The Impromptu Tongue
What power words have! They can launch wars, destroy marriages, divide lifelong friends, split churches, and send children spiraling into depression. Job expressed the pain delivered by unkind speech when he asked his so-called friends, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (Job 19:2).
Yet words also have the power to prevent suicides, restore friendships, quell potential wars, and bring emotional healing.
When a baseball manager was fined for chewing out the commissioner, a sports writer defended the manager, arguing, “They were just words.” But Solomon likened rash words to sword thrusts (Prov. 12:18). Words contain potential for good or evil. In fact, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (18:21).
Taming the tongue takes us to our limit. If we succeed at that assignment, everything else is a snap: “He who guards his lips guards his soul” (13:3). But with a machete in your mouth, it doesn’t take long to do damage with a few swipes. Maybe that’s why Jesus said that we will render account for every careless word uttered (Matt. 12:36).
We can find several lists of sins in the Bible (Rom. 1:30; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal.5:19–21; Rev. 22:15). We may not realize that sins of the tongue show up in each list. I may say, “I have a little problem with my mouth.” What I view as minor, God calls major. With four examples James illustrates that something small can be significant: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:3–8).
The rider of a broken and bridled stallion needs only a flick of the wrist to turn the mighty beast in an instant and bring its will under control. Even a ninety-pound person can rule a racehorse. James likewise says that a controlled tongue makes possible the direction of the whole body. If we want to obey our Master, we start with the tongue.
On a recent vacation my wife, Karen, and I sat at one of our favorite restaurants along the San Pedro harbor in California and watched oil freighters cut their way through quiet waters to dock. How amazing that the direction of these huge ships is determined by a relatively small rudder, operated by one person’s hand.
Similarly the direction of our lives is determined by the funny little member in our mouth. It will take us down a path of destruction or it will deliver us. “He who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Prov. 13:3).
News coverage of the 2007 California wildfires reminded me of another fire that burned through that state in 1993. My wife and I had watched the fire on television, while our close friends watched it for real. It wiped out their guesthouse, tool shed, and several cars. One match can do great damage; so can one word.
My dad and I were once cleaning up the tumbleweeds around our property in the Mojave Desert. Dad decided that a shortcut would make our work easier. “I’ll set fire to this pile,” he said, “and we’ll be done with them in a moment.” When a wind came up and blew one from the heap, we almost started a prairie fire. “I should have known better,” he confessed, recalling fires raging in Montana, where he grew up. God sees all such blazes, started by a word of sarcasm, a fit of outrage, or a yearning for vengeance as much more than “just words.”
A quiet and controlled woman once put her troubled daughter in our church school. The girl lasted only a few weeks. As the principal explained why she was dismissing the child, the mom listened impatiently. When she’d heard enough, she stomped out of the room, spewing venomous profanity along the way.
A South American snake called the two-step is so named because anyone bitten by one is dead in two steps. The poison works about that fast, paralyzing the nervous system. In the same way, a deadly tongue poisons reputations, kills futures, and destroys relationships.
In his hard-hitting letter James did not deal with predestination or the nature of the church. He talked about temptation, anger, favoring the rich, and speech. He did not let us off the hook. He wanted reality without religious clothes, and inconsistencies deeply bothered him. He lamented, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing” (3:10). In a similar vein Paul told us that carnivorous Christians will sooner or later be eaten alive: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).
Scripture tells us to tame the tongue, but it also tells us we cannot do it in our own strength. Only Jesus, who always chose the right words and spoke with grace and truth, can control our tongues through the Holy Spirit. We must surrender this organ to the Master, trusting more than trying, believing more than blathering. If we trust Him, Christ promises to do this work of maturity in that moving member between the head and the heart.
Paul Anderson (alumnus, 1968) lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and directs International Lutheran Renewal and a network of churches.