Faith That Works: James 3 - Part 1 Jim Erwin
February 11, 2017
First of all, I want to give a big thanks to Neil Smith, Roy Libby, Kent Rynders and Greg Bolin for getting up and sharing last week-especially as it was last minute. Pastor Eric and I were away with our middle school students for Winter Blast and Myron Crockett was all set to preach-but as we all know the flu has a way of showing up at the most inconvenient times-and so Myron called me early Sunday morning and said he was down-so Neil, Roy, Greg and Kent were the next guys in. But I appreciate their willingness and flexibility to speak at a moment’s notice. As for Eric and myself and Monica, we had a great time at Winter Blast. This is our annual district conference for middle schoolers. It’s held at Hidden Acres, which is our district camp north of Ames. It’s an awesome camp-but Eric and I were in a big room of bunk beds with nine of our middle school boys. We had to channel our inner 7th grader. There was lots of wrestling, shouting, diving off the top bunk, sounds and smells that I’ll leave to the imagination. One of our boys ate twelve Reese’s Peanut Butter cups just before midnight on Saturday-we asked why and he said he just wanted to see what it was like-but then decided afterwards that he wouldn’t recommend it. So you can imagine the hyperactivity of nine middle school boys amped up on candy, soda and sugar. Meanwhile Monica was in a lovely girls room with big beds, their own bathroom and they just stayed up and talked and giggled. Massive difference between the boys and girls rooms-but we had a great time. One of the highlights was archery tag-our team made the semi-finals. You had to come up with a team name and apparently the kids told me Eagle Beagles-but I didn’t hear it correctly so I signed us up as the Evil Beagles. But the guy in charge of the tournament said we had the best name. So the Evil Beagles did great in archery tag.
There was an awesome youth worship band from the E. Free church in Cedar Rapids and then our speaker was from an E. Free church in Kirksville, Missouri. But he was a Hawkeye fan and Cubs fan and talked about Star Wars, so we liked him. In one of the sessions he talked about sin-and he defined sin as missing the mark, as telling God I’ll do it my way, I know better, or saying to God actually. And that really stood out to me because he used the illustration of his daughter who used to say that word when she was little-it was one of her first words. He said that he and his wife would tell her to do something-and she’d say Actually, I’m going to do this. Or Actually, you’re wrong Mom and Dad, it should be this way. And he said for the first few times it was cute-but that it quickly got irritating because she was wrong. As mom and dad, they were right-it wasn’t actually what she was trying to say. Basically that word actually boiled down to disobedience and wanting to do things her way-Actually I’ll do this instead. And his whole point was that actually is a word we like to use with God-Well you know God, my way is actually better than yours, actually my plan is the right one and I know what I’m doing. You may be telling me to do this, Lord, but actually I’m going to do that instead. Have you caught yourself saying things like that to God? I know I have. Actually is a word that goes hand and hand with sin. That somehow with one word we can communicate a disobedience and insistence on our will instead of God’s-and that isn’t good-but it took one little word to say it. One word to communicate what’s going on in our hearts. And that’s a good connection for today because we’re going to be talking about our words this morning as we continue our series in the book of James. Actually, we’re going to be talking about the source of our words-and that’s our tongues. That this one little part of our bodies can get us into big trouble and big problems.
So open your Bibles to James 3-and as you’re doing so I want you to think about any troublemakers you knew growing up. Am I right in saying that somehow the smallest kids are the biggest trouble makers? I can still remember my first year of teaching. Monica and I had moved to Houston and I was teaching junior high math and Walter was the shortest boy in the 8th grade class-but the mischief he got into was enormous. Now he wasn’t bad at mathematics, he could get his work done quite well when he chose to-but that was hardly ever-because Walter excelled at being squirrely, fidgety, restless, out of his seat, throwing things, and disturbing other students. I think he spent more time in the office than in my classroom. I enjoyed high energy kids-but Walter was off the charts-and I wasn’t alone in dealing with this. The 8th grade social studies, science, and English teachers all had problems with him. His name Walter sounded like such a polite, old-fashioned name-but it quickly became associated with fear and terror in the teacher’s lounge-and the scary part was that his younger brother was rumored to be a worse troublemaker than he was. I’m glad we moved to Dallas before I had him in class!
