‘The Tongue Is A Fire (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)’ – James 3:1-12 – February 10th, 2019

If you have your bible, please turn with me to James, chapter 3, verses 1 through 12.

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.

Let’s pray.


So, when I first told my family I wanted to “teach the Bible” for a living, my cousin said, “You know, there’s more money in Scientology.” My parents were excited, but some of my extended family was confused.

But that confusion quickly turned into curiosity: Another cousin asked if I was going to break up with my girlfriend at the time. And I said, “. . . No?” And she said, “Don’t you take a vow of celibacy when you become a minister?” And I said, “. . . No.”

And that was the beginning of an onslaught of increasingly bizarre questions: “Will I go to hell if I smush my chewing gum under the tabletops at the mall?” “Will I go to hell if I stole paperclips from my teacher’s desk in 1997?” “Will I go to hell if I drive 35 in a 55 zone?” And I was like, “No. No. Yes.”

People will place more stock on what you say when you’re a “teacher,” so it matters deeply that you don’t speak carelessly. But that can be a bad thing, because the standard that “teachers” are held to by most folks is the standard that everybody should be held to: The same way that you should be able to trust your teachers not to teach falsely, other people should be able to trust you.

But that’s difficult, because lying is as easy as breathing – right? Not lying is a lot of work. Because our default mode is rarely to be honest – with ourselves or anyone.

A psychologist could give you about a million different reasons why lying is so easy, and telling the truth is so hard, but the short version is that telling the truth is labor-intensive in ways that “bearing false witness” isn’t.

Telling the truth requires more focus. It requires you to cut through your own tendency to rationalize the things that happen to you to feel better about yourself. You know what I’m talking about?

Like, if I went to the store today, and I bought a popsicle, then came home, put the popsicle in the freezer, and watched fourteen episodes Seinfeld, it should be easy to say that when Elyse asks me what I did today.

But our natural inclination isn’t gonna be to say, “I bought a popsicle and watched TV for seven hours.”  We’re gonna find a way to describe our day that’s, maybe, half-true. So instead of saying, “I watched seven hours of Seinfeld,” we’ll say, “I did some research.”

Instead of saying, “I bought a popsicle, for some reason,” we’ll say, “I got some groceries.” But you didn’t get groceries, you got a popsicle. You didn’t “do some research,” unless you’re researching “Iconic Sitcoms From The 1990s.”

So that’s a lie. Don’t kid yourself. But you probably didn’t think about it that way, because you probably didn’t think about it at all. You probably didn’t decide to lie. It just came out.

You concocted a story to gloss over what you actually did as a way of avoiding embarrassment, or keep from getting yelled at, or whatever, almost completely without thinking about it. Because lying is as easy as breathing. And that’s a problem.

Because that means that what James is talking about runs deeper than just “How you talk.” Like we talked about a few weeks ago, when James or Solomon, or anyone, says something about “How You Talk,” they’re not Just “talking about the vehicle,” they’re “talking about the pilot.” Because what comes out of your mouth is you.

So it’s like the old saying: “A cup can only spill what it contains.” When God rebukes you about the way you speak, it’s an invitation to let him change what you contain. A command to change how you use your tongue is a command to change you.

That’s why, in Mark 7, Jesus says “It’s not what goes into you that defiles you. It’s what comes out of you” (vv. 17-23). You say and do the things you say and do because they’re the sort of things you would say and do. If something spills out of you, it’s because it was inside you.

Part of the reason Jesus always faced off with the Pharisees in the marketplace was that the Pharisees were passionate about ritual purity – so they demanded that every Jew follow a stringent set of guidelines for what they would eat and how they would wash themselves before and after eating.

And it wasn’t just because they were nerds, it was because their job was to shepherd the people of Israel through the act of “loving God.” So you loved God by not eating pork – it seems strange today, but there were reasons behind it; they weren’t just spit-balling – and you loved God by ritually washing yourself before eating.

And if you read closely, you’ll see this wasn’t really the thing that Jesus took issue with. They had added to the Law in order to help people love God extra-carefully by not even getting close to the line that barred off what God had prohibited, but their big issue, as Jesus puts it, is that they’d emptied the Law of its actual meaning.

There’s a reason that when scribes would come to Jesus and ask him what the most important command is, he’d always quote a passage from Deuteronomy that said “Love the Lord, your God, with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then he’d chase it with a passage from Leviticus, which said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the Hebrew faith, that was called “The Shema,” and if a Rabbi asked a Hebrew child to summarize the whole Law in the middle of class, he would have recited the Shema, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the key, here, is that when children recited “The Shema,” they weren’t two separate commands. In Matthew 22, Jesus says “the whole law and prophets hangs on these two commands,” because, as they understood it, these two commands hung on each other. You love God by loving your neighbor.

So Jesus and the Pharisees had problems, because the Pharisees made a lot of ruckus about loving God by obeying the dietary laws and following elaborate rituals to wash themselves, but they put next to no emphasis on loving the flesh-and-blood human beings that God had entrusted to them. And if the Law is summed up in “Love the Lord your God and love the people he created,” you can’t keep the Law if you don’t love your neighbors.

