Some people have a problem called "glossitis." This is when the tongue swells as a symptom of other conditions. Sometimes it's hardly noticeable, and other times it can hardly fit in the mouth. The good news is that it's treatable.
All people have a problem where our tongue works before our minds. If we're not mindful of what we say and the tone with which we say it, we can cause tremendous damage. The good news is that this is treatable, as well.
The book of James has quite a bit to say about the power of our words. Like glossitis, our words are often just a symptom of an underlying condition, in this case, sin's ever-crouching presence.
James 2:1-12 says, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 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.
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 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 course of life, and set on fire by hell. 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. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 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 is concerned with Christians having the right kind of speech toward other believers and the impact of the wrong kind of speech. Many would agree that speech is the most difficult aspect of life to control, for a variety of reasons. But James’s main point is that the person who claims to be a part of Christ’s church should not be identified with cursing but with building each other up. In other words, the tongue can be destructive and difficult to control, but the Christian can master it.
James begins by saying that very few should take on the role of teacher. This is not just a suggestion, but more of a prohibition. As a teacher, you’re by nature a public person with at least minor influence. Early Christians held the teacher in a high esteem, so that alone made many people want to seek out the position, many of whom were unfit. We read all about the dangers of imprecise doctrine, immaturity in leadership, and the threat of false teachers in the church.
Jesus even warned his disciples about the danger the Pharisees were in, the self-made teachers of the law, because of their hypocritical life (Matthew 23:1-5).
So why be strict about teachers? Because they’ll be judged more severely. They’re held to a greater account. When addressing those who teach just so they’ll be held in high esteem, Jesus says, “They will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40).
Teachers have to be, out of necessity, precise in their speech. Without thinking, teachers who are lax in the way they present doctrine can cause others to stumble. “Stumble” is a word often used to describe sin. Sin trips us up and causes us to walk in ways country to God’s divine will. The speech of a careless teacher runs the risk of sinning himself and causing others to do the same. This is why they run the risk of a greater condemnation.
But this isn’t only a good word for teachers. James says “we all” stumble in many ways, especially in our words and thoughts. Look at these Proverbs.
“Death and life are in the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:21).
“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Prov. 11:12-13).
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth” (Prov. 10:19-20).
To have mastery over what comes out of our mouths makes us “perfect.” That’s not a term for sinlessness, but a state of maturity and of high character. So to stand before others and teach the truths of God carries with it great responsibility. Teachers must be more disciplined in what they say because of the position they hold.
James then uses two images to describe the disproportionate impact of our words.
First, we all know that small things have large effects. A new baby in the home might weigh a measly 7 pounds, but he or she completely reshapes the entirety of the lives of the parents. The same is true of our words.
The bit a rider puts in a horse’s mouth gives the rider control of the horse. The last time I rode a horse, I was outmatched. The glassy-eyed dinosaur upon which I was perched started to do its own thing, which included running at an ever-increasing tempo. But, as “The Sound of Silence” played in my mind as I envisaged my looming mortality, with a simple pull of the reigns, I was able to gain mastery over this 2-ton equine beast. Within a few seconds we were back an acceptable gallop.
When you’re out on the waters in a boat, you control the direction you go with a simple rudder. Even in wind and rain, the rudder gives you some control of where you’re headed.
A child can hold a bit in his hands. Anyone can steer a boat with a well-built rudder. But both the bridle and the rudder have an inordinate impact relative to their size. And James teaches us that the same goes for the tongue.
Without a bridle on your tongue, you are promised that it is impossible to have any semblance of control over yourself. It at starts with your words, whether what you say or what you don’t say.
We may think that if we have a healthy body weight or if we plan our meals down to the carbohydrate, then we have ourselves under control. But Scripture says relatively little about bodily health as evidence of self-control.
But our words—that’s where the proof is. Our way of life and our ability to sin or not to sin with our words are inextricably linked in every possible way. For many of us, our spiritual growth is stilted because we have not learned to keep our words under the control of the Spirit.
“I said, ‘I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle, so long as the wicked are in my presence’” (Psalm 39:1).
Next week, we’ll look at the other image James uses, but in the context of the effect of our words: a wildfire.