The Faith Work Out: "Leading Role" – James 3:1-12

Every actor wants one – the leading role in the movie. It is a time when their talent as an actor will be showcased. They will be the hero or heroine of the show – and all eyes will watch them. It is heady stuff. We understand, because we all grew up in a fame hungry world. Most of us, at least at one point, played “air guitar” in front of the mirror, and imagined ourselves playing before thousands of adoring and applauding fans. We know WHY people want to be up front, and what part of their ego fame feeds.

Before we know the Lord, many of us had our favorite music group, and perhaps even our favorite actors in posters on the wall. When we came to Christ, we may have left the world of lost celebrities– because they lost their appeal. We took down our old posters, put away our old CDs, and deleted some of our favs off the iPod music directory. Sadly, in a short time, we probably found that Christians had celebrities too. They had their own posters; their own heroes. If we were gifted to be “up front” people – teachers, leaders and the like – we probably started to want to be ONE of them – the noticed Christian famed leaders. We may have become enamored with the idea of leading people. Among youth, they often express the desire to lead a ministry among young people – perhaps as a Youth Pastor or Worship leader

There is no problem with wanting to use our gifts – that is as it should be. The problem comes when we misunderstand the nature of the gifts, and misplace the value of certain kinds of service to the Lord. An immature believer can easily end up thinking that what we SAY is the most important part of our testimony… when it is NOT. Speaking that isn’t backed up by living detracts from the clarity of the Gospel message to a lost world.

Key Principle: Serving Jesus is about how we discipline our lives- especially in the area of the tongue. The grand mark of maturity is the consistent ability to control the use of their tongue. Since the old man is ever within, mature believers limit the old man’s access to the microphone of the mouth.

Taming the tongue has always been a struggle, and James is clear to express it is a necessary one for maturity and testimony. We dare not think that our appetite for fame and affirmation will not creep up at a moment’s notice to grab control of our words – it will. How many of us were already embarrassed as we heard the words leaving our mouths on more than one occasion?

James has been addressing “thing people say” all the way through his letter – and this page will be no different. This short book has merely five short chapters but offers powerful and practical wisdom for life in “sound bite” style. As we have seen up to this point in our study of this letter, James was a man on a mission. God directed him to deal with loose lips of early believers. Reports were brought to his attention of the types of problems that came up in the early church, and God used his simple candor to communicate both the issues and the principles that would answer the problems caused, at least in part, by the tongue.

  • Reading through the first part of the Epistle, it appeared that there may have been some bitter complaining about the troubles that surrounded the early Jewish believers scattered in the Roman world. Reading even further, some in the congregations were apparently beaten down to the point that they even blamed God for enticement in the intense temptations they experienced – as though He was willing to test them to the point of entrapping them. They were beat, and their mouths bore evidence of the pain. James pressed the believers to understand that trouble was not an enemy, nor was it always sent from one. Trouble could have been a sculpting tool of God to prepare and condition them for the future He planned for them. On the other hand, not a word of blame, said James, could rightly be aimed at God for the issue of succumbing to temptation – that was surrendering to the old man, or the flesh inside. God didn’t tempt them – He never does that.
  • By what we now call chapter two, James showed another way their mouths were a window to their needy and fallen hearts. He exposed the inner root of preferential treatment of people. Privileged treatment of people was a thinly veiled manipulative behavior – verbally trying to “curry favor” with people they believed had the means of adding to things their flesh hungered for – fortune, fame, power and pleasure. (James 2:1-13). Because of that inner fleshly hunger, their mouth offered favor to one, but distance to another – and that just wasn’t right.
  • In our last lesson we concluded the mouth also exposed the fake faith of some. James argued those who decided to speak one way but live another were not authentically part of the Kingdom. As in so many cases – the words didn’t CAUSE the problem – they illustrated where the heart already was.  Over and over we see it illustrated… the mouth is the window to the heart and its condition.

