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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 1045am Service, 2013-03-10

Text: James 3:1-12

Thus far in our study of James we have seen that  it is not good to just keep hearing God’s Word. We must be doers of the Word, and not just hearers. We have also seen that it is not good to have a dead faith. We must have a living, active faith in the Lord, a faith that produces good works. I trust that these messages have helped us understand that  faith and practice are inseparable – They must go together. Now we come to an intensely practical section of this epistle. It deals with a very important component in Christian living: the one that is called Speech. Speech is the main form of personal communication that we use every day.

And what we will learn from this section must also be applied to every other other form of personal communication that we use every day, including the notes, cards and letters we write, the emails and SMSes we send out each day, and even on-line communication tools like MSN chat, Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and … what-have-you. Every form of personal communication must come under what is written in this section of James, and not just speech alone. And so I hope that every smartphone user, blogger and iPad user here will sit up and listen to this sermon.

But having said that, it must be pointed out that no form of personal communication is more readily accessible and faster than speech.  By writing we can convey our thoughts at a rate of 30 words per minute. Typing on a full keyboard is faster: about 50 words per minute. A mobile phone user can text just as fast, and an iPhone user can go up to 60 words per minute. But speaking can easily achieve 150 words per minute! And the best thing is that you don’t need anything but your built-in organs of speech. No need for batteries, wifi, autoroam or dataplan subscriptions. There is therefore nothing that excels speech for personal communication. That is why it is used so extensively and intensively. Studies have shown that both men and women speak an average of 16,000 words a day (The claim that women speak twice as much as men has turned out to be an urban legend). And if that indicates how much we speak then we’d better pay close attention to what God’s Word teaches about it here in James chapter 3:1-12. These 12 verses reveal five things that we need to know about our speech. The first is that it is an awesome responsibility.

A. The Awesome Responsibility of Speech (v.1)

Speech is a wonderful gift from God. When used properly, it can do marvelous things. Words that are carefully chosen, arranged and uttered have rallied the people together, built nations, and brought peace and prosperity. Some of history’s greatest speeches have been recorded for posterity, like Lincoln’s Gettysberg address in 1863 declaring a new birth of freedom in American history, and Churchill’s orations in 1940 that mobilised his battle-weary countrymen to defend England against German invasion. But speech is a sword that cuts both ways. It has destroyed marriages and families. It has misled and deceived millions of people. It has incited war and rebellion. And it has caused untold misery, death and destruction.

That is why James says ‘Be not many masters.’ (v.1) This refers to teachers and preachers in the church, including James himself. He is saying that anyone should think twice before aspiring to teach or preach to God’s people. Why? Because any carelessness on their part will have awful consequences on the church, and will bring much condemnation on themselves! Whatever is said by them will be heard by more people, and can therefore hurt more people than others. Those of us who preach in church or teach Sunday school classes or lead in fellowship group meetings must therefore exercise much more care than anyone else not to sin with our tongue.

But what makes things so much worse for us, is that ever since mankind became a fallen sinful creature, it has been difficult not to sin with the tongue. This is the second thing we need to know about speech. It has…

B. The Awful Tendency to Sin (v.2)

Sinful speech is so natural to our fallen human nature. The apostle Paul testified of this in Romans 3:13,14. In describing the sins of all men he said, “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” The same thing is mentioned by James in v.2 of our passage: “For in many things we offend all.”

In other words, there is a huge variety of ways to commit sin by what we say: Telling lies or half-truths, making false accusations, giving grossly exaggerated or dishonest reports, boasting, slandering, cursing, using vulgarities, backbiting, and flattering, just to name a few. Just think of those moments when you had lashed out at someone in anger, or when you had deliberately slanted the truth in your own favour, and then you will realize how difficult it is to bridle your tongue.

