Have you ever had your mouth washed out with soap? That was a familiar “threat” growing up when I would get a little mouthy with my mom. Apparently, I was “too big for my britches” on one too many occasions. I can tell you that the memory of what Safeguard soap tastes like is still a tangible memory for me! So is the lesson I learned, which meant even more to me when I realized it was Scripturally based.
God tells us in His Word that the tongue has incredible power, both good and bad. Here are a few examples. Ephesians 4:29: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Proverbs 15:4: “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” Psalm 34:13: “Then keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies!”
James’ audience must have had a problem of saying things that were not appropriate, too. James uses some harsh language to warn us about the dangers of what may come out of our mouths. He also knew that teachers would be especially “under the microscope” in terms of what they say. It sounds like teachers today should take a few lessons from James!
James described the tongue like this: “It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.” He also likened it to poison. Like I said, harsh!
On the flip side, our mouths can do a lot of good in the world. When we say things that lift people up and do it intentionally, our tongues can bring healing and hope. Think of the last thing you said to someone. Was it helpful or hurtful? Maybe you can’t even remember that far back. That’s okay. You can be mindful of what you say in your next encounter after having pondered a bit on James’ counsel.
Our mouths are also used to worship and honor God. That’s one terrific way we can keep control of our tongues. When we are mindful about our words, wanting to honor God in all we say and do, the power of our tongues is quite different. Think of the lyrics of the praise songs you sing. Aren’t they uplifting and encouraging, focusing on the power of the cross and the love of our heavenly Father?
James is troubled that both good and bad can come out of the same mouth. That is a valid point to be sure. At any point during your reflection on these verses, did you think about your freedom of speech? Perhaps you thought to yourself, “I can say what I want.” I reckon there are plenty of people today who would get emotionally charged and feel controlled by James’ counsel.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:20, “Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” I’d say we could insert “words” in place of “actions,” even if Jesus didn’t say it like that directly. How do people view you based on your language or the way you speak to people?
It seems James is cautioning us to avoid being “casual” about our speech. We need to be mindful and intentional, because left to our own devices, we tend to say things that aren’t helpful and even unkind. We’re sinful creatures; we can’t help it!
What I did notice is James doesn’t give us a solution for how to do a better job of taming the tongue. Perhaps the main message is simply to alert us to the reality of how powerful our words can be. How we respond is up to us once we determine the degree of our own responsibility.
Let me suggest a simple prayer from Psalm 141:3: “Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips.” Without God, we are nothing. Ask him to help you be careful what you say.
Let’s pray. Father, I know you have created my tongue for praising and worshipping you. Help me use it in ways that are helpful, not hurtful. May I be mindful of what comes out of my mouth. Forgive me when unhelpful things slip out subconsciously or otherwise. I am so grateful that you love me despite my blunders. I want to represent you well and be seen by others as reflecting your love and truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.