Using Your Words Wisely (Part 3)

by Sam Bierig June 14, 2017

Editor's Note: This post is Part 3 of a 5-part series entitled, "Using Your Words Wisely." Click for Part 1 and Part 2

The digital age is one part gift and one part curse.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest, ad infinitum enable your words to go further and faster than ever before.  This makes the stewardship of our words on these various social media channels even more critical.  In Part 2 we saw that not even a single word of ours fails to reach the ear and memory of God.  Your words, because of social media, have an influence that would have staggered previous generations.  You words circulate the interwebs at a rate that would have been inconceivable to your forebears.  Your digital footprint (words) pile upon themselves in a way that ought to astound and sober you.  In this way, the web is powerfully unyielding, relentless, instant, and permanent.  And as you know, once you have posted something it is nearly impossible to pull it back.

This pixelated, cyber-soil we find ourselves in has become the fertile ground for all manner of wordish sins.  Even when something doesn’t technically go viral, it can still feel viral when localized to our own circles. 

We can’t rewind time, can we?  There is no virtue in crying over the spilled digital milk of our age. There is no hope to bring back a bygone era either (Ecclesiastes 7:10), and frankly, the internet isn’t the problem anyway.  We are!  Social media platforms just happen to be the latest and greatest stage upon which we let our depraved tongues do their dancing.  I propose as it pertains to social media, that many of us should say a lot less.  For instance, cut your posts and comments by 50-75%.  We shouldn’t let the accessibility of a platform delude us into thinking we know something about this or that.  At the very least we ought to exercise a thimble full of patience and wait until we have gathered all the needful information there is to be had on whatever the recent scuttlebutt is that we wish to pontificate.

After going through the tough work of diagnosing our hearts in the previous post, we now want to employ the Apostle James in an effort to prognosticate about our tongues.

The Tongue: A Small Object with a Disproportionate Influence

James writes to a cluster of local churches strewn all throughout the ancient world.  These are local church folk just like you and me.  Therefore, they are working hard to use their words for life and not death (Proverbs 18:21) just like you and me.  Although we are separated from them by many a mile and century, James’s diagnosis of their talk is stunningly relevant for our diagnoses.

In chapter 3, James addresses the teachers and their particularly important role as examples within the body of their local churches.  He says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  Then he quickly turns to address the whole church, saying, “For we all stumble in many ways.  And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  We all wrestle with the destructibility of our tongues.  James, through the means of his hypothetical man in 3:2, argues that we all naturally manifest more ungodliness than holiness in this area of our lives!  In other words, it is the norm that we hurt people with our words.

If a man can tame his tongue, then his whole body will be disciplined and under control.  Why? Because the tongue is the most unwieldy of all our body parts—which says something!  Our talk is the means by which we make ourselves known to others.  Our words are the hinge on which our whole life turns.

To drive home his point, James employs three different metaphors.  The first two are a horse with a bit and bridle, and a ship and its rudder as seen in James 3:3-5:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. 

His logic is simple: a small object like a bridle or rudder can hold a disproportionate influence over a much larger object. It is only a part of the whole.  So it is with the tongue. 

The Tongue: A Weapon of Mass Destruction

Our words follow us around, and then we follow our words around.  It’s not much of a stretch to say that our lives are our words.  With his third metaphor, James takes us to the edge and drops us off onto the jagged cliffs below. See James 3:5:

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  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 hell.

We have to keep in mind that James' aim is both for the individual person and the corporate body of the church.  In the life of a church, a tiny little tongue can set a whole congregation ablaze with gossip and slander. A small little word can set in motion the undoing of a whole marriage.  James’s point is well taken: a small flicker of fire can set a whole forest ablaze.

In verse 6, the body is used as a representation of the whole person.  The tongue is to the body as speech is to life.  The way you talk and use your words has the potential to set your life on a course straight for hell, “setting on fire the entire course of life” (James 3:6b).  James intends for us to conjure up the bizarre image of scooping up words from the depths of hell and then hurling them wildly at each other, wounding at random.

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7)

James sits back and scratches his first-century beard as he ponders: mankind has found creative ways to tame nearly every kind of beast in the animal kingdom, but we are yet to tame the tongue.  We hold dominion over gigantic creatures, we build skyscrapers, we fly ships to the moon, but no one has ever tamed that narrow little piece of flesh that flaps between their teeth.

Why is this?  Again, it’s your heart.

As we established in Part 2, our hearts are naturally akin to rotten fruit-bearing trees.  Dead.  When we are born physically, we are already in need of a spiritual heart transplant.  Jesus describes the situation thusly, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18).  So the weapon of mass destruction isn’t so much the tongue as it is the heart.  The tongue is simply reflecting the heart’s posture. 

Until the heart is transformed, we are no more than broken people breaking people—the wounded inflicting more wounds on the already wounded.

Look no further than Genesis 3 for why you are more prone to sling deathlike words than life-giving ones.  You don’t stand a fighting chance without Jesus Christ gracing you a new heart.

James’ prognosis for your remission without Christ’s sanctifying work is, well, non-existent.  We see this when he says:

With it 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 is perplexed by the double nature of the tongue:  How is it that we can glorify God with our tongue, and then the next moment turn it into a blow torch uniquely designed to burn image bearers?  How can we turn on our fellow church member or spouse and cannibalize them with our words?  We spew rancor and then right after turn toward heaven and sing a hymn of sweet praise with hands lifted high. 

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 salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:11-12)

This is where James doubles down on the prognosis.  He forecasts utter hopelessness without Christ.  Therefore, you must beg God to change your heart because, by nature, you are a rotten fruit bearing, salt water pouring jerk.

As we move forward through the fourth and fifth post, we will see that as Christians we must discipline our hearts to push out unholy habits of the heart and replace them with honorable, praiseworthy, pure, and trustworthy meditations.  Then, and only then, will we start to speak words of life instead of death.  Even at that, it’s still going to be a battle of titanic proportions.  In the next post, we’re going to look at how we put off the deeds of the flesh and put on Christ in their place.