And because we are all so prone to offend in word, James says that it is a great accomplishment for a person to bridle or control his tongue well. Such a person is considered to be a perfect man, a believer who has developed spiritual maturity. This is how you can tell if you have grown spiritually – look at how well you control your unruly tongue. And if you are able to keep your tongue under control, then according to this verse you would have no problem keeping your entire body under control as well! This indicates that the tongue is actually the most difficult part of the body to control, and by this we now understand…  

C. The Amazing Power of the Tongue (vv.3-6)

…which is the third thing we need to know about our speech. How powerful can it be? In vv.3-6 James compares this little organ to three things: (1) the small little metal piece (called a ‘bit’) that is placed in a horse’s mouth to direct its movements, (2) the little rudder at the back of a large ship, which can turn it around, and (3) a little fire that can reduce a whole forest to ashes.

The point of these illustrations is the same: We must never underestimate the power of our speech. Listen to what James says in vv.5,6 — “Even so 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.”We always tell kids, “Don’t play with matches, or else you might burn the whole house down and hurt many people.” Well, let us know that our tongue is able to do things that are far worse than that!

In the next two verses, it is compared to a wild animal that no man can ever tame. This provides us with an important clue. Notice that it says that no man can tame the tongue. But what is impossible with man is entirely possible with God (Luke 18:27). Man cannot tame the tongue, but God surely can. The Almighty God alone has the power to subdue your tongue. And so you need God’s help to tame it and bring it under control. This brings us now to the fourth thing we must know about our speech:

D. The Ability to Tame the Tongue (vv.7,8,12)

This comes from two things that God gives to us when we are saved: Firstly Regeneration. There can be no change in our speech until our heart is regenerated. Look at v.12 – “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs?” The answer is of course, No. The only way to change the fruitof a tree is to change the nature of the tree itself. In the same manner,  the only way to change our speech is to change our sinful heart and this is something that only God can do. After God regenerates the heart it will gradually give rise to a changed life. One of the noticeable signs of change in a new believer is in his speech. It will be increasingly marked by integrity, honesty, truthfulness, godliness, gentleness and love. Our Lord Jesus said,“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45)

Dearly beloved, is your heart truly regenerated? Are you born again? If you are not, then you cannot have victory over your unruly tongue. You must receive a new heart from the Lord Jesus. And when you receive that new heart, you also receive the Holy Spirit to dwell inside it. This brings us to the other thing that happens when we are saved. The Spirit of God dwells in us and enables us to keep the tongue under control.

2. By the Holy Spirit’s Control. Romans 8:13 says – “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” And Galatians 5:16 says, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”The Holy Spirit’s power is available to every born again Christian. And as long as we keep walking in the Spirit rather that in the flesh, we have His power to control the unruly tongue. This is because the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 includes temperance, which is self-control. So please be diligent to walk in the Spirit daily. Make it a habit to live under the influence of the Holy Spirit every day. Then you will be able to tame the unruly tongue and keep it under control.

However, walking in the Spirit does not automatically control the tongue, as if you have no part at all to play in controlling your tongue. Without relying on the Spirit’s power you can’t have any victory at all over the unruly tongue, but without doing your part you can’t keep having victory over it. Thus you must still exercise great care over all that you say. This leads us now to the fifth thing we must know about our speech:

E. The Awareness of Our Constant Need to Control the Tongue

The next 3 verses tell us what happens when we fail to do our part in controlling the tongue. Sometimes we will bless, but at other times we will curse. Out of the same tongue comes both blessing and cursing, both good and evil, both truth and falsehood. An analogy is given in verse 11 of a spring that sometimes issues fresh sweet water, but at other times it issues horrible bitter water. Would you depend on such a spring to supply your drinking water? I don’t think so. How would you know when its sweetness will turn into bitterness? Therefore, while we walk in the Spirit daily, we must also be vigilant about what we say, how we say it and why we say it. And there are four important criteria that we must apply to everything we say.

1. Be Truthful

The first is truthfulness. This is the most important ‘Quality Control’ for everything you say. Anything that does not pass this QC inspection must not be allowed to leave your lips. Let us look at v.14 – You will notice that the end of this verse tells us to “lie not against the truth.” The same emphasis on being truthful is found throughout the whole Bible (cf. Proverbs 6:16; 12:22; 2 Corinthians 4:2). It has been enshrined permanently in the ninth commandment – “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.”

