I wonder, does anybody here have a horse? Not very many. What about a ship, does anyone have a ship? No. What about a car, anybody here in a household with a car? Right, so let’s update James’ example a bit. What is the modern equivalent of the bit for a horse or the rudder of a ship? A steering wheel? it’s not very big, it doesn’t weigh much – but it is used to control a whole car or a lorry. Somehow something quite small can have an effect on the direction of something really big.
What about wild fires – we see them on TV. Over the last summer we’ve even had some in the UK, but I’ve never experienced one up close. So, lets bring this one a bit close to home as well. Who’s got gas central heating? Think for a moment about the pilot light. A really small flame – but if it’s not there then the house stays cold. It isn’t big enough itself to heat the house, but without it nothing else gets lit.
Small things can have a massive effect.
James is using these images to help his readers to think about the impact of the tongue. A small thing, perhaps, but one which can have a massive effect. James is writing to warn. He warns of the negative effects that the tongue can have, the damage that can be done by a tongue that boasts, that curses, that teaches wrongly (no pressure on me then).
In this James is following a great tradition through the whole of Scripture, reinforcing a theme that is found again and again, especially in the Wisdom literature of Psalms and Proverbs, of the evils that can be carried out by the tongue.
Talking of the wicked, Psalm 10 says this, “His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.”
In the lists of sins found scattered through the New Testament we repeatedly find sins of the tongue: gossiping, lying, boasting.
What we say can have a massive effect.
But, that impact doesn’t have to be negative. Even James hints at this, “With it we bless the Lord and Father” The impact of our words can be positive. Again, this truth echoes through Scripture, as we read in Psalm 34 a little while ago. It’s also expressed by Isaiah in what we heard a few moments ago, “that I may know how to sustain with word him that is weary”
In Psalm 37 we read, “The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.”
So, where are we? The tongue is a small thing, but the words it speaks can have a massive effect, positive or negative. That is the teaching of Scripture, and in my experience it is true. I’ve seen people built up and torn down, healed and hurt, encouraged and eviscerated, just by what people have said to them.
So what are we to do? In this section of his writing, James seems to offer a bit of a counsel of despair, “no human being can tame the tongue.” But the very fact that he’s writing it, and telling him that this should not be, gives us a hint, I think that he believes that there is a way for the tongue to be tamed.
Towards the end of the passage we are looking at James introduces two more images. The first from a garden – any grape vines or fig trees in our gardens? Any of them producing olives? The second from the seaside – salt water and fresh, before desalination plants. The evil or good coming our of our mouths is the fruit of something, is flowing from somewhere, but what is that, where is that?
It reminds me of something Jesus said in Luke 6: 43-45
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Or, as I learned it, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks”
So, if we are to follow James’ hint of the solution to the problem he poses, if we are to follow the Psalmist’s advice and “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.”, if we are to ensure that our words and ones that have a positive impact, and not a negative one then we have to go to source of the words – we have to go to the heart.
And I say the heart rather than the head deliberately, because it doesn’t seem to me that this is about head knowledge. We know what the good, positive, encouraging things we could say are. We also know what the unhelpful, negative, demeaning things we say are. We don’t need more information about this, either in terms of what to say or not say, or about the impact. We don’t need more head knowledge about this.
We need to be released, healed, empowered to actually say the right thing, at the right time. So that, in the moment, we can use our tongues positively. And actually, if our hearts are in the right place, then some of those things that we say might be hard things. They might be challenging to other people, they might be honest about how we’ve been hurt by someone. This isn’t about being all nice and only saying comfortable things. Getting our hearts right can create the opportunity for us to be able to say and to hear uncomfortable things without destroying relationships.
So, how do we get our hearts right?
It seems to me that it is about emptying and restocking. Fundamentally our hearts need cleaning of all the rubbish and filling up with good stuff.
First of all, what needs emptying out? What needs clearing away and cleaning up? What is the rubbish that needs to go?
It occurs to me that the rubbish can be of two kinds. The first kind of rubbish is our own sin. These are things that we have said and done that have been hurtful and wrong. It’s the wrong thinking and attitudes towards other people that we choose to hold on to: prejudices, grudges, unforgiveness, bitterness, all things which pollute the well of our hearts.
God wants to deal with this kind of rubbish. When we come to God and say that we’re sorry, that we know that this way of thinking and feeling about someone is wrong, then we can be forgiven and God will clean out our hearts.
The second kind of rubbish is stuff other people have said to us that has taken root and which we have come to believe about ourselves. Because we believe these negative things about ourselves, that shapes the way that we talk to and about other people. God wants to deal with this kind of rubbish too, by releasing us from it. It’s like all the graffitti on our hearts that has been put onto it over the years, God is taking a power washer to it, and cleaning it off. It might take a while, and a bit of scrubbing, but it will come.
So that deals with the rubbish that might be in our hearts, overflowing in our speech, but what is the good stuff that we need to restock our hearts with, and where does it come from?
Well, we were talking about fruit earlier, and bearing good fruit, so that takes me to Galatians 5.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.”
These are the good things that we want to restock our hearts, that we want to flow out of our mouths, and they are a product of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our hearts. As Ezekiel wrote, God says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
God is refilling, reshaping, purifying our hearts so that we can bear good and godly fruit in our lives and in our words. Sometimes God does that directly in our hearts, sometimes it is through the positive things that other people say to us and encourage us with, sometimes it is through reading and meditating on God’s word in the Scripture, sometimes it is through prayer and worship. We are all different, with different personalities, and God knows each of us, and our hearts, individually, and works with each of us individually.
What does this look like in practice? Well perhaps a worked example might help.
Sometimes I quite stressed, especially when there are a number of things that are making me feel under pressure. None of them on their own need to be that big, but they can stack up and because of that I begin to feel angry. More angry than any of the things themselves justify. At those times, there can be a fair amount of anger in my heart. At those times, what can I do to prevent it overflowing? How can I stop my tongue giving someone a lashing that they don’t deserve just because they happen to be the person in the room when I lose my temper?
What rubbish needs clearing away? At those times it is helpful if I can recognise my own responsibility for the situations that have arisen, and if I have sinned, in thought or word, by action or inaction, then I need to ask God’s (and possibly other people’s) forgiveness. It’s also helpful if I can recognise if any of these situations are pushing my buttons because they bring back painful or difficult memories from the past. If they are then perhaps I talk them over with someone, and ask God to heal me.
What needs pouring in? Perhaps I find some Bible passages that encourage me (or warn me). Perhaps I choose to listen to some worship music, or get my guitar out to worship. In my prayer times perhaps I ask God to take the anger and bring love, gentleness, peace, joy. Ask the Holy Spirit to work in my heart. Again, maybe I talk it over with a Christian friend who can help and support me.
I’m not claiming that any of this is easy, or that this is recipe I follow and it always works. But’ I am suggesting that these are practical things we can actually do to lay hold of gifts that God has given us, and that by God’s grace our hearts can be changed, our tongues can be tamed, and our words can change the world for good.