“Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will never hurt me”
I learned this little rhyme when I was a young child, and was encouraged to chant it if I ever felt like someone was trying to hurt me with their words, as if it would stop someone else from wanting to mock me. I can’t remember that ever working. I don’t think I ever stopped anyone from making fun of me, or made myself feel any better, by chanting a nursery rhyme. Do you know why that never worked? Because that is a dumb saying.
“Words will never hurt me”? Are you kidding me? Some of the worst pain we feel in life comes from words – words like:
“I’m disappointed in you.”
“I don’t want to be your friend anymore.”
“I think we should breakup.”
“You’re worthless and you’ll never change.”
Some of our most vividly painful memories that we can recall often are ones where someone said painful, damaging words towards us. “Sticks and stones” will bring us no comfort in those moments, because here is the truth: our words are very, very powerful. This sermon isn’t just about us using our words “nicely”, but is trying to get us to be aware of the weight that our words carry. What we say or write is not inconsequential, and God’s Word has something much more honest and much more sobering for us to hear today than childish nursery rhymes.
James is telling us today that our tongue is like a nuclear reactor; it has the capacity to do incredible and powerful things, but it also has the power to wreak untold destruction in our lives, and the lives of others. Proverbs tells us that, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21), so when James tells us that we must “bridle our tongue” we should listen carefully.
James makes six comparisons of the tongue, comparing it to a horse and bridle, a ship and rudder, a spark and a fire, a beast, a spring, and a tree. Each of these comparisons can be divided up into three categories: The danger of our words, the power of our words, and the source of our words.
James first two illustrations, the horse and the bridle, and the rudder and the ship, serve to show the danger of our words.
In the same way that the small rudder and small bit in the horse’s mouth controls the whole ship or horse, so too does mastering the tongue reveal we have mastered our whole body. Now, James isn’t saying that mastering the tongue is the lynch-pin that leads to mastering our impatience, lust, greed, or any other sin – but he is saying that our “tongue” (what we say, or write) is the hardest of all sins to conquer. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (3:2). James thinks that if a man has enough self-control to stop himself from sinning with his mouth, then he definitely has enough self-control to stop himself from sinning with the rest of his body. Like a rudder, the tongue is small, but also like a rudder, the tongue is enormously important to the navigation of our lives. Could you imagine sailing on the ocean, with no one holding onto the steering wheel? No one would ever think that to be a good idea, but we often don’t think twice about what we say. We lean back, nod off, and trust that the currents of life will guide our words. James is telling us that we need to be vigilant and careful about how we speak – like a sailor navigating through rocky shore, we must be mindful of our words; they can be extremely dangerous.
James emphasizes the necessity for us to watch our words by comparing it to a rudder and a bit – but he presses this necessity even further by unpacking the power of our words. James compares our tongue next to a wildfire, and to a wild beast. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…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” (James 3:5-8). What a fascinating illustration, your words are like match; a small, insignificant, flickering flame – that can be tossed into a pile of dry brambles, and burn down millions of acres of a forest.
Your words, once they leave your mouth, carry a payload of immense power, and once detonated, cannot be taken back. Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben wisely told us that, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Our words, James is warning us, carry great power.
Now, what is helpful for us to think about is the potential positive nature of a fire and a beast. If you train a bull, you then have a worker, not a wild animal. If you create a fire in a fireplace, you then have something nice that heats your home. There are times where people would not survive without having fire or a trained beast to provide for them. Our words have remarkable power, for good or for bad, and they often have more of a profound effect than we are aware of (for good or for bad). Proverbs tells us, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).
The Word Test
It might be helpful for us to think through some precise examples of how we can sin with our words so that we might understand the gravity of what James is telling us here. There are certainly more sins than these, but these are what come to mind when I think of our temptations to sin with our tongue:
- I can sin with my words by telling lies, half-truths, white lies, purposely exaggerating in a dishonest manner, or manipulative or deceitful phrases to shroud the truth. (Prov. 12:22; 12:19)
- I can sin with my words by intentionally trying to harm someone else or retaliate through insults, sarcasm, rumors, or lies (Prov. 11:12; Matt. 7:12; Rom. 12:14)
- I can sin with my words through vulgar speech, raunchy jokes, repeating inappropriate phrases, or dirty words (Eph. 5:3-4)
- I can also sin with my words by laughing at and encouraging this behavior, even if I may not be the one saying it (Rom. 1:32; Eph. 5:11)
- I can sin with my words through refusing to tell my brother or sister the truth, brown-nosing, or sucking-up because I am afraid of what may happen if I’m honest (Prov. 27:6; Gal. 6:1-2; Eph. 4:25)
- I can sin with my words by refusing to speak about Christ because of shame, cowardice, or peer pressure (Matt. 10:33).