Here in our passage this morning, James isn’t talking about someone or something that’s rumored to be mischievous, he’s flat out saying it is: and that’s the tongue-the world’s smallest but largest troublemaker-verse 8. That’s the first half of our memory passage this week and it’s an important statement because it’s saying that the power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us. With our tongue, we can love or our tongues can hate and be full of poison. They can be good and encourage or they can be full of evil and destroy. The tongue is either a destructive weapon or it’s a beautiful instrument. Either way the tongue is one the smallest parts of the body, yet it accomplishes great things.
In these last two chapters of James, he’s been challenging us to live out a genuine, authentic Christianity. Don’t be double-minded-1:8; Be a doer of the Word, not just a hearer-1:22; What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works-2:14. James is driving home this concept of an active, living faith that works-all day, every day. Today in chapter 3, James has the same theme of genuine, authentic Christianity-but he’s applying it to the words of our mouths, to the things we say. So look at 3:1-2. James is placing a high level of importance on what we say-so much so in fact, that not stumbling with our speech is near to perfection. Now, James doesn’t mean not sinning with your mouth makes you blameless, he just means that keeping a guard on your tongue demonstrates your maturity in Christ. That if you’re able to discipline your tongue, you give evidence of self-control in other areas of your life. Why? Because as verse 8 said-The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison-who can tame it? Basically the tongue is a hazardous compound, ready to explode. Now if you look up the definition, the dictionary says the tongue is a fleshly movable muscular structure attached to the floor of the mouth. Sounds rather scientific and harmless-but look at the first set of analogies James gives us in describing the tongue-verses 3-5a. Now these are both really small things in themselves-a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a ship-but they exercise great power. A small bit enables a rider to direct a mighty horse; a small rudder enables a pilot to steer a huge ship. I doubt that many of us have had an opportunity to turn the big wheel of a Carnival cruise ship and steer it into the harbor-but maybe you’ve piloted a smaller boat or even been on a canoe. The paddle basically acts as a rudder-if you paddle too much on one side you’ll start veering off quickly. I can remember being at Cub Scout camp when Jacob was little and I was in a canoe with a bunch of boys all putting their paddles in the water and until I could get them organized we were veering from one side of the pond to the other, not even a chance of going straight. Small moves direct a canoe in big ways. The same is true with our tongues. It’s a small member of the body and a few simple words may seem harmless–but in fact they have the power to do a great deal of damage. So Point 1: Our Words have the power to direct us. The wild nature of horses mean they want to go their own way-the bit seeks to direct them. The winds and currents will drive a ship hundreds of miles off course if let to itself. The rudder fights those strong forces and directs them to the right destination. The tongue has the power to direct us into places and situations we’d rather not be in.
