Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 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. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:1-12).
Nothing is easier than sinning and there are many ways to sin, but mostly I sin by what I say. "How much must I be changed before I am changed," as old John Donne would say.
Actually, James goes beyond my words: he looks into my heart. Not only do I sin by what I say, he insists, but what I say is the measure of my sinfulness. "If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." "Stick out your tongue," says Dr. James. "I want to see the state of your soul." Thus James begins his treatise on the tell-tale tongue.
The tongue is a little instrument, James writes, yet it can do great things. Three metaphors make his point: little bits control strong horses; little rudders turn mighty sailing ships; little sparks ignite vast conflagrations. Little things mean a lot.
Likewise the tongue, though very small, "makes great boasts." "Look what I can do," the tongue brags. "I can ruin an reputation. I can destroy a life's work. I can rupture a long-standing relationship. I can crush the toughest spirit. I can spoil the tenderest moment. I can humiliate, embarrass and shame. I can curse and cut and kill!"
"(The tongue) is the world of evil among the parts of the body," continues James -not a world, but the world, a microcosm, a little world within us. All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, the tongue suggests, commits and condones. Anything the world can do the tongue can do it better. Here again is worldliness: gossip, deceit, exaggeration, discourtesy, impurity, harshness, impatience and every other sin in the world.
"(The tongue)," says James, "corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." The tongue defiles every part of our being and every moment of our lives, from the cradle to the grave. It burns its way through our "life cycle" to use James exact expression, like an out-of-control forest fire, leaving devastation and ruin. Only in our death will it die. In the words of an old gravestone inscription,
BENEATH THIS STONE, A LUMP OF CLAY
LIES ROBERT ANDREW YOUNG,
WHO, ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF MAY,
BEGAN TO HOLD HIS TONGUE.
That could be my epitaph as well.
James' phrase "(the tongue) is set on fire by hell," is provocative. His word for hell is gehenna, Jerusalem's garbage dump, a fitting metaphor for hell in those days, associated as it was with impurity, corruption, fumes and stench, a place ruled by Baalzebub, the Lord of the Flies-the source of the filth that so readily rolls off our tongues.
And here's the worst of it: "no man can tame the tongue." Every other living thing has been domesticated, or dominated by the human race, but the human tongue cannot be captured, caged or killed. It is a restless, vicious, incorrigible, feral thing that cannot be controlled-at least it cannot be controlled by "man."
Finally, James notes an odd incongruity: with our tongues we bless God and curse men, the most god-like beings on earth. Blessings and curses from the same orifice. "My brethren," says James in a masterpiece of understatement, "these things ought not to be this way."
Who can explain this strange ambivalence? James' answer is to consider the source:
Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh.
Fresh water flows from fresh sources; bitter water from deep springs of bitterness. James doesn't explain his metaphor. He lets it hang in the air and leaves it for us to think it out. That's the best thing you can do for another, George MacDonald said: "Wake things up that are in him; or make him think out things for himself."
Here's what I believe James has in mind. Our words are formed in our hearts. Good words come from the good in us; evil words from the evil we have accumulated within.
Jesus put it in clear and concise language: "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45).
We must careful, then, of the things we put into our hearts. They can become words at any moment.
How can we get our words right? We must get our minds right. We must fill our thoughts with God's word-meditate on it day and night. The secret of good words is the Word of God, delighted in and meditated upon, for what is the Word of God, but the life of God which translates itself into human speech.
Let me illustrate how this works for me, at least in one situation (though I must say I don't always make it work). Certain folks "bring out the worst in me" (fascinating phrase). I find it unnatural and, in some cases, impossible to curb my tongue when I'm around them. Like David, my heart grows hot within me, and as I meditate (here's that word again) the fire burns and I speak with my tongue (Psalms 39:3). At best I'm curt and discourteous; at worst I give them a "piece of my mind." (Aha!)
The problem is not my words, you see, but my mind and my meditations. Long before I open my mouth I open my mind to wrong-thinking. I rehearse the wrong done to me by that person. I nurse my hurt feelings. I impute wrong motives. I pander to self pity, resentment and rage. "The fire burns and I speak with my tongue." My heated words have been created and shaped by my thoughts long before they erupt from my mouth. How can something clean come from something unclean? As Cool-Hand Luke would say, "I've got to get my mind right."
Paul writes, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things" (Philippians 4:8). He's not suggesting that I give myself to noble abstractions, as good as that may be, but that I focus on those attributes in others that are true, noble, righteous, pure, admirable and loveable.
In other words, instead of obsessing over the evil I find to others, I must rather focus on the good God is doing in them. (It's not just Christians who have good things going for them. Every human being is a recipient of God's common grace.) When I do so, their "small asperities of spirit start to disappear, lost in the grander curves of character" (Ambrose Bierce). My heart begins to soften and my words are more inclined to follow in kind.
There is this, however: I never find it easy to think God's thoughts after him, especially under duress. All hell conspires to make me forget what I know. "It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds," Screwtape wrote to his demonic nephew. "In reality our best work is done in keeping things out."
We must, therefore, meditate on God's thoughts day and night to keep them on our minds. And we must pray as David Elginbrod prayed, "Grant that more an' more thoughts o' Thy thinking may come into our hearts day by day."