As we open James 3, we find another example of the things people were saying that exposed a heart problem. In fact, on quick inspection, it sounds in James 3:1, like the author was somehow discouraging people from being teachers of the faith because there was something wrong. James wrote: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”

When we look carefully at the letter, we can easily see that James was not ANTI-TEACHER. He wasn’t trying to stop the exercise of the teaching gift that God gave to some believers as a byproduct of the Spirit’s indwelling. Teaching God’s truth is a deep privilege – but it is also a definite responsibility. It is paired with a discipline that is very hard to master, which is what James emphasized. Perhaps a clearer reading of the text would be something like this:

Do not be so quick to desire to be teachers, for they will be judged under more stringent rules. The more you say to others, the more possibility you offer to cause them error – and that can be devastating. The one who is able to harness every word that they utter is completely mature, since the hardest discipline of the body is the tongue.”

James highlighted is a critical truth: we must be careful about the way we consistently communicate so that we converse in a Christ-like way. In his world, that was PRIMARILY VERBAL. In our world, words are more often shared in writing. In either case, we must take full responsibility for our words.

When we say things like, “I only said that because I was under pressure” or “You made me so mad, that is why I yelled that!” we betray our own lack of discipline, and perhaps even our own desire to relieve personal responsibility. We are ALWAYS responsible for the words that come from our mouths. When the flesh tugs downward at the heart to share some bit of dirt about someone else – we are responsible. When outbursts of anger flare up within the flesh and we blurt out some hurtful sentence – we are responsible. The tongue is the window to the heart – and the heart shares the voices of both the Spirit of God and the old man within.

Let me apply this idea even further: Only recently did I begin to understand that some in the next-gen culture view words on a page in an entirely different way than the generations that preceded them. As I was growing up, we placed much more emphasis on anything you WROTE, even to the point that we avoided signing papers that were not thoroughly a representation of what we believed to be true. Yet, I am discovering that for some that sense has been badly eroded and is no longer a given. I confronted someone about a post they put on their Facebook page that did not represent what I thought they truly wanted to show to the world. They replied: I ONLY wrote that – it isn’t like I SAID it. I was stunned. You WROTE it but you thought that was LESS WEIGHTY than your words. “Of course” they replied.

When I thought more carefully about it, I think I began to understand where they could get that mistaken behavior. You see, my wife and I get a periodic updates to our credit cards in no less than eight pages, sometimes greater than sixteen pages – usually drafted in a number five font (small writing) to describe the routine changes my bank or lender is making to the terms of our agreement. Every software I install gives me  an “I agree” checkbox to pages of legal agreements as if I had any idea of what they may be truly saying. I sign my name entering a hospital claiming I will take ‘FULL RESPONSIBILITY’ when I don’t have a clue whether the bill will be $1000 or $1,000,000,000. We regularly are forced to sign things that are beyond our comprehension just to keep vital services in our lives. The written word has been diminished in its importance, and the younger people of our time have noticed.

Let me say this clearly: Whether in writing of in speech – your words are, as best as you are possibly able – to reflect a heart surrendered to Jesus Christ. To the extent that is NOT happening – there is a submission issue that must be dealt with before God. James illustrated the need carefully as he shared examples of one truth found in James 3:5a: “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

James offered three mistakes we make about our tongue that are perhaps more clearly seen through visual examples. He wants to focus on underlying mistakes of judgment that keep us from dealing with discipline of the tongue:

Example #1: The bridled horse (James 3:3)

James 3:3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.

Misunderstanding of destructive power: When we don’t discipline our tongue we demonstrate that we don’t understand how powerful a weapon it can be in the old man’s control.

The sheer size and strength of the weapon is aptly illustrated in the HORSE. Many people in the ancient world were familiar with few machines, but they knew of the damage a frightened runaway horse could cause in a marketplace. We can easily forget what a damaging effect our words can have on the heart of another – and it comes from an unbridled tongue. Controlling the outcome is made possible by controlling the tongue.

Example #2: The ship’s rudder (James 3:4)

Jame 3:4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.

Miscalculation of directive power: When we don’t discipline our tongue we demonstrate that we don’t really understand the significant effect our tongue can be on changing the direction of our lives or other’s lives.

The effectiveness of a tiny rudder against what seemed a limitless sea was highlighted in this argument. We can be duped into thinking that our words, because they are so small and come from one who is not so important, don’t matter much. We don’t take seriously their power to direct our thinking, other’s thinking and our collective direction. Future direction can often be charted by present speech.

