Alfred Place Baptist Church

3:1-12 Taming The Tongue

James 3:1-12 “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animal, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs ? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

Everybody has heroes, and Christians are no exception. Our most prominent heroes have a rather unusual vocation. They are all basically teachers, and they consist of evangelists, theologians, preachers and missionaries. It has been like that from the very beginnings of the Christian church. The Corinthian congregation was divided into rival groups of supporters championing such teachers as Paul, Cephas and Apollos. In a week when the government has desperately suggested a number of pop singers as role models for teenage girls, Christian women have no difficulty finding people of courage to admire from Mary the mother of our Lord to Elisabeth Elliot.

It is very natural that all Christians respect preachers – men through whom we came to know God, whose ministries have strengthened us in our trials, whose words have bid our sorrows cease. We make some problems for ourselves when we wrongly elevate them to the first rank of mankind, the most holy of men, the top grade of Christians and think of them as the professionals, ‘full-time’ disciples, while all the rest of the church are deemed second class. Every Christian is a 24-hour a day follower of the Lord Jesus, and there are true heroes amongst people of faith who have been soldiers, scientists, industrialists, explorers, and politicians.

We can understand why many men in the early church wanted to become teachers, even those not equipped for the work. The office was honourable, and the potential for helping others enormous. Many were busy teaching the Christian faith, Paul saying to the Corinthian church, “you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ” (I Cor. 4:15). There was a need to test this zeal, as there still is for not all who enter the ministry and teach Christ’s church are called by God to this office. James cautions anyone who is reflecting upon taking up the life of the preacher: “You know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (v.3).

1. We Are Accountable For Our Words.

James is echoing the Lord Jesus when he said, “But I say unto you, that every idle word that men speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36). Teachers are in the business of words. Sundays, with two sermons to prepare and preach, relentlessly come around. A minister is constantly speaking to old and young. His opinions may be sought on all manner of issues. The potential for misleading others is far greater from the man in the pulpit than from any in the pew, and so “we will be judged more strictly.” The teacher will be called upon to give an account not only of his own life with its failures, but of the lives of those he has taught, since some of their lapses lie at his door. He inferred he had the backing of God for what he said. He might claim to be the vicar of Christ and head of the church, or a prophet with a message direct from the throne of the universe, or that he was the divinely appointed shepherd of their lives, their homes, their money and their relationships. He might tell them that he had the enlightenment to say that the apostle Paul was mistaken in this or that.

What intolerable offensiveness is in all such postures. It is bad enough when he breaks one of the least commandments, but whosoever does “and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Remember Jesus’ woes pronounced upon religious teachers: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).

“We who teach will be judged more strictly.” James Denney said, ‘The things we have done in the body will come back to us, whether good or bad. Every pious thought and every thought of sin, every secret prayer and every secret curse; every unknown deed of charity and every hidden deed of selfishness; we will see them all again and though we have not remembered them for years and perhaps have forgotten them altogether, we shall have to acknowledge that they are our own and take them to ourselves. Is that not a solemn thing to stand at the end of life ?”

When John Reisinger pastored a church he had a Sunday morning TV programme and he would record the sermon in his home on Saturday night and take it down to the engineer before midnight. One Saturday he could not get the sermon right, and had to record and re-record it, and the time was going by. He had just one more opportunity to get the message on tape, but again muddled what he said, and without time to start again had to do his best to extricate himself from his self-made confusion struggling on to the end of the sermon before driving down to the TV station with the video cassette. The next morning at home he switched on the screen and watched himself beginning to preach. As he got nearer his faux pas he found himself thinking, “Don’t say it, John. Don’t make that mistake.” But then John had to observe himself putting his foot right into it, and then trying to get out of it, and limp on and on to the end of the message. It was a humiliating experience, and it gave John a foretaste of the day of judgment when we shall finally be confronted with the consequences our words. Our only hope, alongside all repentant believing sinners, will be this, that the Judge of our lives will be the Saviour who died to forgive us.

