what happened. There are so many examples. Words have power. They mean something. They make us want to respond in some way. I remember a few months ago on the show 20/20, there was a story of a little girl from Afghanistan that was in a bombing. She was dreadfully burned. Literally it looked like her neck and skin had just melted. A plastic surgeon from California, a very wealthy man and his wife, decided to adopt her, not legally, but to be her guardians rather and bring her to California. She was to have extensive surgeries that could help her have a normal life and restore her to some degree of normalcy. It was a beautiful story of this couple and how they fell so in love with this little girl. She was so burned and marred and scarred but she always had this little twinkle in her eye. I remember they showed her after one of the most extensive surgeries. Her whole face and neck were bandaged. Her face was swollen. Her tongue was swollen. They were waiting for her to say something. She’d been watching TV with the remote. All the doctors and nurses as they undid some of the bandages, asked her if she could say anything. She looked up at them with this little sparkle in those little black eyes and she said, “Who let the dogs out?” They all collapsed in laughter and tears. Those words said that her spirit was alive and well. Her body was swollen and marred and distressed but her little spirit was strong. It’s an amazing story. I love that story. I thought those words, that response, shows that she is well. Do you know what that did for those people? It have them such encouragement. They are determined to do anything to help that little girl get well. So words have power. I don’t think anyone ever wrote about this passage that didn’t use the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Is that true? There’s nothing more untrue than that because I bet that if we had time we could go around every table and everyone of you could remember something someone said to you when you were a child that hurt you. Either you’re fat, you’re skinny, you have freckles, you have big ears, you have a big nose, you’re tall, you’re short, whatever it is they are always words that hurt us. Sometimes they’re unintentional and sometimes they are.

Emotional wounds are different from physical wounds. Physical wounds can heal but very often, emotional wounds by unkind words are not things we forget. Years ago, we were with some friends during the PTL days, Tammy Faye and all those people, and we were talking about their hair and make up. This woman turned to my husband, O.S., and said, “ You should thank God every day that you have such a plain wife.” He has never let me forget that! He said, “I’ll take plain. It could be worse you know!” But believe me, I remember she said that! There’s a lot worse things that could be said, I know, still isn’t it funny how you remember those words? I can remember what I had on and I didn’t think it was so plain! But I guess she did! That’s when I started wearing big earrings!

Proverbs 18:21; “ Death and life are in the power of the tongue and you can give life or you can give death.” Remember, I think it was last year, when I used the example of the book called, Summer of my German Soldier. It’s a story about a young girl and the way her father and mother talked so harshly and so mean to her. They had a woman who cooked in their home and she would gather her in her arms and say, “Honey, they don’t know what they’re talking about. You’re one of God’s precious children. You’re smart. You’re bright. You’re worthwhile.” The whole story, one of the many themes of that book is the contrast and comparison and conflict between one message that she heard of negativity- you’ll never amount to anything, you’re just like you’re grandmother, etc.- and in the other ear she heard- you’re valuable, God loves you, you’re worthwhile, you have dignity, you have worth you’re smart, you’re good. It’s really such a story of strife in a 12-year-old girl trying to determine which message to believe. I can’t think of any other book I’ve read that had such a distinct message of words that give life or words that give death. And the rest of that verse goes on to say, “And those who love it will eat its fruit.” Meaning, those who use their speech and tongue in a negative way will someday bear the consequences of it. Proverbs 12:18; “There is one who speaks like the piercing of the sword but the tongue of the wise promotes health.” David in the Psalms often talked about things people were saying about him. He uses many times the analogy of the sword. Words are like a knife that is thrust into him and the pain, the immediate pain of that. I think that’s a very good picture of speech. It shows us the pain that we feel when someone criticizes or hurts us and how deeply those wounds can go. So we have the point that words have great power.

We have also in this passage an analogy of proportion, small things that are influenced by big things. You have in verse 3 an example of a bit in a horse’s mouth. What is he saying? One picture is of an uncontrolled horse running with great strength and power but it is running wild. On the other hand you have a horse with a small bit in its mouth that can carry, transport cargo and people and be of great use in this world. A small bit in the horse’s mouth can make an enormous difference. Then he goes on to talk about the rudder on a ship. A ship without a rudder is just out to sea and sails wherever the waves take it. That’s where it will go. But a rudder works with the currents in the water to direct the ship to a certain place, wherever the crew wants it to go. He compares the tongue to a rudder and a horse’s bit. These are small things but they can control and direct large things. Then he says in the same way the tongue is a small thing but it can do enormous damage. He goes on to talk about a spark and how it can set a great forest on fire. The tongue is a flame of fire full of wickedness that can ruin your life. It can turn the entire course of your life into a blazing flame of destruction for it is set on fire by hell itself. Now we don’t know much about James’ life in any details but I just have to wonder if he had been the victim or if his church had been the victim of vicious rumors and gossip and evil speaking. It sounds like it because he is saying here, (and don’t you know it is true), that rumors and gossip that is unchecked can literally destroy someone’s life. I don’t even want to say these words out loud but truth compels me to do it. I don’t know of any worse place than in the church. It’s true. I cannot even begin to tell stories on this. Churches have split and people have had to leave the ministry because of this. There are wounds that can never be healed by unthoughtful, unkind, unchristian words said to or about others. This passage in no way says that you should not tell the truth or that you shouldn’t be willing to say some hard things sometimes but there is a way to say those things in love. Paul says, speak the truth in love. So I’m not saying don’t say hard things. You have to sometimes but everything we say is to be in a way to edify others and to build them up, to be kind and thoughtful. So you have the analogy of proportion and potential, the fire and the poison. He’s on a roll here using these analogies! The tongue is like a fire. I think of those pictures on the television of the wild fire in California. The fire is just racing down hills. He says it is a fire or it is a deadly poison. Now both of these things are good if they’re controlled. Fire that is controlled is good. It’s a fireplace that warms you or it cooks your food. Poison that is in controlled amounts can accomplish great things. It can be a vaccine and it can get rid of roaches in your house. Poison has some good things about it! But when it is unchecked and thrown out into the world and not controlled it is deadly. James is making the point here that our tongue, our mouth, our speech is a very small thing but it has enormous potential.

When I was studying for this on Saturday a friend of mine called me and she has a son-in-law and daughter on staff at another church in the deep South. It’s a hard place to serve sometimes. She was telling me this church had called this couple because they liked his ideas about the church staff, his area and what he wanted to do. Some of the women, imagine that, had started to not like some of the things he was doing. These rumors started about how he was going to change this and he was going to change that. My friend said it was almost hilarious, these things that were going around the church that her son-in-law was going to change. He had never even thought of that. He never even mentioned it. But the rumors were out and so they were really trying to deal with all the criticism and setting the record straight. She said she didn’t know after what had happened yesterday if they’d be able to make it or not. I asked her what had happened. She said, “Well, this little group of women came to her son-in-law and said, ‘We just want to tell you something in love’.” You know how people do that! “The Lord has told me to tell you that you need to get over Texas.” Hmmm, I don’t know but that crossed the line! Get over Texas! I don’t think so! She said it’s been very, very hard. There have been a lot of meetings and just pray for them. He’s meeting with people and trying to talk to them but once the rumors and gossip go out, it is like a wildfire. (The taped session ends half way through a story that Susie’s mentor had told her group. It is about a woman who had spread evil gossip about a local minister. The damage had been done and she realized her mistake and went for forgiveness from the pastor she had hurt. I think he likens gossip to trying to pick up and take back all the feathers released from a down pillow that is shaken from a hill on a windy night. It is impossible. The damage is done and can’t be taken back.)

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