And James is picking up the same train of thought as his brother when he says, “With our tongues we praise the Lord, our God, and we curse people he created in his image.” What we say to our neighbors reveals what we really think about God. You see where James is going with this? What we do or don’t do for our neighbors reveals how were really feel about God.

Because if we love God by loving our neighbors, then our love for God (or lack thereof) is visible in our love for others. Because you speak from the overflow of what’s inside you. It shows who you are. And if the way you talk about yourself and others is deeply crooked, the issue is that you’re deeply crooked and need to be mended.

So James chapter 1, verse 18, says that “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth so that we might become the ‘firstfruits’ of God’s new creatures.” God has given us a new birth. He’s giving us a “new insides.” He’s changing what we contain, so that different things “spill out” of us.

He’s turning us into a people who love their neighbors, not just in a sense that the world likes – where we theoretically love our neighbors, “deep down inside.” That’s a love that never does anything. It’s a love thing never manifests itself in what we do, or what we say. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t affect anybody’s life, and doesn’t help anyone, and doesn’t cost us anything.

This is a different love. God has “given us a new birth by the message of truth,” and it will make us into a people who “love our neighbors” in our speech; and loving our neighbors in our speech will change the way we see our neighbors day-in and day-out; and that change that God brings about in us will change the way that we act towards the people around us.

So we will become a people who love people visibly, and actively, in ways that cost us, in ways that change us, in ways that force us to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit. God will change what comes out of us by changing what’s inside us.

So James says that “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is able to control his whole body,” and if you take that super literally, that sounds kind of exaggerated. But the point is that your tongue is like the rudder of the ship, it’s like the bit you put in the horse’s mouth.

The way you talk guides the way that you act and think. You pull yourself in one direction or another based on the things that you say. If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t: When you get home from the office and you complain about your obnoxious co-worker; or when you get to the bar – I mean, the Men’s Bible Study – and you start complaining about your wife to men who have no interest in encouraging you to love her with patience and compassion; you’re not just making a decision about how you talk about them. You’re shaping how you think about them.

So it’s kind of like, years ago, when they first built this Community College in my area, they laid down the grass but they didn’t set up any walkways. And over the first two semesters the community college was open, students would walk along the grass without any guidance, and the ground would get lower and create a kind of unofficial pathway in certain places, because there were constant footsteps across the same spots.

And the Campus Planner would go and observe where the ground had consistently lowered, creating unofficial pathways were there hadn’t been one, and she had the contractors pave over those pathways that the students had created. Because the more you step over the same place, the more you burrow into the soil and create a pathway.

And in the same way, the more you return, and return, to speaking a certain way about other people, or yourself, or God, the more you’re “building a pathway,” and it becomes the pathway you return to on reflex, because it becomes what comes naturally to you.

And as it stands, we see ourselves and others through eyes corrupted by sin, and that changes our relationship with everyone. You don’t hear this from the pulpit that much, but sin makes you hate yourself. Am I right? And I’m not heading in the Joel Osteen direction. He’s right when he says that this is the Bible and you are what it says you are, but he’s not right enough.

Because when you see yourself through eyes corrupted by sin, you need more than just a boost in your self-esteem. Sin makes you hate yourself by slowly convincing you that in order to be significant, you have to do something important, or you have to be influential.

It’ll move you to find your identity in what you’ve accomplished, or how you look, or how much money you make. And when sin causes you to see yourself in that light, you’ll start to lie, to yourself and everybody. You’ll work hard to seem important, or powerful. And so the way you talk will reinforce the lies that sin plants in you.

And learning to see yourself differently means praying for a different set of eyes, so you can look at yourself, and you can look at other people, and you can speak God’s words over them instead of the world’s words.

So this is deeper than “self-esteem.” Because sin is at work in the deepest parts of us, we have to kind of “talk ourselves into” believing that we’re made in the image of God, and that that’s where we can place our comfort.

I went to church for almost seventeen years and didn’t have a good thing to say about God. And what changed, more than anything, was that I kept meeting people who talked differently than I did. And that sounds pretty insignificant. But I’m not just talking about people who “didn’t say the “F-word.” There were Church ladies I used to make fun of with other kids in the youth group – because we were just, uh, evil, or something. And they talked differently than me.

I’m not sure how to describe it, but Paul puts it into words pretty well in Ephesians 4:29 when he says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their need, so that it may benefit those who listen.”

There was a universe of difference between the way I talked and the way the church ladies that I laughed at talked. I have no idea what they said when they stubbed their toe, but what I do know is that encouragement just spilled out them. Gratitude just spilled on other people, because that’s what they contained. That was what they were.

They were grateful the God because of the great mercy they’d been shown, and that had slowly molded them into people who were grateful to everyone, for everything. To my knowledge I had done nothing for them, at least not on purpose, but I could feel their gratitude, towards me – for existing, for being here. It just spilled out of them in the way they talked.