But James moves on from preachers to every single Christian. “Don’t take any comfort from the judgment that awaits other sinners,” he is in effect saying, because “we all stumble in many ways” (v.2). Stumbles are embarrassing. You are walking along and your shoe catches in some uneven paving stone and you stumble. You feel the whole street is watching you. You may try to turn it into a deliberate skip if you are a teenager, as though you intended to do that – we want to be cool. But not all stumbles are a blow to our pride. There is another kind of stumble that can break our necks. Think how king David stumbled one night on the roof of his palace. The consequences of that were devastating.

James says we all stumble. Every one of us stumbles, and James too; he walks in solidarity with every Christian. There was no privatisation of his morals. He was under the same royal law as we are today. Though he had lived for thirty years with Jesus, and had great authority and holiness, as James went through life he also stumbled, but he made no attempt to disguise it. He acknowledges his own regular falls into sin, “we stumble,” and he adds – “in many ways.” A prison doctor writing under the pseudonym ‘Theodore Dalrymple’ has a column in the Spectator every week. Writing this week he says how he is frequently asked why he has chosen to become a prison doctor. He muses, and finally concludes, ‘I suppose it is the opportunity to learn something of human nature, or at least of human conduct, which draws me there. But is there anything new to learn of human nature other than what everyone already knows, namely that man is a scoundrel ? Perhaps not; but it is the infinite variations of his wrongdoing which is so deeply impressive … Prison is like Africa; from prison, always something new” (“Second Opinion,” p.18, 14 November, 1998).

James says, “we all stumble in many ways.” This is how it is for everyone of us: there is not one person who does not stumble often. When every life is measured alongside the ten commandments it is found wanting in many ways. Neither is there any society which is immune from its baleful affects. Consider one statistic: in the USA today between 25% and 30% of all pregnancies end in abortion. It is as if an army had invaded America and were killing 1.6 million unborn children every year. A society that makes abortion freely available is eroding its most basic moral sense. The men who tolerate the children whom they have begotten being killed like this go on stumbling through life in many other ways.

Evaluating such behaviour is the great doctrine of the state of man with its appallingly pessimistic analysis of the human condition. It is expressed in the Bible in an array of unforgettable images: ‘Sin is the missing of a target, a wandering from the path, a straying from the fold. Sin is a hard heart and stiff neck. Sin is blindness and deafness. It is both the overstepping of a line and the failure to reach it – both transgression and shortcoming. Sin is a beast crouching at the door. In sin, people attack or evade or neglect their divine calling. These and other images suggest deviance; even when it is familiar, sin is never normal … Above all, sin disrupts and resists the vital human relation to God” (Not the Way It’s Suppose To Be, Cornelius Plantinga, Apollos (IVP), 1995, p.5). Do you acknowledge this too ? “Yes, I do stumble in many ways. It’s not my mother or my brother but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer; prayer for mercy and pardon.” Or do your stumbles fail to phase you ? Are you a stranger to shame ? There is this great day of evaluation before us. Our lives are going to be inspected by the God who has sustained and blessed us in his creation, and it’s not the way it’s supposed to have been between men and God. In many ways, James reminds us, we are prone to stumble and leave a loving Lord.

