The Problem is Less with our Tongues and More with our Hearts
The tongue makes a mockery of our claims to power and authority. Continue reading . . .
The tongue makes a mockery of our claims to power and authority. James explains:
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (James 3:7-12).
We may domesticate virtually every wild animal but we can’t domesticate or control our own speech. It is as James says “a restless evil,” which is to say it is never satisfied with the damage it causes but continues unabated in its destructive ways. The tongue is “full of deadly poison,” perhaps a reference to the “reptile” earlier in the verse. It may be painful to be bitten by a rattlesnake or a cobra, but nothing can compare with the pain inflicted by the speech of sinful men and women.
James concludes his tirade against the tongue by describing what I call its deadly duplicity (vv. 9-12). We are walking contradictions when it comes to the way we use the precious gift of speech. We can sing and praise God, we can bless him and proclaim his beauty and greatness, and then turn around and in the next breath curse and vilify the very people who are created in his image.
So what is the point of these concluding images? Look at them. They all share one thing in common. James talks about the source or spring from which wicked speech flows. If you have a fig tree, don’t expect it to produce olives. If you have a grapevine, don’t expect it to produce figs. If you have a pond full of salt water, don’t expect it to produce fresh water.
His point is this. If you want olives, you must first cultivate an olive tree. If you want figs, you must first plant a fig tree. And if you want fresh water, dig a cistern and fill it with fresh water. In other words, the only hope for obtaining a good and godly result is that you start with a good and godly source. Now what does that mean for us? Let me conclude with an explanation.
James leaves us with the nagging question: What can be done about the tongue? Is there any hope at all of gaining mastery over it? Can we ever expect to tame the tongue and use it only for good or will it always be filled with poison?
Over the years people have urged me to give more explicitly practical advice about how husbands and wives can communicate better with each other. Still others have said: “Sam tell me what to say so I won’t get in arguments with my children.” Or, “Sam, give me some tips or a simple formula so I won’t constantly be at war with my co-workers and always tempted to curse at my boss.”
People have this idea that if a pastor will simply suggest two or three skills at more effective communication that the problem we all have with the tongue will come to an end. I’m sorry, dear friends, but that just isn’t true. I’m not denying that there is a place for learning new skills for more loving and effective communication. New conversational techniques that help us avoid unnecessary arguments are important. But in the long run that won’t solve the problem. Why? Here is why, and it’s not my analysis or because I’m especially smart or wise. Jesus said it: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).
The problem, dear friend, isn’t your tongue: it’s your heart! The tongue is a tool wielded by the hand of the heart. The tongue is an instrument on which the heart plays out its songs. If I’m going to be of any help to anyone here today the answer isn’t to play the part of Dr. Phil or Oprah and give you three techniques for talking to each other in a more civil manner. There’s nothing wrong with talking in a more civil manner. Please, for heaven’s sake, do it! But approaching the problem in that way is like putting a band-aide on a festering, fast-spreading malignant tumor! It will cover over the problem for a season. You might find yourself getting along better with your spouse or your child or your co-worker or your boss. But the cancer is still growing and if not treated will eventually kill you.
The only way to tame the tongue is to transform the heart! The problem isn’t ultimately with our tongue but with our selfish souls, our prideful hearts, our idolatrous way of life in which we look to everything other than Christ to make life work. The problem is with our self-indulgent habits, our greedy desires, our ambitious aspirations, our sensual fantasies, and our stubborn refusal to believe God. In a word, the problem is with our sinful and corrupt hearts. And until such time as we begin to experience genuine, lasting, Spirit-empowered change in our hearts, our mouths will continue to spew forth filth and anger and revenge and cursing and criticism and judgment and slander and a multitude of other verbal sins.
So, if you have ever wondered why I preach the Bible verse by verse or why I try to unpack and explain the deep things of God’s grace and his love and the beauty of Christ and the majesty of God’s mercy and the power of the Spirit and the truth of our spiritual adoption and all the glorious things that God has done for us in Jesus, the simple reason is that I’m aiming at your heart; I want to see God transform your heart; for “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). It’s just that simple.
I know some would feel better if I would just give them some formula to help their speech or some verbal techniques to improve their conversational expertise. When I think they would actually be helpful, I’ll do that. But I’m not in the business of making people feel good for a couple of weeks. I’m in the business as a pastor and preacher because I want to be used of God to change hearts, not for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months, but for a lifetime.
So, let me close with a simple story that I learned from watching the Andy Griffith Show! It concerns a husband and a wife name Fred and Jenny. Andy and his deputy Barney Fife were called with complaints that the noise coming from the home of Fred and Jenny was unbearable. When they arrived they found the couple engaged in a brutal war of words. Andy decided that the solution to their strife was to have them come to his office every morning for a week where they would be forced to speak politely and kindly to the other. And it’s not just your words, said Andy, but the tone of your voice when you address one another. So over and over Fred and Jenny repeated these words through grit teeth and barely subdued snarls:
Fred: “Good morning, honey.”
Jenny: “Good morning, dear.”
At the end of the week the fighting between Fred and Jenny had subsided. But in its place the two started snapping and yelling at their neighbors, including Andy and Barney. Finally Andy decided to let them return to their former ways. It was deemed better that they snap and yell at each other than that they do so to everyone else in Mayberry.
It all made for a clever episode of the Andy Griffith Show. But Andy’s counsel in this case was seriously flawed. Merely training the couple to speak politely and in a civil manner was doomed to failure, because nothing changed on the inside. Their newly learned conversational techniques only served to divert their anger and disdain at different targets. Their hearts were still corrupt. If Fred and Jenny were ever to make good and godly use of their tongues, not only in their relationship with each other but with everyone else, their hearts would have to be transformed.
And so it is with all of us.
To be continued . . .