Truthfulness is most often associated with the courts of law. Do you know that every court of law can mete out justice only as far as the witnesses are truthful? There can be no justice if no one is truthful. Ascertaining the truth is so crucial to the process of justice, that perjury or lying to the court is punished severely. But the most severe punishment for lying comes from God, the Highest Judge of all. In Revelation 21:8 we are told that all liars will have their part in the awful lake that burns with fire and brimstone, together with Satan who is the father of lies (20:10; John 8:43).

Why does God hate lying and liars? It is because He is the God of truth. That is what He calls Himself four times in Scripture – the God of truth! (Deuteronomy 32:3; Psalm 31:5; Isaiah 65:16) And as God’s children we are to reflect this same characteristic in our life. Truthfulness may not matter very much to a world that thrives on deceit and falsehood, a world where things are not always what they seem, and where the truth is often hidden for the most selfish reasons.

But truthfulness matters a lot to us because we are God’s children. We cannot be careless in speaking, lest we say something that is untrue, or that is not entirely true, or that misrepresents or misquotes someone. If we do not exercise care in speaking, people will often challenge the truthfulness of our words, and we will end up having to make excuses, retractions and apologies for things we should never have said.

If this goes on for too long, who will believe what we say anymore? People will put a big question mark on anything we express. If you are very prone to make mistakes when you speak on things that have happened in the past, or about things that you have read or heard, please be even more careful to think before you speak. Did that really happen? Did he really say that? What was the context of it? Don’t be too quick to say things you are not 100 percent sure about. Check it first so that no one can rightly point a finger at you and say, “That is not true!”

Being truthful also means being true to your word. Whenever you tell somebody that you will do something for him, please make sure you do it! Don’t make promises you cannot keep. This applies to those who are parents. Sometimes you tell your kids, “Daddy will take you out for dinner tonight.” But you forgot that you have an important meeting to attend, and so you end up disappointing your kids who had looked forward to eating out with you. What do you think will happen if you keep doing this to them? They will not believe your words anymore, and one day your children will do the very same thing to you. You reap whatever you sow.

So please don’t be careless with the words you speak. Always make sure that they meet the most important criterion which is truthfulness. However, truthfulness is not the only criterion we need to use for everything we say.

2. Be Loving

Whatever we say must also be said in love and not in malice. According to Ephesians 4:15 the truth of God’s Word should be spoken in love. This principle is applicable to all truth as well. Speaking the truth in love will edify and encourage others, and that is the kind of influence our speech should have.

Do you know that speaking the truth without love can be just as damaging as speaking a lie? It is cold, hard and legalistic. Speaking truth without love hurts rather than helps. In 1 Corinthians 13:1 Paul said that speaking without love would make him just like a ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal’ – It makes him nothing but an irritating noise-maker. That is why we must examine our hearts first before we point out any error or attempt to correct a friend or brother who has sinned. Are we doing it with a heart of love? Without love all the truth we marshall to convince him of his sin will not go down well with him. But if there is genuine persevering love, the truth will eventually be received as he realises that he being helped and not hurt by us.

Being loving in what we say must be applied not only in what we say to others, but also in what we say aboutothers. Without love, whatever we say about others becomes malicious gossip even if it is true. Love does not hide the truth from the ones who may be able to help the person we speak about. But love does not broadcast the truth to all and sundry who may use it against him. This is one of the worst things about social media – it brings everyone’s dirty linen into public space. Is this a loving thing to do?

Let us be very careful when talking about others especially when we converse at mealtimes or over the phone, or when leaving comments on Facebook, and even when sharing prayer items. A good rule to follow is this, “If you have nothing good to say about someone, then it is good to say nothing about him.” Use your words to edify and encourage, rather than to defame and discourage. Thus far we have seen truthfulness and love as criteria for evaluating all that we say. A third criterion that we need is…

3. To Be Sincere

According to Philippians 1:10, one of the things that Paul desired to see in the lives of the Philippian believers was sincerity. He prayed, “…that [they] may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” To be sincere is to be free from pretence, to be the same in reality as in appearance. In relation to speech, being sincere is to mean what you say, and to say what you mean. Whatever you say to others should be consistent with what you think about them, without being unloving toward them. Whenever you talk to people, they should have no cause to suspect that there is some secret agenda behind what you are saying.

