Because what we say, and when we say it, can be one of the most accurate barometers of our spiritual condition. Words, and the way words are used, are of course important: they can enlighten or destroy, they can exalt a nation or destroy an empire. But on a more mundane level, the words we use in our everyday lives tell a great deal about us - - - especially if we're Christians, who have received Jesus Christ according to John 1:12. And the power of our words goes far beyond even that.
The Bible has a great deal to say about words, and the power of the tongue. And sometimes it's a lot more important, a lot more consequential, than simply evaluating our own spiritual condition. A teacher can, with a few well-chosen words of praise or guidance, help a child to develop and grow healthy, happy, and productive. Conversely, a parent who snaps at a child, or constantly speaks sarcastically, can scar and stunt a child's emotional health for a lifetime. And how many friendships have been sundered, how many marriages have been destroyed, by angry or intemperate words?
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, says Proverbs 18:21, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof. Our words can inspire others to acts of heroism ... or drive them to suicide. The possibilities, both good and bad, of what our words can accomplish are endless.
A skinny, sickly little boy is unlikely to become a playground bully; he's not built for it. A girl who's not very attractive, physically, might not become an accomplished seductress. But anyone who can communicate in words can affect the lives of others - - - and themselves.
Most intelligent people, most thinking people, understand this. But nobody, no matter how wise, no matter how well they understand language or psychology, can control their words all the time, without slipping up. This is of particular importance to the Christian, whose words, on a day to day basis (or an hour to hour basis!) can reveal very clearly where he or she is standing with the Lord. In a way, you can take a Christian's spiritual "temperature" by using the thermometer of his or her words.
Why is it that our words are so hard to control? Even the kindest, gentlest, most Christlike people lose their temper at times, or say things they shouldn't. And the rest of us do it even more frequently!
From the Epistle of James, chapter three: For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be (James 3:2-10).
(Don't be intimidated by the perfect English of the King James Bible: it's not as tough as it sometimes looks! Verse 2 simply means, "Everybody blows it, and sins, in many ways." When it speaks of the ship, the "governor" is the captain; when he "listeth," he's leaning on the helm, to steer the ship. These words can be understood by looking at a simple English dictionary. If they sound "archaic," remember that words have many uses: yes, your state or province has a "governor" - - - but so does the engine on your car!)
Notice how God, speaking through James, refers to the tongue. "A little fire ... a fire ... a world of iniquity ... defileth the whole body ... setteth of fire the course of nature ... set on fire of Hell ... an unruly evil ... full of deadly poison." God is not flattering us here, or telling us what sweet talkers we are!
Nor is he telling us what some preachers tell us. Many Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers are obsessed with the tongue (in fact, they're even obsessed with "tongues"). They promise that we can create blessings and wealth and happiness by "speaking it into existence." Marilyn Hickey actually says that she talks to her checkbook, and says, "Checkbook, you're just full of money!" (I'm not making this up.) People like Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland talk about "the power of a positive confession." It is hard to imagine a concept, or a teaching, that is more of an outright contradiction of scripture. In fact, the "preaching" of these people is a perfect illustration of the passage in James!
The entire Bible is full of references to the tongue: most are negative, but some, notably in Proverbs, contrast the words of the wise with the jabbering of fools.David was always preoccupied with the importance of his own words, and those of others; he knew the stakes. Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD. What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile (Psalm 34:11-13). In Psalm 120:2, David is speaking of his enemies - - - but, perhaps, of himself as well: Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. David knew all about deceit; he never really got over his scheme to have Uriah killed, so that he could claim Bathsheba.
Most of us aren't involved in teaching false doctrines, or constantly lying, and most of us have God-given scruples about using inappropriate language. And, when we've obeyed God's command to be filled with the Spirit - - - not a one-time thing (that's the Baptism of the Spirit, which occurs when we're saved), but on a daily basis - - - God gives us a "self-control" and a tempered tongue that we wouldn't otherwise have.
But we need to remember the old illustration of the glass, because it's true of everyone, at all times. If a drinking glass is full of liquid, and the glass is jolted or jarred, whatever it contains will spill out. Every day, or nearly every day, the Christian is jarred and jolted by people or circumstances or events. Someone insults us. A car cuts in front of us in traffic. We smash our toe on the doorjamb in the middle of the night. We lock ourselves out of the house. When such things happen, how does our tongue react? What spills out of the glass: honey, or poison?
That's when our words become the spiritual thermometer! If we're filled with the Spirit, we still won't be pleased by these little occurrences, but we won't lose our temper or use foul language. If we're not filled with the Spirit .... well, you know the words that come to mind, as well as I do! And, sometimes, it's not even a matter of temper, or pain, but simply a habit we've gotten used to. With all due respect to my children's generation, the Internet and social media have even created abbreviations for profanity, lest people expend too much energy in dishonoring the Lord. In fact, people even regard it as "cute:"
A very intimate question, if you're a married Christian: Have you ever argued angrily with your spouse as you drove to church on Sunday, and then began smiling and acting pious once you got there? Or maybe you weren't acting: maybe, once in church, you came closer to the Lord, and the anger was gone. But the two things came pretty close together, didn't they? Have you ever prayed for your children, beseeching the Lord's blessing on them ... and then yelled at them when they did something unexpected, like spilling their milk or leaving a toy in your path? If you've never done these things, I wish I could shake your hand!
Whatever is in the glass will spill out. If the glass is full of Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ will spill out. If the glass is full of me, you don't want to be around when the glass gets jostled!
Why is the tongue such a good indicator of our inner spiritual condition? Because, as Jesus Himself said, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh (Matthew 12:34). Whatever is in our heart will escape our lips, sooner or later.
"These things ought not to be" .... but they often are, in my life and yours. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Because James has already given us the answer - - - and you might have missed it on first reading. But the tongue can no man tame (verse 8). Did you get that? No man can tame it ... but God can, and wants to!
Like everything else in the Christian life, "the taming of the tongue" is accomplished by remembering two verses:
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5); and
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (Philippians 4:13).
Even taming the tongue? Even taming the tongue. You and I can't do it ... but the Lord Jesus Christ, indwelling our bodies through the Holy Spirit, can!
That's something worth talking about!