It’s our words which give the game away. They show the true state of our hearts. Don’t be bothered now about the wild words of American tele-evangelists or those of the mass suicide cult leaders: they have their own judgment awaiting them. What of your words ? What you say is not merely sounds made by larynx and lips, like the cooing of a baby or the gibber of a monkey. When a woman is pleading with a rapist that he doesn’t hurt her that man cannot say, “just sounds.” When the words of Mao Zedong caused a famine in China in the late 1950’s and tens of millions of people died, nobody is China could say, “those were just the vocables of Chairman Mao.” Words can kill. “Crucify him. Release unto us Barabbas.” Think of the words of a spy, or a liar, or a seducer, or a racist, or an unfaithful wife. Think of what you have said to those who love you the most, and upon whom you depend the most. Hurtful words, angry words, impatient words, unloving words, harsh words, cruel words. Words are the barometer of our hearts. It is by our lips that we are condemned. Dr. Theodore Dalrymple interviewed a murderer. ‘I asked the murderer if he’d regretted what he’d done. “Course I do,” he replied. “Why’s that ?” “Well, it got me in here, didn’t it ?”‘ (‘Second Opinion,. Spectator, 31 October 1998, p.25). That is a perfect example of a man’s words displaying the corruption of his heart. A murderer, but his regrets are not for his dreadful crime and the judgment that awaits him, but the inconvenience that it has brought into his life. James says, “we all stumble in many ways,” and our words prove that he is right. But then his analysis of the human condition goes deeper.

2. Words Have Enormous Influence.

James brings some marvellous verbal pictures to prove this point. Firstly the horse (v.3). Think of a great Shire stallion, seven feet high, capable of dragging a few tons of coal hour after hour. Yet that stallion is guided by a little bit in its mouth, six inches long. A tug to the left and it turns left. A pull to the right and to the right it turns. It’s not that its mouth turns, or its head only, but the whole great steed changes direction and the coal cart it is pulling. Or think of a mighty galleon (v.4), all its sails full of wind, skimming the surface of the sea, carrying forty men and tons of precious cargo in its hold. When the pilot moves the little rudder it turns south-west, or if he turns it in another direction the ship will go south-east. The movement of that little rudder changing the direction of the boat so that instead of sailing to Hong Kong it sails to Copenhagen. Or think again of the rays of the sun shining through a discarded Coke bottle and concentrating all its heat on a piece of dry grass and a fire starting from some grass, and then spreading and spreading, a hillside ablaze, a great forest ablaze (v.5), and residents evacuated and piling some precious things into their cars, firemen working day and night to build breaks to stop the flames jumping from tree to tree, helicopters bombing the fire with gallons of water. It started with the rays of the sun concentrated through a broken bottle on one tiny spot, and it ended with millions of pounds of damage. The Preacher, writing Ecclesiastes, says, “At the beginning his words are folly; at the end they are wicked madness – and the fool multiplies words” (Eccles. 10:13).

James is saying, Consider of the damage the tongue can do. “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (v.5). How have tyrants achieved power ? They have boasted what they would do. They will deal with the ‘Jewish problem,’ or with the difference between rich people and poor people. They will achieve Utopia. That was their boast, and so they were given power by the people, and what has been the result ? Everywhere in the world this century has witnessed unspeakable tyranny, and millions have died. It all began with one boasting tongue. When Daniel is speaking about the appearance of the antichrist it is the man’s great boasts that specially characterises him. “He will exalt and magnify himself above every god” (Dan. 11:36). He will gain enormous influence over all mankind before the end of the world by the use of that little tongue of his. Think of how the Roman Catholic church by one small decree, and another encyclical, and the conclusions of this council, and the pronouncement of that pope, could, by words, turn the direction of the whole of its organisation so far from New Testament Christianity to the position carved into the stones of the Council of Trent of 1545, from which position has not officially moved in four centuries, except for the boastful additions of so-called ‘infallible’ popes.

All the nation is also full of boasting men. They claim that they can counsel, and heal, and give new life. They can invest our money for us. They have the answers to our loneliness. They know how to educate our children. They are experts in every subject imaginable. They can minister to all our needs, but the dereliction caused by these men is measureless. They take people for all that they can get and disappear. It was their evil self-confidence, their way with words, their boasting that destroyed millions of lives. There seems to be an industry exposing such crooks; the media are full of photographs and warnings about them, but there will be no end to them. John Newton speaks about the pleasures of ‘the worldling’ – the man without Christ – and he says that they enjoy fading pleasures, and that they are ‘boasting, pomp and show.’ That’s all they experience. Thomas Watson says that there is not a more dangerous precipice than self-righteousness.

