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March 10, 2007 / beidson

Teachers, Tongues and Terror: Wisdom and the Power of Words

What does your tongue have to do with eternity? Everything, according to the letter of James. How’s that? Well, to put it childishly, your tongue bone is connected to your brain bone and your brain bone is connected to your heart bone. James says to us, “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” (3:2). In other words, if you can control your tongue, you have mastered yourself.

But here’s the problem: no man can tame his tongue. This is what James tells us. He says, “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” (3:7-8). In fact, for this reason James warns that many people should not become teachers, because teachers, by the very nature of their tasks, must use their tongues with authority. The tongue is a teacher’s tool, and according to James, this is a dangerous reality because the tongue itself is dangerous.

James says, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (3:6). In fact, he says that the tongue has been set on fire by hell itself (v.6). He goes on to say that the tongue is restless with evil and full of deadly poison (v.8). And to prove his point James reminds us of how we bless God with our tongues and then turn right around and curse the ones who were made in God’s image. “How can this be?” James asks. This is not the fulfillment of the royal law (2:8), which is to love our neighbors as ourselves. More than anything, the tongue proves that we are transgressors of God’s perfect law, because we praise God for his perfect law, and then use our tongues to break this very law.

Was this not what Adam did to his own wife Eve? Was he not given authority over the entire earth, and did he not use his authority to name the animals, speaking their names with his tongue? And what did he do after this? He failed to use his tongue to protect Eve from the serpent, and then, to cover his shame and shift the blame, he accuses Eve of leading him into sin, cursing her with the very tongue he was to use for her protection. And remember Cain? Genesis 4:8 tells us that “Cain spoke to his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” I don’t suppose Cain’s words were too kind as he considered his murderous plot.

And this is not all that different from what we do when we rise early to pray to our Father in heaven, and get off of our knees and walk into the kitchen and, out of frustration, use our tongues to wound our spouses and children. This is what teenagers do, who in their youth groups use their tongues to lead in prayer and singing and spiritual conversation, and then go home and curse their parents under their breath because of some disagreement.

Jesus tells us, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). The tongue is connected to the heart, and as the heart really is, so the tongue will be also. You see, our tongues can’t be controlled because our hearts are evil. We are hypocrites in the worst kind of way when it comes to our tongues, because we use them to cover our sin and hatred, when we ought to use them to build up the Church, the body of Christ. It is no mystery why James begins his letter by telling us to ask God for wisdom (with our tongues, of course) and then ends his letter by telling us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (with our tongues), because this is how healing and restoration happen (5:16).

James speaks of the “wisdom from above” (3:17). The only hope we have in subduing our tongues is being subdued by One who is able to do so. In Christ, our tongues can be used for righteousness. Jesus is the “perfect man” who used his whole body, including his tongue, to do the will of his Father. Peter tells us that “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return . . . but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22-23). And as he was being crucified like a criminal, he interceded for his accusers, asking “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter . . . so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Christ has power over death and the grave; does he not also have power over the tongue.

The power of God is the gospel (Romans 1:16), and the gospel is a verbal message which is proclaimed with our tongues. Our tongues ought not be a cause for terror, but a tool for righteousness. This is true wisdom. This is the fulfillment of the royal law. And that has everything to do with eternity.

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