Words and Wisdom (James 3:1-18)
Big Idea: Our words reveal the condition of our hearts. To change your words, ask God to change your heart.
A crew from the TV show Mythbusters was staging an “experiment” in the town of Dublin, California. They were trying to fire a cannonball into some large water containers at a bomb disposal range. Unfortunately, the Mythbusters crew seriously underestimated the dangerous power of a stray cannonball.
According to a newspaper report, “The cantaloupe-sized cannonball missed the water, tore through a cinder-block wall, skipped off a hillside and flew some 700 yards east.” But that didn’t end the damage. The cannonball “bounced in front of home on a quiet street, ripped through the front door, raced up the stairs and blasted through a bedroom …. Then it exited the house, leaving a perfectly round hole in the stucco, crossed six-lane Tassajara Road, took out several tiles from the roof of a home on Bellevue Circle and finally slammed into a family’s beige Toyota minivan in a driveway on Springdale Drive.”
Regarding the power of the stray cannonball, the owner of the minivan said, “It’s shocking—anything could have happened.” A spokesmen for the local sheriff’s department also commented, “Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy. You wouldn’t think it was possible.”
You and I have never experienced the power of a stray cannonball, but we have experienced something else: the power of words. Nelson Mandela once said:
It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.
James, in the book we’re reading, agrees. Throughout his letter, James keeps returning to the power of the tongue. Today he’s going to show us three things:
- that words are powerful
- that words reveal our heart, and
- how to change our words
The Power of Words
First, words are powerful. In James 3, James spends the bulk of his time talking about the power of our tongues. A tongue, he says, is very small. We know today that the tongue only weighs about 60 to 70 grams. By its size, it’s an inconsequential part of your body. The tongue, however, has an influence on our lives that is out of proportion to its size. There’s probably not a muscle in your body that you use more than your tongue. And there’s probably not another part of your body that has such a direct influence on your life. The tongue is just that powerful.
James makes that exact point in this passage. He compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth, and to a rudder on a large ship. Both a bit and a rudder are small, but don’t ever think they’re inconsequential. As Sam Allberry writes:
One of the biggest ships in the world is the US aircraft carrier, USS Eisenhower. It weighs over 91,000 tons, is nearly 1,100 feet in length, has a nuclear–powered 280,000-horsepower engine, a complement of 6,100 men and women, and carries nearly 100 aircraft. It is vast. It is like a floating city. And yet all that weight, personnel, and hardware are steered by a rudder that’s just a tenth of one percent of the ship’s size. Something so comparatively small is able to manoeuvre something so huge.
And so it is with our tongues. Your tongue is small, but its influence on your life is going to be disproportionate to its size.
In particular, James says that two things are true of our words that make it so important that we pay attention to them.
Words are Destructive
A lot of people say that words don’t cause lasting damage. “Sticks and stones,” they say. But James doesn’t agree with this at all. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5)
Words are powerful. Fortunately, good words have a lot of power too. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
There’s a program in the U.S. Congress that awards internships to young people who’ve aged out of the foster care system. These are kids who were never adopted, and are no longer eligible for state support.
One day a senator came in for a meeting and discovered that his intern was already in the office, reorganizing the entire mailroom. The senator said to the intern, “This is amazing—the mailroom has never looked so clean. You did a great job.” A few minutes later the senator saw that the intern had tears streaming down his face. He said, “Son, are you okay?”
“Yes,” the intern answered quietly.
“Did I say something to offend you?”
“Well, what’s wrong?”
The young man said, “That’s the first time in my life anyone’s told me that I did something good.”
Words are like this. A positive word has the power to heal, to bring life. But the opposite is also true. Words have the power to destroy and to cause great damage. As Sam Crabtree writes:
It takes many affirmations to overcome the impact of a criticism, because criticisms are heavier and sting more. Worse than a bee sting, criticism can be like a sword thrust: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).
When the Bible describes some words as sword thrusts, we are helped to understand how painful words outweigh healing words. It simply won’t do, when a sword wound has been inflicted, to put salve and a bandage on the wound for one minute, or one hour, or one day. It takes more time to heal than to wound. So it is with affirmations and corrections.
Your words are powerful! Your positive words are powerful, but your negative words are even more powerful. They have the potential to do more damage than you realize.
Words are Uncontrollable
One of the problems with our words is that we can’t really control what happens once they leave our mouths. James brings this up in verse 5: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”
Last spring, a forest fire tore through Fort McMurray, forcing the largest evacuation in Alberta history, destroying 2,400 homes, and causing $8.9 billion in damages. It’s the costliest disaster in Canadian history. In fact, it continues to smolder today, and may not be fully extinguished until Spring, a year after the fire.