But James goes on to from these vivid examples of the influence of the little tongue to sober us with the most humbling analysis in all the Bible of the consequences of having an evil tongue. There is scarcely a greater indication of man’s depravity than in what he writes next: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (v.6). When the apostle Paul is seeking to prove to us that there is nobody righteous, not even one, he too seizes on man’s words and he quotes approvingly Psalm 5:9, “Their tongues practice deceit,” and Psalm 140:3, “The poison of asps is under their lips” in Romans 3:13. James stands in total agreement with Paul and he writes first of:-

1] the character of the tongue. It is “a world of evil among the parts of the body” (v.6). No one need trawl the sleaze of the world to discover its true state. The evil of the cosmos is concentrated on our own tongues. What sins have the words of men not been involved in ? “Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21) ? Yes, in all of those sins are our tongues involved, and many other evils. If they are under heaven then you don’t need to check out the caverns of hell to produce them, they can be found on the tips of our tongues. Think, for example, of God listening to all the words that will be spoken in this town in the next six hours, all the blasphemy and filth; all the seductions and hatred; all the lies and murderous words; all the plans to harm others the whole world of wickedness will first come to expression on our neighbours’ lips, and their hands and feet will soon follow them into evil. Then James writes of:-

2] the influence of the tongue. “It corrupts the whole person” (v.6). Evil temptations suddenly arise in our minds, but we can oppose them and dismiss them by the word of Christ. If we entertain them we have stumbled, and if we go on to put them into words and speak about them, then our fall is more complete. Words gain legs and arms. They grow in strength. They “corrupt the whole person.” A fist may intimidate. A winking eye may seduce. But a tongue can stain every part of man. Think how in Shakespeare’s tragedy, ‘Othello’, Iago corrupts his master Othello and sows the seeds of distrust in his wife Desdemona which result in the Moor ultimately killing his own beloved. Words corrupted Othello, and Iago himself. Or think of how Jonadab sees Prince Amnon utterly infatuated with his half-sister Tamar and his words utterly corrupt Amnon resulting in the rape of Tamar and the eventual murder of Amnon himself by Tamar’s vengeful brother (2 Samuel 13). The whole family were corrupted by Jonadab’s tongue. Our tongues corrupt the whole person. The tongue is “a restless evil full of deadly poison” (v.8). Then James writes of:-

3] the span of the tongue’s influence. “It sets the whole course of his life on fire” (v.6). You see children fighting, squabbling over TV programmes and whose turn it is to ride the bicycle. You visit an old people’s home and hear the elderly criticising one another about which TV programmes they are going to watch, and whose turn it is next to be pushed back to their rooms. They have not learned wisdom. We say, “There is no fool like an old fool” and it is true. Imagine living a whole lifetime and not having learned to tame the tongue. We have all met people in old age, obdurate, mean-spirited, boastful and angry, failing to leave their sons and daughters their rightful inheritance, even seducing people half their age. They burned with lustful fires in their youth, and now in old age they can still prefer the dirty story and the pornographic magazine – the tongue sets on fire the whole course of a man’s life. Then James writes of:-

4] the source of the tongue’s burnings. “It is set on fire by hell” (v.6). The tongue is like touch-paper. Volatile and incandescent, just a spark is needed and a fire of burning anger will blaze forth. The devil will supply the spark. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat” (Luke 23:31). But Simon Peter could not accept such pessimistic counsels. He had never felt so confident of his faith and love for the Lord Jesus Christ. He was ready to go to prison with Jesus, and even if all the others ran away at the first sign of trouble then the Lord could always count on Simon Peter. But soon Peter is out-running the others in leaving Christ to the tender mercies of the Roman soldiers, and in another hour he is calling down curses on himself in this protestation to any who will hear him, “I don’t know this man you are talking about” (Mark 14:71). Simon’s tongue was set on fire by hell. How often have our most cruel and angry words been kindled by a flame from the place of woe. The evil tongues of men can destroy the world.

