“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” — James 3:10
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William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was an Anglican priest and warden of New College, at Oxford, England. Spooner was known for an unfortunate tendency to reverse the initial letters of two or more words as he spoke.
In one address, he referred to a “crushing blow” as a “blushing crow.” Instead of “lighting a fire,” he once spoke of “fighting a liar,” and in trying to describe the joy of riding a “well-oiled bicycle,” he called it a “well-boiled icicle.” In a memorable sermon, Spooner declared: “the Lord is a shoving leopard” – not the “loving shepherd” image he intended to portray.
The late country comedian Archie Campbell took “Spoonerisms” to a new level, delighting audiences with the story of “Rindercella,” who went to a “bancy fall,” “lell in fove with a prandsome hince,” and “slopped her dripper.”
Do you ever trip over your tongue or put your foot in your mouth? Start your tongue before putting your brain in gear? Did you ever suffer, as a friend of mine used to put it, from chronic diarrhea of the mouth?
Our speech problems typically result less from Spoonerisms or Freudian slips than from speaking words that are careless, hurtful, or untrue.
The misuse of speech can lead to serious consequences. One can break a heart with a single word or lose a friend with an unkind remark. Thoughtless comments can wreak havoc with a child’s self-esteem – or with the social fabric of a church family. Getting our tongues under some semblance of control is serious business.
In the first two chapters of his letter, James encouraged believers to be people whose faith was demonstrated by their works, not just their words. He never intended to suggest, however, that words are not significant. Words have tremendous potential to bring good or evil. In that sense, the tongue may be the strongest muscle in our bodies.
The power to direct(vv. 1-5a)
James was aware of the immense power – and the two-edged nature – of the tongue. But why broach the subject here? James must have been addressing a situation in which certain persons had said things that caused harm to the church, perhaps through teaching shallow and twisted theology, or through speaking ill of brothers and sisters. James argued in the previous chapter that the legitimacy of our faith is revealed by our works. One of most important works we can do is to tame the tongue.
The tongue can be put to powerful use in teaching. Since teaching presumes authority and influences others, James argues that teachers “will be judged with greater strictness.” Thus, he does not encourage just anyone to wear the teacher’s robe. Not everyone is equipped to teach, and those who teach wrongly leave themselves open to judgment (v. 1).
This bit of advice, while true in a general sense, may have been directed toward persons who wanted to teach ideas that James considered to be incorrect at best, or heretical at worst. This chapter follows one in which James heatedly insisted that faith not evidenced by works is dead. He may have been targeting persons who taught that one’s actions were unimportant.
James admits that no one is perfect. Many of us may be tempted to take James 3:2a as our life verse: “For all of us make many mistakes.” In social relationships, it is particularly difficult to direct our speaking in consistently positive ways. Anyone who can control their tongue, James argues, is “able to keep the whole body in check” (v. 2b).
Two illustrations drive home the author’s point. A small bit in the mouth of a horse can direct a large and powerful animal (v. 3). A small rudder on the back of a ship can guide a huge sea-going vessel (v. 4). Both illustrations show it is not the tongue alone that causes problems, though it appears to be the fulcrum of action. The horse is guided by the will of the rider, and the ship is kept on course by the will of its pilot. The bit and the rudder are powerful tools used by the one who controls them.
So, when James speaks of the tongue boasting of its great exploits (v. 5), we know that he is speaking metaphorically. He knows very well that the tongue only does what the mind tells it to. We cannot avoid responsibility for harmful words by saying “Oops! My tongue slipped!” The tongue only gives outward expression to our inner thoughts. These verses reinforce James’s earlier assertion that an unbridled tongue and worthless religion go hand in hand (1:26).