Example #3: The forest fire (James 3:5b)

5b “…See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

Misjudgment of distinct purpose: We don’t discipline our tongue because we don’t truly recognize what it was made for and how its usefulness is also its greatest danger.

The tongue is in its nature a match. It was designed not only to express our thoughts, but to illicit assistance, evoke response, and even gain a reaction. It is the verbal equivalent to a lighter or match.

James completed the essay on the tongue with two ideals that form the goal of every believer:

Principle #1: The tongue requires…Absolute Control:

We seem to be able to subdue the earth and its animal kingdom, but not the tongue. The tongue requires complete control because it can do enormous destructive damage.

James 3:7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

It is clear in these verses that the tongue can be terribly destructive, and that it is incredibly hard to get control over. How can we get control of our tongue? Are there any truths from the Word that will help us? Fortunately there are:

First, fear a loose lip – respect the power of your words.

I don’t mean one should fear that in speaking something it will come true – you don’t have the power to create reality with your voice. If you said a harsh word to a friend, only to have harmed in an accident, you didn’t cause the accident by your words. You cannot do that, and you musn’t walk around with that guilt in your heart. At the same time, you do have the power to create a perception in someone’s mind with your words. Your tongue is but three inches long, yet it can reduce to tears a man more than six feet tall.

Whoever taught us, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” was an idiot! It is a statement disconnected from reality – what the word “idiot” originally meant in Greek. Words can break our hearts. Broken bones can heal with time, but a broken spirit caused by words of death, is not quickly repaired. David never had a stone more deadly than the sling some people have for a tongue – don’t forget that.

A child can be built up or torn down with your words. A struggling friend can be lifted with a few simple and honest encouragements. A room of strangers can be cleared quickly with the shout of “Fire!” People DO respond to our words, and we need to remember that. We must learn to have a healthy respect for the damage we can cause will we be careful about what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to.

Proverbs 18:21 reminds: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Don’t simply fixate on the negative – the statement concerning death – because the author is trying to say something positive. He argues: “People who love the power of the word will use it to create positive fruit and enjoy that!” Words don’t only KILL… they also BUILD.

The tongue can express or repress; release or restrain; enlighten or obscure; adore or abhor; offend or befriend; affirm or alienate; build or belittle; comfort or criticize; delight or destroy; be sincere or sinister. The tongue can Xerox the good or X-ray the bad. (sermon central illustrations).

You have the power to encourage someone today with your words. You can keep someone from making a wrong decision that will scar them forever with a confident and loving word to them.

After Karen Carpenter died of heart failure at the age of 32 brought on by years of fighting an eating disorder, it came out that her fatal obsession with her weight was triggered by a single reviewer’s comment. When referring to Karen, this man called her “Richard’s chubby sister.” While I’m sure there were other factors attributing to Karen Carpenter’s struggles, this one comment unleashed a flurry of self-doubt, which led to her eventual disease and death. (sermon central illustrations).

In fact, I wonder if you ever considered that your words can make you guilty of MURDER. Jesus made that point in Matthew 5:21

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

Jesus was on a mountain north of the Sea of Galilee, early one morning. I know it was early, because you can fry an egg on a rock in midday out there, so if people sat down, it was early in the day. He argued that an disciple of His would need to recognize His call back to the Law in its original context. He did not desire to uproot the Law of Moses (since He wrote it 1400 years before), but rather to set it back in context with His original design. The passage above shows that WORDS were part of the formula for keeping that law. He argued: You would like to think you avoid violating the design standard of murder, but you cannot make that claim if you assassinate others with our mouth and leave destruction in your wake.” What we say matters in life and death – just as Proverbs reminds us.

Jesus said it many ways in His teaching: Matthew 12:34 and 15:19: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks…for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies and slander.” The tongue is no friend when not monitored constantly and carefully.

Here is a practical tip I got from a Sunday school teacher and wrote down years ago: THINK before you speak by asking these five questions in an acrostic before you speak.

  • Is it Truth? Especially in this political season – don’t pass it on if you are not sure.