And that messed me up. Because when the Bible talks about “cursing,” it’s talking about actual cursing. You can “curse” without saying any taboo words if the things that come out of your mouth are just cruel and ruthless. Or if you’re tearing people down with the things that you say, instead of building them up.

And I had a “cursing problem,” because the only way I could figure to be okay was to make other people less okay, like “okay-ness” was a zero-sum game where if I lost it was because somebody else won – like happiness was a “limited resource” that had to be “redistributed” according to merits, or power, or access.

And all I knew was that I didn’t have any of it, and I thought I might be able to “strip-mine” other people for it, so half the things I said were subtle insults, or bitter remarks; I would find ways to subtly chip away at your confidence, because I didn’t want you to love yourself, because I couldn’t love myself, because I didn’t want to love the Lord, because sin makes you hate yourself.

And I suspect that someone in here – I have no idea who, because only you know you in that way – has hated themself for years. And as a result, you’ve been “filled with curses.” They’ve “spilled out of you,” whether you meant them to or not.

James says that “The tongue is a fire,” but it doesn’t have to be. Because when we “throw ourselves on the mercy of God,” he saves us, forever, from our sin. There’s no wrath waiting for us.

But he also gives us “the holiness of Jesus,” a holiness Jesus earned on our behalf. So it’s “just as if we’d always obeyed.”

But it’s also a holiness we “grow into”. We become God’s children, God’s friends, God’s people because of the holiness of Jesus that God applies to us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus – completely unrelated to anything that we do. But he doesn’t stop his work there.

Because the holiness that God applies to us is like “a coat that doesn’t fit.” It hangs over our body because the arm holes are too big and the torso fits like a dress and the neck just swallows us up. But the Holy Spirit spends the rest of our lives “growing us into” the shape of the coat the Father drapes over us. So, one day, the coat fits.

The holiness of God, draped over us in Jesus Christ, becomes our own holiness. And one day we’ll recline at the table with God, and no longer be “filled with curses,” but instead what “spills out of us” is gratitude: Gratitude to God for the mercy he’s shown us in Jesus Christ, which “refracts outward” and turns into gratitude to everyone. “The coat God drapes over us” becomes the coat we wear at his table.

And on the other side of that, our tongues will no longer be a “fire.” Our tongues won’t be “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Our tongues will not be “a world of unrighteousness,” that “pollutes our whole body,” and “sets the course of life on fire.”

On the other side of what God is doing in our “new birth by the message of truth,” James says that we’ll be like “a spring that pours out sweet water instead of bitter water.” We will be like “a spring that yields fresh water, instead of salt water.”

And that will make us a restful people. Not just in the sense that we, ourselves, have a kind of rest in God that other people can’t have without him, but that we would be a people for whom other people can feel the rest of God emanating out of us.

Because they know that “the tongue is a fire.” Everybody has two black eyes, because the world just batters you, and they’re looking for rest. They’re looking for a deeper rest than they can find in things, or money, or a shorter work week, or spouse. They’re looking for a rest that only happens in the community that God creates, by giving us “a new birth, through the message of truth.”

So people will find the rest that they need in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for their sins and was resurrected so that could join in his rest in a way that they couldn’t beforehand.

And people will meet that Jesus as they are drawn to the rest that they find among us: God is going to change your heart, in order to change your speech, in order to draw people who have positioned themselves as God’s enemies into being God’s friends.

He’s going to make people into his friends through you. Expect that. Ask God to prepare your heart for that. Give yourself to the Holy Spirit to be changed, and softened, and molded into someone who invites other people into the rest that God can give them through Jesus.

Because that’s what the world needs from us. That’s what Louisburg, North Carolina needs from us. They need us to invite them into the kind of rest that absolutely nothing except the crucified and resurrected Jesus can give them.

And so even if you can’t relate to anything I’ve said, if you’re discouraged because you know in your heart that your default mode is to “curse men made in God’s image even while you bless the name of God your Father,” the solution is not to go home discouraged, and find some way to “self-medicate” so you feel better about yourself.

The solution is to accept the grace you already have. Accept the mercy that God has already shown you. Lean back on the forgiveness that you already have in Jesus Christ, throw yourself before the Holy Spirit, and submit to him as he shapes you into someone who loves their neighbor enough to offer them the rest that is in Jesus Christ. Invite people to join the family that you’ve been adopted into. God will make you love your neighbor, because he loves your neighbor.

And if you’ve never “thrown yourself on God’s mercy,” to have the holiness of Jesus “draped over you,” I’d love to be the one who walks you through that. So I’ll be at the front, waiting for you come while we sing.

And if you don’t come, I’ll be waiting for you next week. And if the altar freaks you out – like, if you’re afraid of fire, so the candles on top are just horrifying, you don’t have to “come to the altar.” You can flag me down, we can find a time to talk, we can walk through the process “throwing yourself on God’s mercy,” to be “given a new birth,” as James puts it, “by the message of Truth.”

Let’s pray.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s