But what influence a holy tongue can have. Think of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. They have been the inspiration to the greatest composers and poets. Schools, orphanages and hospitals have been built through his words. How many people have been saved from degraded lives of crime, drunkenness and prostitution through his words ? The number is beyond calculation. His words have raised the status of women, saved and protected children, and made men gentler and more humane. When the church has been faithful to his words and declared them to the nations light has dawned and cruel pagan superstitions have ended. Salvation has come to men and women through the good words of the gospel. The Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth,” and the testimony of those apostles has changed the course of history. What a majestic forest has grown from the acorn words those men sowed. So James speaks of the powerful influences of our words. Then he bring the indictment against our tongues one step further. He says:-

3. Man Is Not Able To Control His Words.

James imagines a man who “is never at fault in what he says” (v.2). Let’s organise an expedition to find such a person ! Advertise widely ! Announce a competition ! Offer grand prizes ! You are looking for one person – in the whole world – a man or a woman out of 6,000 million people – who is never at fault in what he says – never ! Who are you looking for ? James tells us that we are searching for, “a perfect man.” ‘No,’ you protest,’ just someone who is never at fault in what he says.’ James explains to us what that means – it’s a sinless man. A man who is never at fault in what he says is a man of constant love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and self control. He is a man who is poor in spirit, mourns for his sins, is meek, hungers and thirsts after righteousness, is pure in heart, is a peacemaker and suffers for righteousness’ sake. He is a man who loves God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and so when he speaks to God or of God his words are controlled by divine love. He is a man who loves his neighbour as himself. He is a man who loves his enemies. If they curse him then his response is words of blessing. When he is sinned against his words are words of forgiveness on seventy times seven occasions.

Now do you see the force and logic of James’s words ? “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man.” Because the lips are not an agency that can declare unilateral independence from the rest of the body. They can’t go solo. The mouth is dead without its union with the rest of the body. The lips can’t be pure if the heart is impure. Our speech reflects all that we are, and if we want to restrain our lips from speaking foolishness it can’t be done without putting restraints upon our whole personalities – body, mind, affections, emotions and will. They all have to be brought into obedience to the will of God. Only the Son of God did this. The apostle Peter commenting on Jesus’ language says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats” (I Peter 2:22 & 23). No deceit; no retaliation; no threats. Here was someone never at fault in his words. There has been on this planet a perfect man – the lamb of God without spot and without blemish.

But sinners are not like that. We fail to control our words because we fail to control our bodies. James points out how accomplished man is at taming all kinds of wild creatures. Think of sheep-dogs, birds of prey, parrots, snakes, sea-lions, dolphins – “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man” (v.7). Creatures as huge as elephants, and even killer whales have been tamed, but men cannot keep their own little tongues in check (v.2.): “No man can tame the tongue” (v.8). You see what Scripture says ? Not, “no man does tame the tongue.” That’s true, but what James writes brings a far greater indictment against man, “No man can tame the tongue.” In other words, no one has the ability to tame his tongue. That is your problem. Your nature is not under the lordship of God. You think, “Who is the Lord that I should obey his voice ?” You have a rebel’s nature, and so you speak against your Sovereign, and against his laws. There is a daily choice before all men, to be gracious and loving and holy in all your speech, or rather, to say things your way. Men all choose to say things their way because they are rebels.

Think of it like this. A mother is holding her dear baby in her arms. You say to her, “Call the baby a four-letter word. Do it ! Do it ! Do it !” She says, “I cannot.” You say to her, “Of course you can. All you have to do is open your mouth and exert your larynx and form the word with your lips and tongue. You do not mean you cannot say that word, but you mean you will not. You have the physical ability. You just do not want to.” She looks back at you and says, “In this case ‘cannot’ and ‘will not’ mean the same thing. I cannot say that to my baby because I love her.” In other words, that mother is a servant of her nature. Before she could speak foul things to her own child her nature would have to change. She would have to become totally evil or insane and act contrary to her maternal nature.