A bus load of politicians were driving down a country road when the bus suddenly ran off the road and crashed into an old farmer’s field. The old farmer heard the tragic crash so he rushed over to investigate. He then began digging a large grave to bury the politicians. A few hours later, the local sheriff was driving past the farmer’s field and noticed the bus wreck. He approached the old farmer and asked where all the politicians had gone. The old farmer explained that he’d gone ahead and buried all of them. “Were they ALL dead?” asked the puzzled sheriff. “Well, some of them said they weren’t,” said the old farmer, “but you know how them politicians lie.” (Sermon central illustrations).

A little girl asked her father, “Daddy? Do all Fairy Tales begin with ’Once Upon A Time’?” He replied, “No, there is a whole series of Fairy Tales that begin with ’If elected I promise’.” (Sermon central illustrations).

  • Is it Helpful? Will your words offer a solution to their problem?
  • Is it Inspirational? Will your words lift someone to think in a new way?
  • Is it Necessary? Do we have to respond?
  • Is it Kind? Is it based on a desire to genuinely help?

Second, limit your words.

Talk less than you do now in the future. Mature believers know that our chances of misusing the tongue are directly proportional to the amount of time we keep our mouths open. Former presidents have recognized the need to limit their words:

  • Abe Lincoln said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
  • Calvin Coolidge said, “I have never been hurt by anything I did not say.”

Proverbs 10:19 puts it this way: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”

One Pastor wrote a simple story that helped me:

A woman had a very serious throat condition. The doctor told her that her vocal cords needed total rest ­ she was forbidden to talk for 6 months! With a husband and 6 kids, this seemed impossible, but she did what she was told. When she needed the kids she blew a whistle. Whenever she needed to communicate she wrote things on pads of paper. After six months, her voice came back. When asked what it was like to communicate only in writing, she said this: “You’d be surprised how many notes I crumpled up and threw into the trash before I gave them to anyone. Seeing my words before anyone heard them had an effect that I don’t think I can ever forget.

Remember, “If you don’t say it — they can’t repeat it.”

Third, choose your words.

I loved this story:

Pianist Arthur Rubenstein, who could speak in eight languages, once told this story on himself: Some years ago he had a stubborn case of hoarseness. The newspapers were full of reports about smoking and cancer; so he decided to consult a throat specialist. “I searched his face for a clue during the 30 minute examination,” Rubenstein said, “but it was expressionless. He told me to come back the next day. I went home full of fears, and I didn’t sleep that night.” The next day there was another long examination and again an ominous silence. “Tell me,” the pianist exclaimed. “I can stand the truth. I’ve lived a full, rich life. What’s wrong with me?” The physician said, “You talk too much.”

Sometimes we MUST speak. The mouth was a GIFT of God that we share to move hearts. It can be beneficial, and we should actively seek to use it that way! James 1:19, 26: “…Take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…if anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” He couldn’t be clearer – our faith’s power hangs on our ability to control our tongue- and we are on the planet to share our faith with others.

Proverbs 12:18 says: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Who can I heal with words today – because I want to do it! The world is wounded and hurting people. They have been wounded by the verbal arrows shot from the bow of angry hearts. The pliers of truth can remove the arrows of harm. The salve of encouragement can ease the sting of past wounds. The bandage of loving and inspiring comment can cover the scars and keep them from becoming scabs. I want my breath to heal, my words to comfort, my verse to inspire.

Remember that it is not simply the words you choose, but the relationship you have had that gives the words power. If you know someone well, the words of encouragement root more deeply. Your richest appreciation should be liberally poured into the heart of the people closest to you. Don’t let someone else tell your parent how much you love them – YOU tell them. Don’t let someone else share how much your spouse means to you based on the things you say about them when they aren’t around – YOU say them direct to the person that you love. If they aren’t near, get a phone. Buy a card. Send a text. Tell them. Everyone needs sincere cheerleading in life. Encouragement is being drowned out by loud voices of blame, guilt, doom and despair. YOU have the power to help someone by verbalizing encouragement.