Just think about it-has your mouth ever gotten you in trouble? Maybe you said more than you should have and wished you could take back your words, but it was too late. Or maybe a simple lie turned into another lie which grew into an even greater lie and you found yourself caught in a web. Either you had to confess the truth or keep up the deception which was getting harder and harder. And in anger-how many times have you said hurtful words you never intended, but your emotions got the best of you and those hurtful words came out? If left to itself, the tongue is a wild horse or powerful ship. The question is who’s doing the directing-the tongue or you? Who’s in charge, who’s doing the steering? Face it, your tongue has lots of forces to overcome. Your old sin nature wants to control you. The circumstances around you-especially the frustrating ones-often make you want to say things you shouldn’t, opportunities to grumble and complain are everywhere. So sin on the inside of us combined with pressure and temptation on the outside seeks to control your tongue. That’s the reality we face-but as the bit is controlled by an expert horseman, keeping the power of his horse under control, and as the experienced sea captain directs his great ship, you and I must allow our tongues to be directed by Christ. I love the commitment David makes in-Psalm 141:3. David didn’t say that he would guard the door of his mouth-rather he asked that the Lord would. He’s saying, May everything that escapes from my mouth be of You. David wanted the power of his words to not direct him into sin, but to direct him into righteousness and peace. He knew the close connection between the mouth and the heart-Psalm 19:14. That’s saying your words are only as good as what’s going on in here-your heart. Jesus Himself said so in Matthew 12:34-37. Jesus couldn’t be any clearer in saying that the tongue is a window to our hearts. That our tongues reveal where our hearts are at spiritually-whether we’re saved or condemned. Nothing indicates a bad tree more than the fruit of bad speech. So God judges a person by his words because a person’s words reveal the state of their hearts. A heart that’s centered on Christ and trusting in His grace and mercy will bring forth lips that speak of Him-producing words filled with grace and mercy, words that that build up and encourage. Yet all too often our words are ready to tear down and explode like dynamite. What are your words revealing about you? Does what you say align with where you’re heart’s at? Or is there an inconsistency? Are your words revealing to people a heart that’s following Christ or revealing a heart that’s far from Him?
This is what James wants us to ponder. Look at where he goes with his next analogy for the tongue-verses 5b-8. He’s using fire and wild animals to tell us Point 2: Our Words have the power to destroy us. This example of something small causing something big is really important. All it takes is a simple spark to start a great fire. Did you ever sing the children’s song about Mrs. O’Leary’s barn? She had her lantern-but the cow kicked it over and this is what she said-they’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight. Historians say the Chicago fire left over one hundred thousand people homeless, three hundred dead and destroyed over 17,000 buildings in the city-all because of a little flame that spread. Or growing up in Wisconsin in 4th grade we learned about the Peshtigo Fire. In October of 1871, a single spark ignited a raging fire in the north woods of Wisconsin destroying thousands of acres of timber and killing between fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred people. It’s still considered the deadliest wildfire in American history-but all it took was a single spark on a dry autumn day.
And just like that God’s Word is saying our words can spread and cause insurmountable damage. We all know that gossip rages like wildfire-damaging people and relationships in its path. The problem with fire is that once it’s set, it can be hard to control. The same with our words. Have you ever been in a conversation, a friendly chat-your intentions were harmless, but you started talking about someone or a situation and your words seemed to sort of snowball. You and the person you were speaking with started saying things like-Have you heard what so-and-so did…Yeah, I can’t believe it…But you haven’t heard the half of it…No, how could they…Well I wasn’t going to say anything but I know you’ll keep it to yourself… Which we all know rarely happens. Keeping juicy gossip to ourselves is one of the hardest things in the world to do! But whenever you end up in a conversation like that, wallowing in the juicy gossip, you’ve crossed a line. Maybe you didn’t intend to gossip, but the words kept rolling out, kept growing and building and now you feel bad because the gossip spread like an out of control wildfire. Or what about speaking to your spouse or a close friend? Do you justify gossip then because it’s someone close to you and you share everything with each other? Maybe you heard some damaging news about someone and immediately think, Wait until I share this-as if you’re relishing in it. Now certainly we need to share things with our spouse or close friends sometimes-but often the motive behind sharing the news isn’t to pray for that person and seek to help them-it’s to judge them and tear them down. So maybe we shouldn’t always share things with those closest to us, but be the person who smoothers the flames of gossip instead of further fanning them. I like what one commentator said-James, R Kent Hughes, p 125:
The tongue has that scope of inflammatory capability. James is saying that those who misuse the tongue are guilty of spiritual arson. A mere spark of an ill-spoken work can produce a firestorm that annihilates everything it touches.
