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"The Terrible Potential of the Tongue"
James 3:2-8

Wednesday AM Bible Study
July 23, 2003

This passage is is unusual. It presents us with a standard that we are to seek to follow; and then lets us know that we can never achieve the standard it holds out to us. It encourages us that, if we can control our tongue, we can control everything else about us; and then proceeds to assert that no one can tame the tongue. And perhaps the intention of Pastor James in doing this was that we will acknowledge our own frail weakness and inability, and trust in God for His help in bringing the terrible potential of our tongues under His control.

Only one man has ever exercised perfect control over the tongue. It was testified of Jesus that He spoke as no one else did (John 7:46). What was so striking about His words? Certainly, much of it had to do with what He said. His words stood out because of their authority (Matthew 7:28-29; Mark 6:2) and with His remarkable wisdom (Luke 2:47). But it also had to do with the way He spoke. His words were remarkably "gracious" (Luke 4:22), and they came from one whose very life was "grace and truth" (John 1:14; see also Psalm 45:2 and Isaiah 50:4). He was the ultimate model to us of Proverbs 25:11; "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."

When we look at how Jesus spoke, we soon realize how sinful our own use of our tongue is. The harmful potential of our tongue is much greater than our ability to control it's use; and so, we must rely on God's powerful help to bring it under His control - and thus bring His control upon our whole body as well.

"For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in the horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things."
A. The man or woman who can keep from stumbling in what he or she says will be perfect. To "stumble" in this case means "to offend" (see James 2:10) - to be guilty of a "slip of the lips". James makes the assertion that whoever keeps from stumbling in this way is "perfect" in the sense of "mature" in Christ-likeness (Eph. 4:13); because they are able then to "bridle" the whole body as well.

B. James has a purpose in using the tongue as a metaphor for speech in general. It conveys that, though it is among the smallest members of the body, its impact far outweighs its size. The control of the whole body is centered on the tongue. Jesus Himself taught that it impacts the whole person (Matthew 15:18-20; Matthew 12:34-35). This truth is illustrated for us by James in two ways. First, it's illustrated in the way a bit in the mouth of the horse controls the horse. Second, it's illustrated in the way the rudder of a ship steers the whole ship. These both teach us that a small part of something (our tongue) can control the course of the whole thing itself (our bodies, our lives, our selves).

"See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."

A. Here, James is repeating the idea of something small impacting something big - but in this case, its an illustration that points out the potential destructiveness of the tongue. Even though small, the potential evil of the tongue is very great. It can be like a small spark in relation to a forest fire.
1. A forest fire is able to damage a wide area quickly; and so the tongue can cause damage from afar (Psalm 73:9). A forest fire can be almost unstoppable; and so can the damage of the tongue (Prov. 16:28). Like a forest fire, the damage can come from something rather small. And the tongue, as James says, "is a fire".

2. There's a glue-pot on display in a museum in Seattle. It's considered to be the glue-pot that started the great Seattle fire. The destruction that was caused by that little glue-pot caused you to stare at it with a sense of horrified awe. It amazed you to think that such a little thing could have caused so much death and destruction. Similarly, the tongue should provoke in us a sense of horrified awe as well. As James said, it is small; but it boasts of great things - and it is right to so boast!

B. James also describes it's dreadful potential in other ways as well:

1. As a "world of iniquity". We often speak of the internet as placing a world of information at our finger-tips. But we have a "world of iniquity" - more iniquity than we can imagine - on the tips of our tongues!

2. As that which is so situated in the body that it defiles the whole person. Proverbs 17:28 says, "Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; when he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive." A man or woman can be considered otherwise honorable and dignified; and yet, by saying one foolish thing, they bring shame and dishonor - not just upon their mouths - but upon their whole person!

3. As that which sets on fire the course of nature. Many a great politician or leader - one that worked hard and long to rise to a position of prominence - came to utter ruin and saw their careers completely destroyed by some careless word or foolish utterance that fell from their lips. The world tends to forget whatever other good things they did; but their foolish utterance is remembered for decades.

4. As that which is set on fire by hell. It's as if our tongues have a direct connection to hell itself. The devil has done much of his work in this world through the use of unrighteous tongues.

5. As that which cannot be tamed. All creatures of the animal kingdom - even the most dangerous - can be and have been tamed by man. But not even the greatest animal trainers in the world has been able to tame their own tongues. The tongue is an unruly evil - wilder and more unpredictable than the wildest wild animal; and what's more, it's full of deadly poison!

* * * * * * * * *

All of this should lead us to trust in Jesus and dread the terrible potential of what is in our own heart (Jer. 17:9). We cannot tame our tongue; but Jesus can.

And we should always remember that God gave us our tongues for the purpose of serving Him with it. It might be tempting to think that the best thing to do - given its potential for harm - is to have it removed, or to sew our mouths shut. But it's not only God's will that (negatively) we not use our tongue for evil, but also (positively) use it for good (Eph. 4:29-30).

May God help us to bring our tongues under His control - because we cannot do so without His help! And may He so change our hearts that our tongues become His instrument for good!

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