Years ago I heard Chuck Swindoll preaching on the tongue. He told a story that I am sure I will not get all the details perfect on – but it was a powerful story to me. He spoke of a friend he had who had a son with a large birth mark that was embedded across his face. It was an unmistakable mark that made Mikhail Gorbachev’s purple mark look tiny. There was no hiding it, and the boy didn’t seem to mind a bit. One day Pastor Chuck spoke to the young man about the mark, and asked him directly why it seemed to have so little negative effect on his self-esteem – although it was different than everyone in school. The boy told him that ever since he could remember, his father told him: “Son, that birthmark is where an angel kissed your face. You have it so that I can always pick you out of the crowd.” The young man surprised him as he continued, “You know, I almost feel sorry for those who don’t have a birthmark.” There was a dad who breathed life into a situation that could have devastated his son. Acceptance is powerful. Affirmation is securing. Love verbalized is empowering.

Fourth, improve your thinking – since that is where the words come from.

I once heard someone say “the first screw that gets loose in a person’s head is the one that controls the tongue” – and he longer I live, the more I am beginning to believe it. It is sad, in my view, that some who have known the Lord for many years still regularly lose to a wagging tongue. We can try to keep quiet, but for some of us, that probably won’t happen. Maybe a better strategy is to fill our minds with greater vision. Maybe by learning and growing, we will be more apt to speak words of positive encouragement.

Someone has said that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” I want to be known as an IDEA GUY. I want to lift those who listen to greater aspirations of following God and walking in truth. I want to pull people up – not push them down.

William A. Ward wrote: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” That has surely been true of the best of my teachers. They inspired me because they helped me to see from a higher plane. They helped me recognize areas of danger in my choices without robbing me of the choices themselves. They offered positive reinforcement but were not warm and fuzzy –they were crisp thinking and they wanted me to be as well.

The best way to grow others around us is to keep growing ourselves. Don’t get stale. Read things that are hard for you to grasp at first. Flex the mind muscles. Learn… Dr. Howard Hendricks told of a professor who made an impact on his life. He passed his home many times, early in the morning and late at night, and often saw him pouring over his books. One day, Hendricks asked him, “Doctor, I’d like to know, what is it that keeps you studying? You never cease to learn.” His answer: “Son, I would rather have my students drink from a running stream than from a stagnant pool.”

The plain fact is this: We do what we do because we think what we think. If we want to change what we do, we should change how, and about what, we are thinking. When pressure comes upon us, the inner well of thoughts springs forth – for better or worse. What are you reading? What are you studying? What are you watching? A lazy mind will lead to a barren life.

James closed the passage with another important principle that we are all sure to agree is essential in relation to our mouths…

Principle #2: The tongue requires…Absolute Consistency:

We seem to be able to use it well at times, but not consistently. The tongue requires complete consistency because God didn’t make it for both good and evil.

James 3:9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

God created trees and plants to bear singular fruits. An apple tree was not designed to produce an orange. Grafting aside, the natural process is clear – God made things distinct from one another. Just as there are olives from an olive tree, grapes from a grape vine, figs from a fig tree, fresh water from a fresh spring – MIXED is not God’s way. The same truth should be applied to our mouths.

When a child is raised in an environment that is inconsistent – one day encouragement, the next day biting sarcasm and hurtful slander – they are misshapen by the sheer duplicity of it all. They don’t know what to expect when the parent begins to speak. Reliability is about predictability.

What do they hear us say? Do we bless people to their faces and bad mouth them at their backs? What should our child believe about us when that is what they see and hear?

Years ago I was at a party for a man retiring from a long time teaching in a Bible school. I did not know the man well, but I was impressed with his humility, especially in light of the way his teaching had dramatically impacted so many people I knew. He was teary and quite during tributes of his colleagues. It wasn’t until his son spoke that I saw him truly begin to cry. His son got up and simply offered this tribute to his dad:

You all know a man that wears a public face. He teaches with authority and humility. I am here to tell you of another man – the one at home. He sounds, in every moment that I can recall – exactly the same. There is no guile in him. He is a man of integrity at home and authenticity outside – and I have never met another man like him. When I was young, I was proud of him. Now, I am a man that must begin to measure up to the standard he has lived before me.” I remember the room went quiet. We were all touched. We were all probably also a bit challenged. “Is that what my children would say of me?” I thought.

Serving Jesus is about how we discipline our lives- especially in the area of the tongue. The grand mark of maturity is the consistent ability to control the use of their tongue. Since the old man is ever within, mature believers limit the old man’s access to the microphone of the mouth.