Talk about quick and widespread destruction-but did you notice where James says the greatest damage results from our fiery words-verse6b. This is saying that ultimately your words damage you. Yes, gossip and slander affects other people-but it primarily stains your heart. It increases your bitterness and causes discord within you. It generates prejudice and a spiteful spirit. An ungodly tongue increases hatred while it obliterates love.
As we just spoke about the connection of the mouth and the heart, so we see it again-the fire of your words burns within you-so that what was first just words-what starts off as a few comments or cutting remarks soon becomes an attitude. I don’t like them. They’ve made too many bad decisions, I know the stuff they’ve done-I’d never do that, they’re not deserving of my time. And love is all but replaced with anger and malice because of the state of your heart-so your tongue inserts poison into conversations. Maybe its small doses-yeah, they bug me too-I can’t believe they’d act that way-but that’s often enough to spread bitterness and anger to others like a disease. Your words cause others to feel as you do-and before you know it kindness and mercy are all but gone. As James says, the tongue rises up to devour like an untamed animal. This is a great point James is making-verse 7. Think of a lion tamer at the circus or Shamu at Sea World or that guy on YouTube who wrestles his pet grizzly bear! Have you seen this? The bear swallows the guy’s head-it’s crazy! But James is saying that great big beasts like bears and killer whales can be tamed-but not the tongue. And nowhere is that more true than in the heat of the moment where your anger flares up and you start to explode. What do you say then when you’re really upset? What words come out of your mouth when you’re all worked up? This is deeply challenging-but I believe the true condition of our hearts is revealed in anger. What do you say? Do you curse others? Do you insult them or hurt them or answer right back in anger?
Look at Proverbs 15:1-2, 4, 7, 18, 28 (NIV). Do you weigh your words and think about them before you speak? Do you ask yourself whether these are gentle words, wise words, helpful words that you’re about to say-or are you gushing forth whatever comes out? Look back at James 1:19. We studied this passage a few weeks ago and there’s great wisdom in slowly, carefully considering your words. It’s the fool who lets his or her mouth run wild, gushing out foolishness and wickedness like a raging fire or ravenous beast. But I remember reading what Warren Wiersbe said years ago on this passage-When you control a fire you generate power, not destruction. When you tame an animal you get a worker not a beast. So when God tames your tongue-what do you get? A worshipper-not a slanderer. And that’s such a powerful statement and it brings us to the most important part of the whole passage and the other half of what we’re memorizing this week-verses 9-10. There’s the best and the worst that our tongues are capable of, this is its highest achievement and its lowest evil. To bless God or to curse men; to worship the Lord or to hurt other people. And that’s Point 3: Our words are meant for worship, not warfare. Notice how the text points out that anytime you’re tearing someone down or cursing their name, you’re doing it to someone made in the likeness of God. This is serious stuff. It’s warfare that you and I ought not enter into. Instead, we need to be involved in the good are tongues are capable of-and that’s worship, to bless our Lord and Father as the verse says.
There’s a very clear picture of this as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey-Luke 19:37-38. Here are Jesus’ disciples-not just the twelve but a whole multitude of them-men and women praising Him with loud voices. Here’s the tongue doing precisely what it ought to be doing. But there’s always a few downers in the crowd, a few rotten apples to spoil the mood. Who do you think they are?-Luke 19:39. So as I spoke about troublemakers earlier, the Pharisees are the main troublemakers of the New Testament-always up to no good. And this statement is one of their worst. It may sound harmless enough-Hey, Jesus, tell these people to pipe down and quit being so loud and excited. We don’t want a revolution on our hands-especially at the Passover. They wanted silence and order, not excitement and enthusiasm for Jesus. But if you think about their statement again, the Pharisees are actually asking Jesus to make the people stop praising Him; for their rejoicing to cease; for their voices to be silenced and not worship Him. But what were we as people created for? Worship. Who alone in all the universe is worthy of worship? Jesus. What is the definition of sin? Worshipping other things and not worshipping Him. The Pharisees want the people to do the opposite of what mankind is meant to do. So Jesus’ response is very profound-Luke 19:40. He’s saying that He will be worshipped-it’s a fact of the universe. His name will be praised and if mankind doesn’t then the rocks, pebbles and boulders will. Could you imagine a worship song by a bunch of stones? What would that sound like? But Jesus' point is that mankind will worship Him-at least those who love Him will. This is the picture we’re given of eternity-Revelation 7:9-10. Both here in this life and for all of eternity we’ve been given voices not to stay silent or curse other people, but to sing out and praise God. Back to Point 3: Our words are meant for worship, not warfare.
