Faith Works: Mind Your Tongue – Sermon on James 3:1-12

September 12, 2021

James has been teaching us how to work our faith in order to develop a faith that works. Just before today’s reading, he writes, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:26)

Our faith shows up in our work, what we do, how we live. But work without faith is just work. When our work is an expression of our faith, we grow in maturity, our words align with our actions, and our actions align with God’s will.

In today’s passage from the book of James, he dives a little deeper into the idea we heard a couple of weeks ago: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19) It’s that “slow to speak” part that can get us into trouble. When we let our tongues run ahead of us, whether we are being careless or intentionally hurtful, it damages our witness for Christ.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,
for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 

but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. (James 3:1-12)

For 25 years, I started each school year with this verse: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Yet, if we read beyond that first verse, it becomes clear pretty quickly that James is not giving a convocation speech at the beginning of a new school year. He’s talking about working our faith so that our faith can really work.

The book of James may be written in the form of a letter, but it has more in common with the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament than it does with the other epistles in the New Testament. The writers of books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and Job offered us instruction on how to live wisely, so that our lives bring glory to God. This passage about taming the tongue is a perfect example of wisdom writing.

James uses a series of metaphors to describe how our speech impacts the world around us. The tongue is like a bit in a horse’s mouth, or the small rudder of a large ship – a small thing that directs something much larger than itself.

When I was little, I spent many summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm in western Kansas. One afternoon, my aunt made my cousin Max saddle a horse for me, because I had said I wanted to learn how to ride. Max wasn’t happy about getting the horse ready, and he sure wasn’t going to waste any time trying to teach me to ride. I didn’t know how to use the reins, and Max was no help. He got me up on the horse, gave it a pat to get us started, and walked back to the house. I eventually found myself out in the middle of a pasture, on a horse that wouldn’t move. I sat there helplessly while the horse just grazed. Max’s brother, Steve, finally came out and rescued me.

I didn’t even know there was something called a “bit” in the horse’s mouth, and I certainly didn’t know how to use the reins to apply and release pressure on that bit to communicate to the horse what I wanted it to do. But James may have realized there would be people like me in his audience, so he uses another metaphor: the rudder of a ship. And in case we don’t know anything about boats, he adds one more: fire.

Fire is a great example of what can happen when an unruly tongue goes unchecked. Every summer, we’ve become accustomed to hearing about wildfires out of control, spreading into developed areas, destroying people’s homes. We understand the damage a fire can do.

The words we speak can do just as much damage, James tells us. Especially when those words are harsh, or spoken to discredit someone, or spoken in anger. Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor calls this kind of talk, “Tongue toxin.”[1] James points out that it’s as difficult to control as a California wildfire: “No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

We see it often on social media. It’s just as hard to tame the thumbs as it is the tongue, apparently. And once those words are out there in the ether, there is no way to retrieve them. The damage is done.

It’s particularly disheartening to see and hear toxic comments from those who claim to follow Jesus. James tells us how it makes no sense for blessing God and cursing our neighbor to come from the same mouth – it’s like salt water and fresh water coming from the same spring, or olives coming from fig trees (3:10-11). It shouldn’t happen. Because when we curse others, we are cursing God.

You see, when we let hateful speech roll off our tongues, and then turn around and say, “Praise the Lord,” James is telling us that one of those things can’t be true. We can’t really mean “praise the Lord” if we’re saying hateful things with the same mouth. When we do that, we show the world that we are hypocrites, not mature Christians.

And in case you hadn’t heard, the number one criticism leveled at the church by young adults these days is the charge of hypocrisy. A growing number of people between the ages of 18 and 35 find the faith language of Christians to be hollow and empty, because they hear the kind of language we use when we aren’t in church, and it doesn’t match.

I’m not talking about using profanity or vulgar talk, though these certainly damage our witness, too. I’m talking about putting down another denomination, or trying to discredit the work of a church across town. Instead of praising God for another congregation’s growth, criticizing that congregation’s methods or leaders. Are we not all part of the same Body of Christ? Shouldn’t we be working together in harmony to share the Gospel? How easy it is to dismiss our message, when we act like hypocrites! Of course, we act like hypocrites because, as we all have to confess at some point, that’s exactly what we are.

A couple of weeks ago, we sang the old favorite praise chorus, “Awesome God.” It was written by Rich Mullins, who once said,

“I never understood why going to church made you a hypocrite either, because nobody goes to church because they’re perfect. If you’ve got it all together, you don’t need to go. You can go jogging with all the other perfect people on Sunday morning Every time you go to church, you’re confessing again to yourself, to your family, to the people you pass on the way there, to the people who will greet you there, that you don’t have it all together. And that you need their support. You need their direction. You need some accountability, you need some help.”[2]

We all need some help. We all make mistakes, James tells us. We all need God’s grace. And we all need each other to keep us working our faith, so our faith will grow to full maturity.

Bernard Meltzer hosted a radio talk show for more than 20 years. It was an advice call-in program called “What’s Your Problem?” Meltzer was Jewish, and made a point of working on Sundays so his Christian colleagues could take the day off. He was famous for his folksy advice, and one of his most famous quotes could have come right from James 3: “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”[3]

In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus describes the things that defile us as what comes out of our mouths, not what goes in, because what comes out of our mouths reveals what is in our hearts. James reiterates this at the end of this passage. With the same mouth that we use to bless the Lord and Father, we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.

My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Just as a fig tree can’t produce olives and the same spring can’t produce both salt water and fresh, what we say and what we do needs to align with who we are, and whose we are.

Jesus died to save us from our sins. He died to free us from speaking evil to or about our brothers and sisters. He rose again to conquer all death – physical and spiritual – to save us from our own toxic tongues. And here’s the Good News: whatever damage we’ve caused, whatever hurt we have inflicted, forgiveness and mercy are available to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Repent, and believe the Gospel. In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. In Jesus Christ, my sins are forgiven.

James is asking us to integrate our Christian faith into the work we do everyday, so that there is not a whiff of hypocrisy, but the blessing we offer to God lines up perfectly with the blessing we offer to others through our faith that works, as we work our faith.

So this week, when you catch yourself getting ready to gossip, or complain, or insult, or express your disapproval, slow down. Be slow to speak. Get in the habit of taking a breath and asking yourself, “Is what I am about to say true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it helpful?” And if any of the answers to these questions turn out to be “no,” mind your tongue. Instead of speaking out, turn to Jesus and ask forgiveness for what you almost said. If anyone can tame your tongue, it’s Jesus.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4, 65.

[2] Rich Mullins, Anderson Indiana, November 16, 1995


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