So far we have learnt that there is a direct connection between our hearts and our mouths: ‘For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:34). When the heart is filled, it overflows through the mouth, and that overflow tells us the real condition of the heart.
We have also learnt that we cannot really have good lives if we do not control our tongue and our lips, and that God doesn’t base his assessment of our condition on our rough estimate of who we think we are, He bases His assessment on His analysis of our tongue!
All the Christian activities that we are involved in are affected by the way we use our tongue. James talks about the kind of religion that is acceptable to God, and the kind that is unacceptable: ‘If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless’ (James 1:26).
It doesn’t matter how religious we may claim to be. We may attend church, sing Christian songs and do all the other things that we expect religious people to do – and there is nothing wrong with these things. But if we do not keep our tongues under control, our religion is worthless and unacceptable to God.
The next verse shines even more light on the kind of religion that is acceptable to God: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27).
The first positive requirement of pure religion is not going to church, or even reading the Bible. It is looking after and showing practical love towards those who are in need – primarily orphans and widows. If we want to live a life that is pleasing to God, then we need to take to heart these two statements found in James:
□ If you do not control your tongue your religion is worthless.
□ Acceptable religion is demonstrated by caring for those in need.
God wants us to recognize the impact our tongue has on our life. Too many Christians say whatever they like and expect others to forgive them. They wonder why after years of critical or harsh words, their marriage is dying or there children don’t come to visit anymore.
We must understand that there can be death or life in our words – and that we have no right to speak words of death into other people’s lives. If we want our Christian lifestyle to be acceptable to God, then we must allow our lips to be anointed with grace (Psalm 45:1-2).
In chapter three, James seeks to explain how the tongue works: ‘We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check’ (James 3:2).
James is saying that if you can control your tongue, you can control your whole life.
He continues to explain by giving us some simple illustrations: ‘When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder whenever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison’ (James 3:3-8).
If we look at this passage closely, we notice that James says, ‘If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man…’ – And we all read this and think, ‘Oh, no! I am so far from being perfect’.
But then in verse eight James says, ‘…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil…’ And we all read this and think, ‘Oh, hallelujah! No one can control their tongue so I’m okay’.
What becomes obvious from these verses is that there is a battle going on inside of each of us – and it happens every day – a battle between our flesh and our spirit.
Those days when we are close to God and our lives are surrendered to the Holy Spirit – those are the days the perfect man comes to the surface and conquers our flesh. But when we leave our flesh unchecked there is a restless evil that begins to bubble inside of us and spills out through our mouth.
Some Christians keep a check on their tongue – some Christians allow it to flow unchecked.
① The bit in the horses mouth.
James is saying that no matter how strong a horse is, if you can get control of it’s mouth with the bit, you can control the whole animal. The horse’s strength is brought into subjection through the control of its mouth. The same is true with us – whatever controls our tongues – whether spirit or flesh – controls the whole course of our lives!
② The rudder of a ship.
A ship may be a great and impressive structure, but it can be tossed back and forth by the force of the wind and the waves. Yet, in that great ship there is one small decisive piece that is so important – the rudder. It is the use of the rudder that determines the whole course of the ship. If the rudder is used properly, the ship will arrive safely in the harbour. If the rudder is not used properly, the ship is likely to be shipwrecked.
③ A small spark starting a forest fire.
A little spark can cause a huge forest fire. There are many churches and religious groups that no longer exist because one tongue set a spark that burned up the whole thing.
④ Deadly poison.
The tongue is like a deadly poison that spreads through the whole of the body or the whole of our lives.
In each of these examples the principle is the same: the tongue is a small part which can cause huge damage that might never be undone!
James goes on to point out the inconsistencies of religious people: ‘With the tongue we praise our LORD and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing, my brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water’ (James 3:9-12).
Notice that cursing other people, should not happen. We should not praise God and then shout curses against our family, friends or work colleagues.
If the water that comes out of our mouth is fresh, then the spring that is in our heart is fresh. But if the water that comes out of our mouth is salty, then the spring in our heart is also salty.