Taming the Tongue
I want to draw our attention to the many ways that human beings have distorted some of the most precious of God’s gifts to us. Continue reading . . .
I want to draw our attention to the many ways that human beings have distorted some of the most precious of God’s gifts to us.
Take, for example, our minds. God has given us brains and minds that we might understand him and grasp his truth and delight in his greatness. And what have we done with this glorious gift? Paul says in Romans 1 that although all people have known that God exists and what he is like, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
Another example would be what we have done with our hands. The human hand is a remarkable instrument, given to us by God so that we might subdue the earth and serve one another. But instead men and women use their hands to craft idols of marble and ivory and gold and worship them in the place of the Creator.
Yet another wonderfully glorious gift of God is our eyes. The intricacy of the human eye and its capacity to see is almost beyond description. God gave us eyes that we might behold his glory in creation and that we might see and enjoy one another, but we pervert their God-given purpose by setting our gaze on pornography and carnage and tragedy and ugliness and distorted images.
But there is perhaps no greater sin than what we have done with God’s gift to us of our tongues, our speech, our capacity for words and sentences and singing and sighing. Instead of using our tongues for blessing others we curse them. Instead of using our tongues to sing of God we slander him. Instead of using our tongues to tell of his greatness and his saving grace in Jesus we use them for profanity and silliness and crude and vulgar conversation. I find it highly instructive that when the Apostle Paul turns to a description of the wickedness of mankind he says this:
“Their throat is an open grace; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13-14).
The Bible is full of lengthy descriptions of how we use and abuse human speech, of how we turn it for good and for evil. I can only think of the book of Proverbs and its countless exhortations on how to make godly use of our tongues. But there is perhaps no more explicit and direct portrayal of the power of language and the sins of the tongue than what we find in James 3:1-12. James has already addressed this point. In James 1:19 he exhorted us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” And again in James 1:26 we read, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
One of the marvelous things about this passage is that it requires virtually no explanation. It almost preaches itself, as James piles up one metaphor or analogy upon another. We hardly need to do anything other than simply read the text to grasp its meaning.
But before we dive into this passage let me direct your attention to one other example of the importance of our lips, our speech, our tongues. You may recall the incredible experience of Isaiah the prophet who was granted a vision of God enthroned in glory. We read this in Isaiah 6:1-7,
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:1-7).
I can’t get out of my mind the way Isaiah responds to his vision of God’s holiness.
Seeing God does not produce giddiness or religious flippancy. It produces terror and self-loathing. Isaiah does not respond with pride or elitism, boasting that he alone has experienced this wonderful privilege. He is undone! He sees himself as insufferably unrighteous compared to the glorious purity and transcendence of the King. We arrogantly measure sin solely in terms of its effects both within the created order and upon us. Isaiah, on the other hand, measures it by the majesty and purity of the One against whom it is perpetrated.
Isaiah's experience is instructive in another respect. This man was already aware of his sinfulness and had made great strides in his growth in spiritual things. But now, in the unmediated presence of the Holy God, he sees himself as filthier than ever before. So intensely aware is he of his sin that he, in effect, calls down the curse of God on his own head. "Woe is me" is a cry of judgment. It is a cry of anathema. It is one thing for Isaiah to pronounce “woe” on another human being, but quite another altogether for him to pronounce that curse upon his own head!
This is no small twinge of a sensitive conscience. Isaiah cries out: "I am lost,” more literally, “I am ruined," i.e., "I am coming apart at the seams! I am unraveling. I am experiencing personal disintegration!" Contrast this with the modern obsession with "personal wholeness," "having it all together," and being "integrated." In his book, The Holiness of God, R. C Sproul points out that as long as Isaiah only compared himself with other human beings he was o.k. But "the instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed – morally and spiritual annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed” (43-44).
What I find most instructive, especially given the passage in James that we are looking at today, is that his sudden sense of sinfulness and personal ruin was linked to his lips. He cried out, in essence, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I've got a dirty mouth!" Why the focus on his "mouth? I don't think there is any reason to conclude that Isaiah was guilty of profanity or that he told dirty jokes. Instead, there are two reasons for this conviction on his part. First, mention is made of his mouth because what we say betrays what we are. The mouth is like an old time phonograph speaker; it simply manifests what is impressed on the record of the heart (see Mt. 15:11,18).
But second and more important still is the fact that the one area in his life which Isaiah thought he had under control, in which he no doubt prided himself, because of which the people honored and respected him, because of which he was highly esteemed, because of which he had position and prestige was the power of his mouth. He was a prophet! If there was one feature in his life where he had no fear or concern, related to which he felt God's most overt approval, which he regarded as his greatest strength and that which was above reproach and beyond falling or failure . . . was his tongue! His speech! His mouth! His verbal ministry! He was God's mouthpiece! He was God's voice, his spokesman on the earth! Yet the first thing he felt was the sinfulness of his speech!
At this point Isaiah must have felt hopeless. He is groveling on the floor, trembling under the weight of God’s holiness and his own sin.
But here is the good news of the gospel: The infinitely holy God is also a gracious and merciful God. This God of mercy immediately provides cleansing and forgiveness. Isaiah's wound was being cauterized. The dirt in his mouth was washed away as the corruption of his heart was forgiven. He was refined by holy fire. The fact that the coal was placed on his lips points to the principle that "God ministers to the sinner at the point of confessed need” (Alex Motyer, Isaiah, 78).
The point I want you to see in this experience of Isaiah, especially as we now turn to James 3, is that nothing more readily reveals our sin than how we use our tongues. And nothing is of greater glory to God than when we use our speech to honor and praise him and to bless other people.
To be continued . . .