Sunday, 12 February 2012

James 3. 1-12 - Taming the tongue (or, controlled communication!)

James writes this letter to encourage struggling Christians to survive and thrive in their faith. Remember he wrote to a society where almost everything was spoken. We live in a multi-media world where most of us have books and many have very sophisticated forms of communication like email and Facebook. So when James talks about "taming the tongue" he means controlling our communication. And he mentions the importance of taming the tongue - controlled communication - in every chapter of his letter. It is that important. In particular, we need to avoid
* Quick-tempered words (1. 19f)
* Empty words (2. 15f) (Words need to be backed up)
* Critical words 4.11
* Presumptuous words 4. (13ff)
* Complaining words 5.9
* Careless Promises 5.12
In this chapter, though, James gives us some motivation for controlling the tongue and some hope of being able to actually do it...

Bible believing Christians recognise the importance of words - at least in theory.  See verse 1.  We have developed in a culture of the spoken word. Christian maturity is seen in things like being able to put up a good prayer; Christian service is often about saying something: a sermon, a testimony, teaching a class.   Even the earliest evidence of conversion is seen in terms of declaring verbally that Jesus is Lord.  (Nothing wrong with that - so long as room is left for demonstration as well as declaration. And so long as we remember, faith without works is dead)

We sometimes say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me". But our words can be works too. Taming the tongue is vitally important. 

Let's find out why...

Firstly, the power of our words. Taming the tongue is key to taming the whole of life.  James has three "Little and large" illustrations -
Hunt bridle head by Thowra uk.
Used under Creative Commons License
The bit in the horse's mouth. Now I like horses - I think they're generally quite nice creatures.  But I'm not really a horsey person, and whenever I'm around them I'm conscious that they're big! They're way taller than me, they're heavy, they're strong. A kick could send you reeling; if the horse decides to assert itself, I'm in trouble!  But when the horse is set up for riding, it has a saddle, stirrups, reins, and crucially at the end of the reigns, a wee bit of metal in its mouth - called the bit.  So longs as the reigns are attached to the bit, and the bit is at the back of the horse's mouth, you're OK. You can turn it or stop it.  The bit controls the horse's behaviour, affecting its inner urges. It sees nice green grass in someone's garden, and turns his head towards it - but you want to go down the road so you pull it back into line. It sees an attractive filly in a field, and turns in that direction - but you pull it back.  The bit prevents the animal from begin controlled totally by its inner passions.  If we speak out of despair, self-pity, rage, or bitterness, we make it more likely that we will go on to act out of the same negative emotions.  Bad language, complaining, self pity, dishonesty in our words, and negative statements about ourselves, all steer us onto wrong paths. Honest, pure and positive words will steer us towards right ways of behaving.
Rudder of a Roman Boat.
Image in Public Domain
The rudder on a ship.  Here is a picture of the sort of thing James was thinking about.  Just an oar, adapted with a basic tiller.  But with that rudder the helmsman could control the direction of the boat.... If the galley slaves weren't evenly matched, the man at the rudder could keep the ship on course. If the wind blew and the waves pushed the ship in one direction or another, the helmsman with that tiny rudder could keep the ship on course...The rudder controls the ship's behaviour, and prevents it from being ruled by outside pressures.  It is uncontrolled speaking, an untamed tongue, that speaks negativity and despair in the midst of a challenging situation.  Wrong words allow us to be hammered by the external pressures of life. If we learn to speak the truth about ourselves, we can prevent ourselves from drifting into wrong situations.  Right words help us to steer a right course through these pressures.  
A spark, setting the forest on fire.... This suggests the influence that our words have over other people... Many years ago when our boys were little,  (that was the excuse!) we went for a trip on the North York Moors Railway near Pickering.  It was summer time and at one point the train stopped because sparks from the engine had set the bracken on fire. Most of the able-bodied men on board were thrilled to have the opportunity to help out by climbing onto the trackside and grabbing beaters to beat out the flames.  We realised that in the summer, the guards have to be very vigilant about that. It only takes a small spark... And it only takes a few careless words to do immense damage to other people: to reputations; to relationships; and to emotional health,

We can use our tongues to bless, or curse.  To bless is to speak well of something.  It can mean we praise someone.  We speak good about that person.  When the psalms tell us to "Bless the Lord" they invite us to speak well about God.  And it can mean we speak good into their lives.  "Go in peace..."  And to curse is to call evil down upon a person. To ask evil over them.

