When it comes to actors in our time, I believe Tom Hanks is among the best. In addition to his memorable performances, he has a collection of stand-out lines: “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “There’s a snake in my boot.” But perhaps none fits our next point more than one of his lines from Apollo 13: “Houston, we have a problem.” Those words triggered fear in the crew of Apollo 13. However, they also triggered the best minds the nation could assemble to work on the problem. Realizing they had a problem was the pivotal first step in moving toward a solution.
When it comes to communication, we all have a problem: our tongues. Since we belong to God both body and soul, and since he himself is Lord of all, then all of who we are and all of what we are belong to God, including our speech. We have been freed from the power of sin and don’t need to walk in it any longer. But the believers James was addressing were not living that way. They were using their words for both blessing and cursing. James says it simply: “these things ought not to be so” (3:10).
We may craft our excuses and try to push back from James’s teaching. We may be uncomfortable that he doesn’t give us the wiggle room we prefer, particularly in our marital conversations. However, we are better off if we just admit and embrace the fact that we have a problem. It’s okay to admit it; in fact, it is necessary. It is the first step toward health and healing. It is the step we all must take as we embrace and believe the gospel of Christ. Our tongues are a problem. Fact. Settled. Resolved.
How did the tongue become such a danger? Well, let’s retrace James’s thought process from the beginning of chapter three as he sets the stage.
As the Tongue Goes, So Goes the Person
James lays out the situation this way:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.James 3:3-5
These verses hardly require an explanation. The smallest piece of the machine (the bit for the horse and the rudder for the ship) steers the entire thing. Through the power of the small bit, the massive beast is controlled. Through the power of the small rudder, the massive ship is directed. So it is in verse 5 with people: though the tongue is a small part of the body, it is able to boast of great control and influence.
This is not a condition we overcome; it is a fact we must embrace. The power of our words is not something we outgrow. It is something we acknowledge so we can surrender control of our words to God. Proverbs 21:23 shows us that if we purpose to tame the tongue, then the whole of us is kept out of trouble:
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.Proverbs 21:23
It should be said that the tongue is not the only way we find trouble, but it is among the biggest culprits in creating trouble, for the speaker and hearers alike. How many marital conflicts could be avoided if we simply avoided saying that? How many disappointments could have been avoided if we had simply said this? How many marriages would still exist, and exist joyfully, if one or both spouses kept themselves out of trouble by watching what they said? Our words are powerful indeed.
Yet, we use this power for evil as well as good. We use our words to manipulate as well as encourage. We use them to tear down and we use them to build up. We use words to curse those made in God’s image as well as to bless the Maker of those we’re cursing. As we survey the aftermath in our own lives, we discover the harsh reality—the duality of our words leaves mass destruction in its wake.
Weapon of Mass Destruction
I don’t know what comes into your mind when you hear the words “weapons of mass destruction.” Perhaps it is the voice of George W. Bush in the midst of the controversy of the Iraq War. Perhaps it is the WWII bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Regardless of what comes to mind, it’s all kind of awful, isn’t it? Weapons of mass destruction are massively destructive.
Is it a surprise to discover that you have one of these weapons of mass destruction trapped behind your teeth and in your throat? The bit and rudder that steer the machine of your life contain the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of others. James continues to lay out his case:
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things… And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire the course of life, and set on fire by hell.James 3:5-6
James exhorts us to beware that our words set aflame forests and defile the entire body. Even beyond that, they hold the power to set on fire our entire course for life. You may be thinking now of people in your past against whom you’ve spoken or who have spoken against you. You’re thinking of the devastation you’ve experienced as a result of others, and the damage that you’ve created for others. Right now as you sit at your desk or on your sofa or lie in your bed, you are testifying to the danger that lies in the tongue.
Comfort for us in our regret or sorrow is coming, but that’s not where James goes next. Right when we could use some encouragement, James doubles down on the problem and makes the picture even bleaker. Can this tongue be tamed?
Let’s let him answer:
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
So we find that we’re stuck with a poisonous, fiery, restless weapon that wreaks havoc on our lives and the lives of those around us. It risks the welfare of those we love and those we don’t even know. There is no taming it, regardless of the amount of human effort. Our tongues will destroy, and our tongues will betray us. We have no power to stop it. But God, in his grace, doesn’t let this word be the end of the story.
As the Person Goes, So Goes the Tongue
Ephesians 2:4 has one of my favorite phrases in all of Scripture: “But God.” Often the Scriptures take us face-to-face with the hopeless reality of our human condition. James 3 is no exception. We stand there, at the end of a dark alley with nothing but impenetrable walls surrounding us and we are hopeless. We realize we have no resources to deal with what has transpired, and we are trapped, destined to fail.
Then hope arrives. It arrives not in the form of self-discovery but self-abandonment. It arrives not in our own strength but in the fruit and power of the Spirit. It arrives not because of us but because of God. Look at the rest of the sentence from Ephesians 2:4–7:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 2:4-7
I am not going to take all of that glorious truth apart here. I will simply make a few observations. First, we were dead. That is a hopeless condition. Second, God himself made us alive. Third, he did it by grace. Fourth, he did it to show the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Our hopelessness was conquered because God conquered us. He overcame our biggest problem and gave us hope. He gave us power. He gave us life.
James 3 continues with some questions that illustrate his point:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.James 3:11-12
A fountain can only send out one type of water and a fig tree can only produce one kind of fruit. If you want to change the product, you must first change the source. James has told us we can’t accomplish this on our own. At first this sounds like bad news, but it is actually wonderful for us.
God, being rich in mercy, has shown his kindness toward you in Christ (Ephesians 2:4–5). You were dead but now you are alive in Christ. Once you were not his, but now you are his.
Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10). And with his kindness comes the presence and power of his Spirit. This is why Piper declares,
God cares about your mouth. God cares about your lips and your tongue. He cares about what goes in, but he cares a lot more about what comes out (Matthew 15:11). So I think what God means to do…is to help you become the kind of person whose mouth will freely, refreshingly bring forth more and more life for other people. God wants to make your mouth a fountain of life.John Piper, “The Mouth of the Righteous Is a Fountain of Life,” (Desiring God, sermon, 1991), https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-mouth-of-the-righteous-is-a-fountain-of-life.
God is in the business of changing hearts, of changing people. He has little interest in redeeming tongues only.
The tongue is powerful; the Spirit is more so. The tongue has great influence; the Spirit of God has more (see 1 Corinthians 4:20). The tongue sets the forest ablaze in destruction; the Spirit sets the heart ablaze unto life and victory and good. This allows us to say in the end, “All glory be to Christ!”
Excerpted from With These Words: Five Communication Tools for Marriage and Life © 2020 by Rob Flood. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
WITH THESE WORDS: FIVE COMMUNICATION TOOLS FOR MARRIAGE AND LIFE
This practical marriage resource by pastor and author Rob Flood not only explores why couples should grow in communication but addresses the “how” of communication.