- I can sin with my words by over-talking, always making myself the center of attention, always bending the conversation back on myself, or always one-upping others (Prov. 13:3; 10:19; Phil. 2:3-4; Rom. 12:16)
- I can sin with my words by rushing to speak before I really have listened (James 1:19; Prov. 18:13; 17:28)
- I can sin with my words by tearing down my brother through sarcasm, jokes, or continuously bringing up their failures (Eph. 4:29; Prov. 11:12; 26:18-19)
- I can sin with my words by bragging about myself, talking about my achievements, and comparing myself to others (2 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 1:31; Jer. 9:24)
- I can sin with my words by venting sinful anger towards my brothers and sisters, or disrespect those in authority over me (Col. 3:8; 1 Tim. 5:1-2; Prov. 19:20; Eph. 6:1; 4:26-27).
Lastly, James compares our tongue to a spring of fresh water, and to a fig tree. “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?” (James 3:11-12). What is James talking about here? Well, he is illustrating what he sees as an impossible problem, “With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). James tells us that if we are blessing God with our mouths, we should be blessing our brothers with our mouths as well. We see a similar warning from John, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Notice how John points to the fact loving our brother should be the physical representation of loving the invisible God – as in, one of the fundamental ways you actually love God is displayed in loving your brother, who is made in the image of God. James seems to align with this view, alarmed at the inconsistency of blessing God and then cursing people “who are made in the likeness of God” (3:9) – as if cursing them is, in a way, cursing God. So, if you are at the spot where you know that you are cursing others, James and John are warning you: this is evidence of your lack of love towards Christ. My words are the fruit of the roots of what I believe; and if my words are filled with hatred and malice towards others, then my roots are not digging deep into the love and mercy of Christ. Or again, to reiterate John’s words, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar.”
Jesus is helpful here, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:33-34). A tree is known by its fruit, and a heart is known by its words. Christ’s words are alarming, “How can you speak good, when you are evil!” This sounds much like James, warning us that our tongue is, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” and “set on fire by hell” (James 3:8, 6). Here’s the rub: do you know why you keep speaking evil things? Because you are evil. Jesus very lovingly, and very bluntly is trying to tell us this – we keep screwing up, because deep down, we are wicked. It is “out of the abundance of the heart” that we speak; our words are the overflow of what our heart believes and cherishes – so if we continually see that we snap at others when we are impatient, that’s because our heart believes that we are just more important than everyone else – and that’s evil. If I cannot find the ability to apologize to someone else, or I cannot forgive someone who has wronged me, that’s because my heart believes that I am a better person than they are, and they don’t deserve my apology or forgiveness – and that’s evil. If I consistently laugh at dirty jokes and use filthy language, that’s because I don’t think purity is as important as a cheap laugh – and that’s evil.
You see friends, we are wicked, through and through. We aren’t mostly good, with some minor character issues; we don’t have an inner light that we need to dig down and tap into – all we have is a deep inner darkness. And our words that we speak testify to that reality. And someday, when we stand before our Maker, we will have to answer to Him for all of our foolish, arrogant, dishonest, angry, crude, and careless words (Matt. 12:36). Friends: are you prepared for that day?
So, what do we do? What do we do with such a helpless situation? Even James himself said that “no human being can tame the tongue” (3:8), so how can we possibly be prepared for the day of judgment?
Well, actually, there is One human-being who was able to tame the tongue. 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ bamboozled the nation of Israel with the way He spoke. He spoke with a remarkable authority, yet was gentle and gracious; He always spoke the truth, and never lied – even when it could have saved His life; He blessed those who cursed Him, even to the point of pleading for the forgiveness of those who were nailing Him to the cross. At one point, the Jewish authorities sent soldiers to arrest Jesus, but as soon as they got within earshot of Him they dropped their swords and sat there stunned. Returning back to their superiors who sent them, they confessed when asked why they returned empty-handed, “No man ever spoke like this man spoke” (John 7:46). No one has ever spoken with such unyielding, rock-solid commitment to truth, but with heart-warming, melt-in-your-mouth gentleness as Jesus did. And if you have placed your faith in Christ – you have been covered in the righteousness of Christ, and this is how the Father sees you. Your sinful mouth has been cleansed by the blood of Christ.
So now, in your teetering, wobbly-walking forward in obedience, you can trust that God is on your side. When you fail and fall over (something I do, daily!), you don’t have to slip into despair – God has made a way! God is with you and will never leave you. God has taken you in to His family and will never cast you out! God has paid the debt that your sin-sick mouth has earned – you are forgiven! Trust in Him, lean in to Him, forsake your sin, and let your heart be captivated by His beauty and wonder. And if you do this, if you continue to press into what God has done for you in Christ, you will find the roots of your heart slowly, and gradually changing. Once we see that Jesus used all of His freedom not to wound others with His words (though He totally would have been justified to, being He had the moral high-ground on everyone), but breathe life into them, it will lead us to desire to do the same. We will long to use our words to breathe life, speak truth, and share the good news. And in time, your mouth will sing with the praises of God more than the your folly, more than your anger, more than your dishonesty, and more than your sin.