The power to destroy(vv. 5b-8)
One cold afternoon when I was a boy, an older cousin and I were playing in a small field overgrown with broom sedge that was dry and dormant in the winter chill. My cousin happened to have some matches in his pocket, and proposed that we build a fire. We thought we could pile up a little straw, play with the fire, and then put it out. We didn’t take into account the dryness of the field or the strength of the wind. Soon, the flames spread far beyond our intention, and our dancing efforts to stamp out the blaze were fruitless. Ultimately, my mother had to call the forest service for assistance.
I learned that once you set a fire in an open field, you can’t take it back. Every year we see news footage of fierce fires that race through millions of acres and destroy hundreds of homes. Sometimes it is the result of just one carelessly tossed cigarette. So it is in our relationships. The social world in which we live has no neat borders. Once we speak a word, there is no telling where it will end up or how large it will grow or how many people it will hurt. Try as we might, once we say something, we can’t take it back.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” said James, “and the tongue is a fire” (vv. 5b-6a). The words we speak have the power to do incredible harm. If we teach distorted doctrine, for example, we could actually lead people farther away from Christ, rather than closer to him. If we make disparaging remarks about another, we not only hurt that person, but we also damage our own reputation and bring shame upon the name of Christ.
James used his own tongue unsparingly in describing the destructive power of speech. The tongue is a focal point of iniquity, a stain that pollutes the whole person, a fire that threatens the natural world and finds its source in hell (v. 6). The phrase “sets on fire the course of nature” speaks to the whole of human existence, from one’s family of origin onward (as in 1:23). In essence, James seems to be saying that the tongue has the power to wreck one’s entire life. It is an untamable thing, a restless evil, filled with deadly poison (vv. 7-8).
The forceful nature of this intense language is designed to underscore the serious nature of the matter. Humans appear capable of taming every other creature on earth, but cannot control something as small as their own tongues. This does not mean we are to stop trying, but to give extra care to our speech and seek always to bring our words under Christ’s control.
The possibility of perversion(vv. 9-12)
The author goes on to give a specific example of how the gift of speech can be perverted. James describes a situation in which someone utters a prayer of blessing to God, and then – with the same tongue – pronounces words of cursing upon persons who are God’s children (vv. 9-10).
James is not talking about the use of “curse words” as we understand them, although he would undoubtedly oppose their use, as well. Ancient peoples were not hesitant to wish evil upon others while calling on their gods to enforce the curse. The modern phrase “God damn” still preserves some of the character of a curse: “May God damn you to hell” is what it means.
The essence of cursing comes in other forms, as well. Any words we speak that demean others or cause them to think less of themselves are in effect words of cursing: they invoke a diminished spirit. Parents in particular must be careful to speak words of encouragement to their children. Childhood egos are fragile, and constant criticism can shatter them. Words of support that build up our children’s self-esteem are truly blessings. Critical words that make them feel “not good enough” are nothing more than a curse.
Cursing others is contrary to the nature of a Christian. We don’t expect a fig tree to produce olives or a grapevine to produce figs. It is likewise contradictory for a Christian to speak words of both blessing and cursing. A good spring does not yield both good water and bad at the same time, nor can the ocean be both salty and fresh (vv. 11-12). For a Christian, to bless God and curse his neighbor is the height of hypocrisy.
I remember hearing a personal management guru speak of personal weaknesses as “potential areas for self-management.” James would have every Christian to put the careful use of speech high on their list of areas that need further growth. If not, our own internal inconsistency will be our downfall, and may bring others down with us.
That is not a desired outcome in anyone’s book. BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for September 13, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: James 3:1-12
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
A picture is worth a thousand words. We’ve all heard that cliche time and time again, mostly because it is true. The pictures and posts that students send out via social media reveals a lot about who they are and what they are thinking. This can be good because we have a more honest understanding of what our students are thinking. It it can also have negative consequences, when what is posted doesn’t paint the best picture of a student. If the author of James were writing today, they might also include pictures as well as the tongue. Our students use pictures to talk for themselves. We need to help our students realize what they post is a revelation of who they are.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Walnut-sized Brain” from Land of the Lost
Read Scripture online: James 3:1-12