The heart of what James is saying is that our speech is primarily meant for expressing the grandeur of God’s character. This is why each week at Wellspring we stand and sing songs of praise together. We don’t just sing because that’s what you’re supposed to do at church. We sing in order to use our mouths for the very purpose they were created. We weren’t given a mouth, tongue and lips by God just to speak about the weather or the mundane things of life, but to declare the greatness and majesty of Jesus our Savior. Our words have the power to declare the praise and worship of Him who is worthy of all worship. You may have heard it said that as a Christian, your life is not your own. I believe this morning, God’s Word is telling us your mouth is not your own, it’s a gift from God-so may we use it wisely. This is where James ends the passage-verses 10-12. Your mouth can either be a destructive weapon or a beautiful instrument-but it can’t be both. That’s the theme of having a faith that works-we can’t live with a double-standard.
There’s a sports podcast I’ll sometimes listen to when I’m driving. It’s these two guys talking about college sports-and one of the guys claims to be a believer. In fact, he often mentions how he fills in and preaches at his home church when the pastor’s gone. That’s great-except for the fact that he often swears on this sports podcast. So I’m left with this very same confusion that James is describing here. How can this guy be a believer if he’s so willing to swear publicly on a podcast that lots of people listen to? Can a fig tree bear olives or a grapevine produce figs? No-it can’t! Now only God knows this guys heart but the point is that if the tongue is inconsistent, there’s something terribly wrong with the heart. But how easy it is to sing the worship songs during the Sunday service and then afterwards get into the car and argue and fight as a family and speak unkindly to each other all the way home. Quite simply, our mouths are the faucet releasing all that’s stored inside our hearts. May they be full of love, peace, gentleness and praise. May our mouths then speak of those things, sharing the love and grace of God.
Just think of all the different examples in Scripture of how words were used. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well in John 4 and by His words her life was forever changed. Peter spoke at Pentecost and three thousand people came to faith. Paul spoke of the gospel along the riverside in Philippi and a woman named Lydia was transformed and the church of the Philippians grew powerfully. Think of the person who used their words to share the gospel with you. And now your life has been remarkably changed? Never underestimate the power of your words when they’re shaped by Christ. It’s such a privilege-to speak of the One who is infinitely great and full of all power and glory. And yet that really challenges me because-this might come as a surprise to you-but I like to talk-and I’ll talk about anything and everything with somebody and probably go on talking far too long-but do I use my mouth for what it was intended, which is worshipping and speaking of Jesus? There’s so much to worship Him for-let’s talk about it. I’ll catch myself talking on and on about the latest Avengers movie trailer. But we must not let mundane chatter fill our mouths 90% of the time-as it often does. Just ask yourself-what do you spend the majority of your time speaking about? Sure, discussing the weekend, the weather, sports is fine, but do you talk about what truly matters-the hope and the glory and the majesty of Jesus your Savior? May the things of eternity constantly fill your heart and be on your tongue. Isn’t that the challenge for us this morning? To not let our tongues be full of poison, but full of praise? Look at Colossians 3:16-17. Our tongue is a treasure-it doesn’t have to be a troublemaker-James 3:8-10. Let’s be a people full of blessing and praise!