If you speak to someone very nicely, but inwardly you are cursing and swearing at him, that makes you a hypocrite. God hates hypocrisy.  Jesus warned His disciples, “…Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) Outwardly the Pharisees called Jesus “Master” or ‘Rabbi’ but among themselves they referred to Him as ‘Deceiver’. Outwardly they gave Him the honour of judging a woman who was caught in adultery, but their real motive was to find a charge they could use against Him (John 8:3-6). Listen to what God’s Word says about hypocrites. Job 15:34 says: “For the congregation of hypocrites shall be desolate...” and Job 36:13 says, “the hypocrites in heart heap up wrath…” This means that we must take sincerity seriously, and consciously apply it to everything we say. Thus far we have considered three criteria that will help us not to sin with our tongue: truthfulness, love and sincerity. There is one more criterion we must apply to whatever we speak:

4. To Be Reverent

According to v.9 of our text, one of the proper uses of the tongue is to bless God. James says, “Therewith bless we God, even the Father…” And this becomes the basis of his argument that it is inconsistent to curse men with the same tongue that blesses God, since men are made in the image of God. But this also means that it is inconsistent to curse God with the same tongue that is used to bless Him.

If we praise the name of God here every Lord’s day, then we must always speak reverently of God’s name during the entire week. That would be consistent. Hence, God’s name must always be treated with respect in our everyday speech. In fact the best use of the human tongue is to declare His name, by telling others how great He is in all His works of creation and salvation, and urging them to turn to Him for salvation. Peter says that we should “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh [us] a reason of the hope that is in [us] with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15). God has made our tongues for His glory, and that is what it should be used for, as God’s Word says, “At the name of Jesus…every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10, 11)

How then can we take God’s name in vain, and treat that name as something of no value, and empty it of all its significance? The worst thing that one can do with God’s name is to use it in profanity and cursing. God is not pleased at all when men use His name to vent their anger, disgust and frustration. But there are also other ways of misusing God’s name which may not seem to be as serious to us, but they are just as dishonouring to God. Taking God’s name lightly in our everyday speech or writing dishonours Him, even if it is just an expression that is commonly used in youth culture. Some people think it is cool to use the abbreviation ‘OMG’ when they text messages to each other. It has also been used in TV commercials. If you have been using it, please think for a moment – Should you be using such expressions? Isn’t it taking God’s name too lightly?

Years ago it was fashionable to use the term TGIF. There is even an American restaurant chain which has TGIF as its name. God’s name is not meant to be used as a publicity gimmick just to draw customers. And besides that, jokes or cartoons that make fun of God should not make us laugh. Please don’t get me wrong here. There is nothing bad about having a sense of humour. Humour itself is good. Our Lord Himself used some humour at times.

E.g. He nicknamed James and John the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). So it is alright for us to have some lighthearted talk now and then, which can even be very helpful at times to break the ice or to defuse a tense situation. But we must always maintain purity and wholesomeness in our speech. Don’t ever tell jokes that would hurt anyone or that have sexual innuendoes. And most of all, never tell jokes that would be irreverent to God.

Some of you may think that these things are too trivial and should not be taken so seriously: “There’s no need to be so nit-picky or to feel disturbed about mere words,” you say. But if that is true, why then did our Lord Jesus give such a strong warning in Matthew 12:36, “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”? Is there not a good cause to be careful about the words we use? I think there is. Let us therefore learn to use words carefully – words that will bless others and glorify God.

Today we have learnt that our speech is an awesome responsibility, but the problem is that we have an awful tendency to sin with it. We have seen how amazingly powerful the tongue can be and how no man can tame the tongue. Only those who are regenerated and who walk in the Spirit have the ability to keep it under control. And even then, we must be aware of our constant need to control the tongue and be careful to ensure that everything we say and write is truthful, loving, sincere and reverent. Now that we have heard God speaking to us on this very practical issue, let us resolve to be doers of it. And may the Lord help us all to have victory over an unruly tongue.

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10