Listen, our words can either bless or curse each other.  We can speak well about each other; we can speak well about our children; we can speak well about our brothers and sisters in the Church and about the Church itself. We can even speak well about ourselves.  Or we can speak bad stuff into our lives and the lives of others. We can talk down the Church and its life and its place in our society. If we tell our kids they are stupid, they will believe us. After all, we know everything. And guess what? They will start to act stupid. Our insult has had the effect of a curse over our children. Too often we place ourselves in a place of defeat by what we say about ourselves.  If we call ourselves useless, or wicked, that will settle on our souls like that freezing rain they have been having down south this week. As soon as the supercooled raindrops hit the below-zero surface, ice forms. But if we can recognise the beauty and creativity in our kids, and tell them we do, we bless them. We can either talk the church together or we can talk the church to bits. I believe that God has commanded the blessing where brothers dwell together in unity. Why do I believe that? I believe it because that is what God says in his word. If we can speak positively about ourselves, we bless ourselves.  I'm not suggesting some sort of power of positive thinking here. I'm not suggesting some sort of self-indulgent, namby-pamby psych-babble. All I'm asking us to do is to start agreeing with what God says about us in his word. If we are busily telling ourselves "I can't cope..." we probably won't. But if we can tell ourselves "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" we are on the way to victory.

Secondly, it's a matter of consistency
"No spring of water pours out sweet water and bitter water from the same opening. (verse 11)  It's not possible for blessing and cursing to come from the same source.  Sometimes in Israel, you will find pure water springs and salt springs right next to each other - because of chemicals in the rock. But t you will never find a spring that changes from one to the other.  You never come with your bucket and say, "I wonder if I'll be able to drink the water today?"  The very idea of one mouth pouring out worship and criticism is just so inconsistent as to be impossible.

Hope?
I said earlier, that James gives us hope of being able to actually tame the tongue.   But the hope comes through hopelessness.  "No-one can tame the tongue."  People have tamed wild beasts. But the tongue is wilder than them all.

It's not possible for a fig tree to bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs. James is quoting straight from Jesus himself. Jesus said (in Mat 7:16-20, Mat 12:33; Luk 6:43-44)  "Each tree is know by its fruit; figs don't grow on thistles."  And Jesus is talking about the fruit coming from the heart. He says, "make the heart good, then the fruit will be good."  The whole message of Jesus isn't that we have to get on and bear good fruit.  He says, "He who abides in me will bear much fruit." (John 15. 4-5)..The transformation of our hearts - and our actions and our words -  is a work of grace through the blood of Jesus by the power of the Spirit.

Paul has a little phrase he uses seven times in Romans: "What shall we say? What shall we say to this?"  I want to ask us that question today: what shall we say?  What are we going to say about poverty and injustice in our world? What are we going to say about our nation? What are we going to say about the task announcing the Kingdom of god in Scotland? What will we say about the church in our nation? What are we going to say about our weaknesses and struggles?  What shall we say?     Maybe one of the following.

Lord, I'm sorry for my wrong words.    
Lord, I'm sorry for my impure words    
Lord, I'm sorry for my angry words    
Lord, I'm sorry for my critical words  
Lord, I'm sorry for my self-pitying words  
Lord, I'm sorry for my words have hindered my own growth and progress    
Lord, I'm sorry that my words have harmed others.
Lord, thank you that you love me and that you call me your child
Thank you that there is no condemnation for me in Christ Jesus.
Thank you that if the son sets me free I shall be free indeed
Lord, please send your Spirit to make me a tree that will bear good fruit.
Jesus, You are Lord in Scotland.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done.
Thank you Jesus, that you said 'I will build my Church'

© Gilmour Lilly February 2012

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