Seminary Viewpoints

The Tale of Your Tongue — and Texts

Alan Benson | September 16, 2021
Theology Thursday

Excerpted and adapted from a sermon preached by Dr. Alan Benson at Bob Jones University on Sept. 5, 2021, and discussed on The Steve Noble Show on Sept. 16.

We are living in interesting days. We have come through a time where we have experienced hyper-isolation. During that time, we have encountered hyper-information. Now that everyone has come back together, we are dealing with a society whose discourse — through both verbal communication and social media — is marred by hyper-polarization.

You see, everyone has a seemingly well-informed opinion that he or she is dying to share. Both verbally and on social media, which has been one enduring form of connection at this time of largely forced separation. 

But the author of the epistle of James has a warning about verbal expression — the tongue — which applies equally in textual posts.

He writes in Chapter 3, beginning in verse 2, 

“For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body,” 

continuing in verse 5 that “the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!”

Your tongue — and texts — are you

One significant truth that must not be ignored but must be embraced as we come to the heart of this passage is that there is no disconnect between the tongue and the person. 

Or as I have expressed it in verse:

“The tongue tells a tale of adventures wild and bold
It tells of things from far and wide, and those both new and old.
The tongue it has a power to tell both lie and true.
But while it speaks of other things, it reveals the story of YOU.”

In fact, your tongue is you in a unique way. It should evidence your faith as a Christian – but often reveals something far different. And because social media so often draws us into rushed and rash responses — from commenting to sharing to simply “liking” — it often takes on the same immediate quality as verbal expression, or even more so.

Dr. Kevin Bauder recently offered a somewhat surprising response when asked his opinion about an issue at a very well-known church:

I don’t have an opinion … . One often hears that everyone has a right to an opinion. Baloney. To be entitled to an opinion, one must first meet at least three qualifications.

First, one must be addressing a matter that is subject to opinion. A genuine opinion involves a matter of value, not of fact … . Sometimes a matter of fact is unknown, but it is still not subject to opinion. It is subject to guesses. If these guesses are sufficiently informed, they may qualify as hypotheses. But they are still guesses and not opinions.

Second, to have a right to an opinion one must be correctly informed. An opinion is an informed, reasoned position on a matter of value. People who express themselves on matters of which they are ignorant do not have opinions. They have prejudices … assertions of uninformed preference … .

Third, to have a right to an opinion, one must be addressing an issue in which one has a legitimate interest … . Expressions of opinion about matters that are none of our business are mere meddling. 

Meddling in other people’s affairs is like taking a pit bull by the ears. It is never a virtue.

Christians need to consider the following questions in engaging in discourse in today’s culture:

  1. Out of pride, are you demanding the right to have an “opinion” … whether or not it’s an issue on which you have the right to have heard?
  2. In expressing yourself on issues on which you are not truly informed — even simply “liking” or sharing/retweeting memes, stories and others’ opinions without knowledge, investigation or even reading them — are you passing on mere prejudices?
  3. And in so doing, are you revealing the real YOU … a person deepening hyper-polarization instead of evidencing faith in Christ?

The universality of verbal sin

Our problem, James is warns, is that the tongue — standing here as the instrument for discourse — is the most difficult member of the body to control. The person who “is never at fault” in his speech – i.e., never commits sins of speech “is a perfect man.” 

Well, there isn’t a perfect man, and there isn’t a man that keeps his whole body perfectly under control. The point is that there is an inevitability to verbal sin.

We all sin with our tongue. We lie, we slander, we curse, we tear down, we flatter, and on and on. Sinning in words is universal. 

I don’t know about you, but that is very stirring to me.  Either it will make you throw up your hands in despair, or it will make you look outside yourself for help.

You see, the Bible is clear:

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Proverbs 23:7

In other words, you may not be what you think you are, but you are what you think!

“Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh.” Luke 6:45; Matthew 12:34

We think that the damage done by attacks verbally or in social media can be fixed by merely uttering the words, “I didn’t really mean it!” Well, you may not think that you mean what you say, but you do say what you mean!

“The heart is deceitful, desperately wicked, who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9

You may not think that you are who your mouth reveals you to be, but you would better off dealing with the sinner that your mouth reveals you to be than to be deceived by your heart into thinking that you are something much better!

The power and perversity of the tongue

That’s especially true when we consider James’ admonitions in verses 5-6 on the destructive power of the tongue and its parallel expression in social media:

The tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.”

It is easy to be in denial about our tongue and see it as a little thing.  We think that we are good as long as we are doing good things.  

But the truth is that the slightest word, spoken or written in the softest way, can change lives; a harsh word, spoken in a flash of anger, can destroy lives; a tantalizing word spoken in a leading-on way can ruin lives; a dishonest word spoken in cunning way can poison lives; and a corrupt word spoken in a calloused way can crumble lives.

The proof can be found in the level of anger and animosity so often reflected in, the shocking number of relationships broken by, and even suicides driven by social media posts.

Moreover, again, James uses the tongue as a test of living faith, because the genuineness of a person’s faith inevitably will be demonstrated by his speech. James personifies the tongue and the mouth as representatives of the depravity and wretchedness of the inner person. A person’s speech, and posts, are reliable measures of his or her spiritual temperature, a monitor of the inner human condition.

When James admonishes in verse 10 that “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be,” the idea is that there should be no place in a Christian’s life for duplicitous speech. It is an unacceptable and intolerable compromise of righteous, holy living. 

Power over the tongue

So what story are your tongue — and texts — telling about you? That you need someone, something beyond yourself. You need Christ! You need the Gospel!

When God transformed us, He gave us the capacity for new, redeemed, holy speech, and He expects us, as His children, to speak only that which is holy and right. 

When James says, “No man can tame the tongue,” this is not to say that God cannot bring it under control, for the tongue of the regenerate person can be controlled by the indwelling Holy Spirit. There is an almost constant tension in the book of James between what is and what ought to be. At one point he says, “This is how it will be if you are a true believer,” and at another point he says, “That is also how it ought to be if you are a true believer.” 

When a person receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, he becomes a new creation, transformed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. A transformed nature will produce transformed behavior. And new behavior involves new speech, speech that corresponds to a saved and sanctified life and that reflects the holy nature of the One who has given the new life.

Therefore Paul can write:

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”.… But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Colossians 3:5, 8 (ESV) 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:16-17 (ESV)

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Colossians 4:6 (ESV)

And from Peter:

“… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you….” 1 Peter 3:15

Just as you shouldn’t underestimate the negative power of the tongue controlled by an evil heart, never underestimate the power of transformed, Spirit-filled words of Christ for God’s purpose.  A word of thanks, of encouragement, of edification can empower.  The right words can correct error, convince doubt, convict sin, and unify and bring others closer to Christ instead of hyper-polarizing.

How does this play out practically? In construction there is an old rule that goes like this, “measure twice and cut once.” James issues his warning as a governor on the engine of the tongue (and text). It is his way of saying, “slow down.” 

When speaking or posting we ought to practice the rule, “think twice and speak (or post) once.” 

To gain power over your tongue and texts, take a moment and submit to God the idol of your heart — your pride and your demand and desire to have an opinion — so that He can control your heart.

Let your “tale of the tongue” offer evidence of — and even invitations to — faith.