Watch What You Say
Back when I was in college, a guy named “Moose” picked me up and threw me in a dumpster behind our fraternity house. I don’t hold it against him. I deserved it. I’d just spent the past 45 minutes following him around the house, intentionally irritating him by telling him a terrible joke he didn’t want to hear.
Have you ever gotten in trouble because of your tongue?
You said something you shouldn’t have said – maybe not on purpose; maybe it was a careless slip of tongue. You told a secret you shouldn’t have, used a word shouldn’t have, shared an opinion that was wrong or foolish, gave some false information, made a snide comment hurt someone’s feelings. As soon as words are out of your mouth, you tried to shove them back in. Or it sometime later your words came back to haunt you.
There are so many different ways our tongues can get us in trouble. Which is why have so many colorful expressions about misspeaking: she had to eat her words; he’s a smart mouth; loose lips sink ships; open mouth, insert foot.
Know who’s a shinning biblical example of that? The Apostle Peter. “Lord, If it’s you, let me come out on water to you,” he said, just before he sank below the waves. “I’ll never deny you,” he said, just before the cock crowed three times.” “You are the Messiah,” he said, minutes before rebuking Jesus for talking about being crucified. Peter’s tongue got him in trouble frequently.
James, the brother of Jesus and the author of the little book of James in the New Testament, also had a lot to say about the tongue. In every chapter in this short book, you’ll find multiple comments and warning about how we ought or not speak. (See 1:19; 1:26; 2:2-4; 2:12; 3:1-12; 2:15; 4:11; 4:13, 15; 4:16; 5:12; 5:13-16 for a positive use of the tongue).
Clearly, for James, what we do with our tongues – what we say – is extremely important for those who are “Servants of God and of Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). In fact, James says, “If you consider yourself religious and don’t control tongue, you’re fooling yourself and your religion is useless” (1:26)
For James, True Religion is practical. It is the concrete outworking in daily life of a heart that is turned toward God and has been changed by Christ. It is expressed not just in believing right, but doing right; in caring for the most vulnerable; in setting aside our prejudices; and in watching what we say.
Because nothing reveals what’s in our hearts faster and more clearly than what we say.
Jesus put it like this, when speaking to the Pharisees who considered themselves especially religious: You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)
James is saying the same thing. When he talks about the tongue, he’s really getting at what’s in our hearts. Because nothing reveals what’s in our hearts faster and more clearly than what we say.
That’s why, says James Not many of you should become teachers (3:1). Teachers – and preachers too – are especially accountable for what we say. And with that warning, James launches into an extended riff on the power and pernicious peril of the tongue. (3:3-12)
it’s like a bridle, a little piece of steel and leather. Put it in a horse’s mouth and you can control a thousand pounds of raw muscle
It’s like a rudder that can steer a scary large ship being driven by powerful winds
It’s like a small fire that sets a whole forest on fire – a fire that is lit by hell itself and sets on fire the whole cycle of sinful nature
It’s like an untameable poisonous wild animal
Be careful what you say, says James, because the tongue is this small little thing with unexpectedly big effect for good or for bad.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)
You want to know what true religion is? It’s when what we say to or about others matches what we say to and about God.
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so! (3:10)
(Don’t you get the impression James is sharing his own heart here? That he’s talking from his own personal experience?)
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (3:11) Of course not!
And neither will our mouths spew forth sewage. Because if we really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (2:1), if our religion is true, than our hearts have been changed. The bridle on our tongue is the Lordship of Christ. It will God’s will that pilots the ship of our life. Our tongues are set on fire – not by hell, but by the tongues of flame of the Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit which will be like a river of fresh water coming out of our hearts (John 7:38) and through our lips.
If you find that your tongue has gotten you in trouble, or keeps getting you in trouble, examine what is in your heart.
If you are prone to criticism or question others or often get into arguments, it could be that there’s arrogance in your heart. A friend of mine admitted, “When you’re right, you don’t think you have to let folk off the hook.” I often “know I’m right” and therefore think I have to make that point or have the last word.
If you are quick to speak and slow to listen or if you find people have to interrupt you just to get a word in edgewise, maybe there’s selfishness in your heart.
If you find yourself defensive and quickly lashing out at people maybe what’s in your heart is hurt. Or guilt. Or unforgiveness.
If you’re complaining a lot, maybe it’s bitterness.
What we say and how we say it reflects what’s in our hearts. And if true religion includes being aware of condition of your heart, then one of most religious things we can do is watching what we say – which means both being careful about how we speak, and paying attention to how we speak so that Lord can change or heal or expand our hearts as need be.
Psalm 19 says:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
That’s not an either-or or a both-and. It’s a one-and-the- same.
The meditations of our hearts can only be acceptable when the words of our mouths are acceptable. And the words of our mouths will only be acceptable when meditations of our hearts are acceptable.
Preachers often begin their sermons by quoting that verse in Psalm 19. But they weren’t written for preachers. They are mean for all of us. Imagine if each of us began every day by praying, “Lord, let the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable to you today.”
Wait a minute. Don’t just imagine it. Do it today.
(Edited version of a sermon based on James 3:1-12, preached September 16, 2018).