The Sermon on the Mouth: The True Measure of a Ministry
James 3 opens with a passage that should make every seminary professor in America sit up and take notice. “Not many of you should become teachers,” warns the brother of Christ, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Then comes the kicker: judged on what? On our lofty degrees and level of learnedness? Our erudition? The quality of our research and scholarship? End-of-semester student surveys?
None of the above, quoth Pastor James. Rather, as with any Christian but more so, it’s the ability to control our tongues in everyday speech!
So essential to a whole-hearted, single-focused, fully-trusting faith and effective ministry is controlling our tongues that James devotes more space to this “sermon on the mouth” than to any other area of Christian life. And so great is the power of the tongue for good or for evil that it is the single most effective way to recognize a person of true wisdom and a mature walk.
We have all borne with an otherwise outwardly pious colleague or other brother with a critical, caustic or arrogant mouth. But for James, such behavior is not a minor flaw: such a person, regardless of his profession or proclamation, is not fully spiritual.
He points out, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” In other words, a person who has learned how to control his tongue has developed the ability to control the rest of his life by shaping it according to God’s wisdom and submitting it to God’s Word.
But also vice versa: failure to control the tongue is a devastating marker of sin that, if left unaddressed, will defile lives, destroy relationships and diminish any teaching and Gospel witness. It’s a warning that this colleague, friend or family member may be ripe for a fall.
Metaphors of Great Power — and Grave Danger
James demonstrates through a series of metaphors that the tiny tongue is a source of great power — and grave danger:
- The small bit guiding the mighty horse, demonstrating the tongue’s great power to control our actions.
- The rudder turning the huge ship, demonstrating its ability to establish our direction.
- The fire, explaining why this power and direction, starting from a tiny source, can be so dangerous.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — said to have ignited by an upset lantern — consumed 17,000 buildings and took 250 lives. On the very same day, the Peshtigo Fire, a forest conflagration probably originating in small land-clearing blazes, reached temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees, created a literal firestorm with 110 mph winds, erased 16 communities and took between 1,200 and 2,400 lives.
In the same way, James 3:6 and following indicate that an untamed tongue can set off a fire that will defile and stain the whole of one’s life — and that of others. Angry, jealous, selfish, contentious, caustic or cynical speech can create a living, burning hell on earth that can damage friendships, break marriages, alienate children, ruin careers and crush hearts and hopes.
Ultimately, it leads to damned souls, as our communication affects the credibility of our lives’ message and is the true measure of our ministry. When we refuse to tame our tongues, we are duplicitous and inconsistent (3:9-10). Like a fountain producing sweet and bitter water or a fig tree trying to bear olives, we create an irreconcilable conflict with the Gospel (3:11-12).
The True “Heart” of the Matter
Those last references point to the true issue: the source of our words. In Matthew 12:34 Christ rebuked the Pharisees that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” elaborating in Mark 7:21-22, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”
In the end, controlling our tongues comes down to what is controlling our hearts. It’s either “wisdom from above” (James 3:17), which is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Or “wisdom from below” (James 3:15-16), which is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic,” and results in “disorder and every vile practice.”
Controlling our Tongues
The key: recognize that we can’t tame our tongues in our own strength (James 3:8). Rather, we must let God tame our hearts — which is why James exhorts us throughout the epistle to submit our lives to Him and to His Word. He has given us new hearts capable of knowing and doing God’s will and imparted to us His Spirit who will enlighten us to understand God’s Word.
Therefore, we all — including the most learned teacher — must resolve to:
- Receive God’s Word with meekness, not resistance (James 1:19-21).
- Be true to the truth even when our hearts struggle (3:14).
- Refuse to speak evil or grumble against a brother, no matter the provocation (4:11).
- Run to God’s mercy and rest in His grace (4:7-10).
- And when necessary request help from others and from God (5:16a).
As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on July 14