I am currently majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in German. Needless to say, I believe in the power of language, both written and spoken. Words are among the most powerful tools we humans possess. They spur people to action, change lives, inspire entire movements. Perhaps nothing has shaped the course of history more than people’s words. Think of Martin Luther’s 95 thesis or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The speakers may have died, but their legacy lives on forever. They speak to us in unique and profound ways, touching our hearts and ultimately influencing our behavior. But like most powerful things, they are also dangerous.
Words can build us up or tear us down incredibly quickly. James knew this full well, which is why he dedicates an entire chapter to the tongue. James 3:2-6 says:
“If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check...take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever 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.”
A perfect man? A world of evil? Wow, those are some bold statements James! He doesn’t shy away from the subject, because he knows it is something everyone struggles with throughout all time. First, it’s critical to understand that God made us this way on purpose– he designed the tongue to be powerful. And, at the risk of sounding cliché, with great power comes great responsibility. God desires that we use our tongues to edify him and bring glory to his name. But like many things in our Christian walks, taming our tongues is a learning process often fraught with trial and error.
Besides the occasional German/English misunderstandings that usually result in personal embarrassment, I can think of a few times I’ve used my tongue to bring shame to God and pain to others. I remember a specific instance when I was thirteen years old. I was a competitive Irish Dancer (think Riverdance) at the time, traveling to various competitions in the region. My friend and fellow competitor and I had just finished our last dance of the day and were now sitting around waiting for the results. When the time came, they announced that she had placed among the top ten and I had not. She stood to collect her medal up on stage and, in my sadness and frustration, I muttered quietly to myself, “Really? She wasn’t even that good.” Not quietly enough, because a look of pain flashed quickly across her face before she turned away. My verbal arrow had struck deep.
Of course I felt horrible and apologized profusely. And although she forgave me, she can never forget what I said– she can never unhear it. That’s the thing about words: once they’re spoken into existence, nothing can take them back. I had done exactly what James warns about, saying, “With the tongue we praise our lord and father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9).
So how do we begin taming out tongues to prevent igniting ‘forest fires’? We don’t want to say empty words just to avoid conflict– no, our words should still carry weight. In truth, this isn’t a mouth issue at all, but rather a deeper heart issue. James is not the only one who acknowledges this, it is David who writes in Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight oh Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
Begin by monitoring your heart, the source from which all words flow. Are you meditating on positive, life-giving thoughts? Or negative, unhealthy thoughts? If I had been focused on how grateful I was to be able to dance at all instead of the prize I thought I deserved, a harmful remark would not have slipped out of my mouth in that moment. Constantly be in the process of checking your heart.
Easier said than done. A tame tongue develops with maturity over time. The people I look up to most are the ones who have worked to tame their tongues and can discern exactly what to say and when. There have been times when I’ve said things that clearly deserved punishment or scorn, but the person reacted with careful words that soothed the situation rather than exacerbated it and helped me see my own rashness.
Taming the tongue takes a lifetime, and no one can succeed perfectly. It is one of the most challenging things Christians are called to do, but it is also one of the most rewarding. In my three years of studying Creative Writing and German, I have come to know this to be true. Nothing is more important than the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. The people who strive to master the tongue are the people who go down in history as great. Taming your tongue, and blessings are sure to follow.
Student, Pepperdine University
Hilltop Community Church of Christ