Taming our Words (James 3:1-12)

James 3v5 taming the tongue 01

Have you ever tried putting toothpaste back into a tube?

There have been a couple of times when we’ve been teaching our children to brush their teeth when they have squeezed the toothpaste tube too hard and it has gone all over the bathroom sink. What a mess! Because we want to teach our children not to waste, we then tried to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It didn’t work. No matter what we did, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, nothing can put it back in.

This is a well-known illustration about how we can’t take words back once we say them. Probably all of us have said things in our lives that we have regretted and wished we could take back. But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, when we say damaging or hurtful things, or when we talk about people behind their backs and they hear about it, there is nothing we can do to put those words back in the tube.

God knew the importance of the words we say when he gave us the 8th Commandment: ‘You must not testify falsely against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Martin Luther explained this commandment means that

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbours, betray them, slander them, or hurt their reputations, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way. (Small Catechism, alt.)

Basically, the way Luther interpreted this commandment was the same as what my Mum used to tell me as a child: if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.

It sounds good in theory, but have you ever seriously tried to do this? How do we go when we endeavour to only say positive, constructive, life-giving words to and about each other? This is where James 3:1-12 becomes really important for us to hear. It seems like James wasn’t very hopeful about people’s ability to speak well of each other. Especially in verse 8 where James wrote, ‘no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison’ (NLT), he appears to have a very pessimistic view of our ability to be able to keep our tongues in check, and for the words that come out of our mouths to be constructive and life-giving.

On the one hand, we need to listen to James and recognize the dangers that come with speaking to or about other people. Once our words come out, we can’t put them back in. To use James’s image, once our words light a fire, it can burn the whole forest down before we know it. It can easily happen in the church where a thoughtless or even well-intentioned comment about someone can spread like wildfire. Before you know it, relationships are damaged and a congregation can be split. We need to be careful about what we say to and about people, and that we are explaining our neighbours’ actions in the kindest possible way.

Secondly, we also need to realize that this doesn’t always come naturally. James’s words remind us that it is too easy for us to use words to and about each other in destructive ways. At some stage we will all say things that we wish we could take back or put back into the tube. When this happens, we need to be showing grace to each other and forgiving each other as God has forgiven us through Jesus (see Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13), no matter how difficult it might be to do that.

Something inside us needs to change if we are to be continually speaking well to and of each other. Jesus taught that the things we say actually come from the heart when he said, ‘What you say flows from what is in your heart’ (Luke 6:45 NLT; see also Mathew 12: 34,35; 15:18). Our problem is not just the words we say, but it’s a heart problem. When our hearts are wrong, our words will be hurtful and destructive. However, when our hearts are full of the life and goodness of Jesus, then our words will also be good and bring life to others.

If our words are to be constructive and life-giving, what we really need are hearts that have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do this ourselves. We need God to do it for us as an act of grace. That is why King David’s prayer from Psalm 51:10, asking God to create clean hearts in us, becomes such an important prayer for all of God’s people. When God’s Holy Spirit cleans our hearts out, removing everything that is hurtful, deceitful and destructive, then our words will stop being hurtful, deceitful and destructive. When God gives us hearts that are good, true and full of the life of Christ, then our words will also be good, true and life-giving.

God gives us the Holy Spirit through his word. God speaks two kinds of words to us: words of law which show us that we are a long way from the people he wants us to be, like he does here in James 3, but also words of grace which speak the love, mercy and life of Christ to us. When God speaks the good news to us, God promises us new hearts which beat with the life of Christ and are in synch with his compassion, mercy and love. When we hear words of forgiveness and new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit works on our heart to make them new. From these, new hearts come the words of forgiveness, love and life that we are able to speak into the lives of others. As James says, we might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new hearts by the power of his Spirit for the sake of Jesus, then good and live-giving words will flow from our hearts into the lives of others.

I haven’t been able to get the excess toothpaste back into the tube yet, so I hope what comes out will be good for those who will be cleaning their teeth with it. In the same way, my hope and prayer is that the words which come out of our mouths, the things we say to and about each other, will be constructive and life-giving as we defend each other, speak well of each other, and explain each other’s actions in the kindest possible ways.

We might not be able to control our tongues, but when God gives us new and good hearts through Jesus by the power of his Holy Spirit, then the words which come out of us will be good as well.

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