What caused the fire? According to Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fires at the University of Alberta, the fire was likely caused by a human. Nobody could have imagined that the actions of a person could cause that much damage. But once a fire like that starts, you have no control over the damage that it will cause.
It’s the same with our words. We can speak them, but once we’ve done so, we have no control over the damage that they’ll cause. Our words are powerful. They can bring life or cause great damage. Once they’re spoken, the impact of those words is going to be as uncontrollable as a forest fire.
James applies this to everyone, but I want you to notice in verse 1 that he especially applies it to teachers within the church. So I want to pause here to give you one implication of what James says. We all — including you — have a responsibility to make sure that what’s taught in these sermons is biblical and life-giving. You have the right — the responsibility — to help guard the purity of the teaching of this church. Nothing will harm or kill this church faster than preaching and teaching that doesn’t align with the gospel. Words are powerful for all of us, and this applies to the teaching and preaching of a church.
Never underestimate the power of your words. Your words are unbelievably powerful. But that’s not all that James teaches us. James also teaches us something else:
Words Reveal Your Heart
Based on what James has said so far, you think that the solution would be easy. You’d think that we just have to be careful, really careful, what we say. There’s an old song that people used to teach kids in church:
O be careful little mouth what you say
O be careful little mouth what you say
There’s a Father up above
And He’s looking down in love
So, be careful little mouth what you say
There’s a problem with this advice, according to James.
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7-8)
I wish we could just tell our mouths to be careful what they say. If only it was that easy. The problem is that our mouths won’t listen. You can sooner tame a wild animal than you can tame your own tongue.
Not only that, but we’re capable of duplicity. James points this out in the next few verses. We bless God with our mouths, he says. The next minute we’re cursing our neighbor. This seems bizarre, James says, like finding that you can get both fresh water and salt water from the same spring.
James makes a valid point. Good things come from a good source, and bad things come from a bad source. We’re capable of duplicity in our speech, but eventually the truth will come out. We won’t be able to continually say good things if we don’t have a good heart. We’ll be able to fake it once in a while, but it won’t be the real thing.
It reminds me of when I was in seminary. We had a fake tree in the chapel. A couple of my friends thought it would be funny if we turned it into a fig tree. They bought some fig cookies and hung them on the tree and called it a fig tree. The joke never got old. The custodians kept cleaning it up, but the students kept putting the fig cookies back on there.
That’s funny when it comes to a fake fig tree, but it’s not so funny when it’s one of us. We can pretend we have good hearts by faking it with good words, but we won’t be able to fool people for very long. Only a good heart can consistently produce good words.
Our words aren’t an aberration. When we say something that surprises us, we shouldn’t say, “I don’t know where that came from.” We can know with certainty where those words came from. Those words reveal the condition of our hearts.
Your words are powerful, James says. And your words reveal a lot about you. What’s inside of you will eventually come out in what you say.
So what do we do about this? James tells us in the last part of this passage.
To Change Your Words, Ask God to Change Your Heart
I have to admit that it almost seems as if James changes the subject in verses 13 to 18. He’s been talking about the power of the tongue, and then he talks about how our tongue reveals the condition of our hearts. Now he finishes with a section that contrasts wisdom from below with wisdom from above.
What’s the train of thought here? In verses 14 to 16, James points out that we won’t solve this problem by tapping in to resources that are at our disposal in this world. If we just tap into human wisdom — a book from Indigo that will help us learn how to speak better — it may help us, but we’ll still be left with our root problem. It won’t touch our hearts. We’ll still have hearts that are full of jealousy, selfish ambition, and falsehood. The problem, after all, isn’t our mouths. The problem is our hearts, and that can’t be changed by human wisdom.
So what do we do? James tells us we need wisdom from above:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18)
The only way we can change is if we get a wisdom that doesn’t come from any earthly source. It must come from above. The wisdom that comes from above is completely different. Look at the two lists. Which one looks better to you? Bitter jealousy, selfish ambition, and falsehood, or pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, merciful, plentiful righteousness? What type of friendships would you like? Which kind of family? Which kind of church?
It’s clear, of course. We need wisdom from above. And so we need to know where to get it. The answer is simple: we can only get it from God himself. The ancient theologian Augustine got it right: James “does not say that no one can tame the tongue, but no one of men; so that when it is tamed we confess that this is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God.”
You deal with words by dealing with the heart. And you deal with the heart by asking God to give you a new heart, which is exactly what he promised, and what he’s made possible through Jesus Christ. Of course, once we get the new hearts, we need to continue to ask for God’s help in prayer, and learn to live in light of those new hearts. But when we get the new hearts, and the presence of the Spirit, change is possible.
We need a change that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We need new hearts. And then we need, with God’s help, to become people who reflect the wisdom from above. That’s my hope for you. And that’s my hope for us as a church.