In Jewish culture, teachers (rabbis) were given a place of high honor. This is probably why James warned against too many of the believers becoming teachers because of their desire for honor and recognition. Teaching is not just about honor but about responsibility, and those who teach have a higher standard placed upon them. They must "practice what they preach."
The book of James is about maturity, and one of the marks of a mature believer is the ability to control his or her tongue. James has already alluded to the tongue in James 1:19, 26; and 2:12, but he elaborates on this principle in James 3 using two illustrations for the tongue's ability to direct, two illustrations for the tongue's ability to destroy, and two illustrations of the tongue doing double duty.
The tongue is small like a bit that controls the horse and a rudder that steers a ship.
|By Thowra_uk (Arabian head) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)],|
via Wikimedia Commons
Assuming the rudder and the bit are in good working order, the only possibility of malfunction is in the hands of the person directing them. This person can give great direction or cause great destruction! I like that James emphasizes that we all have stumbled in this area (3:2). Being that he was a mature believer and leader in the early church, this gives me hope!
The third illustration is the spark that can destroy an entire forest.
Wildfires can be started by just a cigarette being thrown away or even the wheels on a train touching a track. Using this illustration, James is saying that even little words can touch off a forest fire of misery! We have to be so careful.
For lack of wood the fire goes out,
And where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.
Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
So is a contentious man to kindle strife.
Tongues are "petite but powerful" (Bible Knowledge Commentary: Volume 2, p. 827)!
Finally, the tongue is like a wild animal that cannot be tamed. Untamed tongues are like unleashing hungry lions or grizzly bears into the body of Christ. (See the movie Grizzly Man if you want to see an illustration of what wild animals can do!)
When animals are tamed or fire is controlled, they can be tremendously useful. So it is with the tongue, but it can only be tamed by God.
Finally, our tongues should be consistently spewing forth fresh water and good fruit rather than bitter water and a foreign fruit. Our tongues should be consistently giving delight to those who hear (God and man) rather than doing contrary double duty!
"For every word in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II" (Be Mature (James): Growing Up in Christ (The BE Series Commentary, James 3:5-8) I was astounded when I read this quote because I am reading Hitler's autobiography right now! I should say I am trying to read it because it is hard for me to read his diatribes against Jews and pretty much everybody who got in the way of his desire to save Post World War I Germany from its weak and powerless state. In Hitler, we see the destructive power of words that led to the literal destruction of approximately 72 million people! I do not want to be there when Hitler meets our God.
All of us can stand to check our words on a regular basis. Recently, I had to get on the phone and apologize to a friend for something I said about another person. Thankfully, I have not had to do that in a very long time, but it was a good reminder that we all stumble in many ways!
I also need to consider who I am talking to and tailor my speech accordingly. This summer I have passionately challenged, in the same manner, two different people. One cried for an hour, told me I really discouraged her, and assumed malice in my words (of which there was none). The other said, "This is what I like about meeting with you, you say things that challenge me!" With the first person, I needed to be "weak" because she is weak and fainthearted (1 Thessalonians 5:14; Isaiah 50:4). With the second, I could be a bit stronger because she is ready for it. I need to become "all things to all [wo]men" (1 Corinthians 9:22) with my tongue. This has always been a tough lesson for me since I am more on the challenging end of the spectrum when it comes to my gifting in exhortation, and sometimes I do not know I am coming across too strong until something like this happens. Then, I can turn the "rudder" of my tongue another way based on what I know about the person. I am still learning.
Update: I wrote this original post in 2010, and I have grown in being able to tailor my words according to the person! YAY!
Evaluate your speech over the last day. Is your tongue doing "double duty"?
What is the key to taming the tongue? Stay tuned for tomorrow's post!
Lord, give us self-control in the area of our tongues. We cannot do it on our own, but we can by the power of Your Holy Spirit. Convict us and teach us. We want our tongues to be tools of direction and delight for Your glory. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.