All men and women are in the same position. They are controlled by the flesh, the nature of sin. They cannot speak contrary to that nature. Jesus said, “out of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matt. 12:34), and the prophet says, “the heart is deceitful above all things” ( Jer. 17:9). Children naturally deceive and tell lies. They have to be trained and constantly exhorted to speak the truth, and to be grateful, and to say ‘please’, and to learn that others come first. So James says, by ourselves we cannot tame the tongue all by itself. It’s we who have to change. Our natures must be altered. There must be a new birth. Everything has to be made new. Then the tongue will share in the newness.

James looks at the natural man, marched onto the barracks’ parade ground with all the other soldiers on a Sunday morning, given hymn sheets and told to sing and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. When the service is over, back in the changing rooms getting out of regimental uniform, what ribaldry – listen to the cursing ! “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (v.9). This is not possible in nature – fig tree produces figs, not olives. A vine produces grapes, not figs. A salt spring cannot produce fresh water. Nature is consistent, but sinners are double-minded men, able to switch from the loftiest words to the foulest in five minutes. To be consistent their very natures need to change.

There is the Stwlan Dam of north Wales, a pump storage scheme in Tanygrisau 60 miles from this church. In the night-time when people sleep and there are few demands upon the electricity in the National Grid the pumps pump the water from a lower lake and refill the high dam. It takes power totally outside itself to make water run uphill. But no one has to ‘force’ water to run down hill. It does that naturally. Every person is free to use his tongue as he pleases, but each person is able only to do what his nature lets him do. To please his commanding officer he will sing a hymn, and to please himself he will curse, but to worship God not in words only, and speak peace to all men from his heart he needs a new nature first.

I am not saying that some non-Christians, un-born-again people, do not have a strong impulse to guard their language, refuse to swear and tell the truth. C. S. Lewis wrote about the universal ‘ought’ in every man. All man say, “I ought to be more patient. I ought to be more self-controlled. I ought not to curse as I do” and so on. Their conscience is speaking to them about their language. They are made in God’s image. They have a sense of right and wrong. Man is not like an animal who snarls and growls and devours and cries for blood. All men bear God’s image and so there is a certain refinement amongst the peoples of the world. The House of Lords is a secular governing body but there is much wisdom, order and respect there. People who are not Christians know that they should not behave like foul-mouthed criminals. But there is no salvation in acknowledging one should be more pure in one’s speech.

“Suppose the day that you were born God hung an invisible tape recorder around your neck. Every time you said to somebody either ‘you should have done such and such,’ or ‘you should not have done such and such’ the invisible recorder went ‘blip, blip, blip, blip’ and recorded what you said. In the day of judgment, imagine God extracting the tape on which are recorded your own words of moral judgment, and saying, ‘I want to be fair in judging you. Therefore I will judge you on the exact standards which you boldly professed to believe. I will use your own words. I will not use the ten Commandments, or the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. I will use what you yourself fervently acknowledged (by judging yourself and others) to be right and wrong.’ Could anything be more fair ? Yet, would we not all be proven guilty before God ? Do you realise that that very thing is going to happen ?” (John Reisinger, “The Doctrine of Total Depravity,” Sound of Grace, Vol. 4. No. 3, p.2).

Of course there are people who speak very correctly, and others who in the pursuance of a caring ministry can look after sick people and the elderly and can give them a sense of well-being and peace by what they say and how they say it. There are leaders in wartime who can inspire a nation to take courage. There are writers whose words can move one to tears. All that is possible while men’s hearts are still hostile to God.

“Suppose a doctor in the Navy led a crew into mutiny and took control of a ship. He then uses the ship in piracy. The Navy finds him and demands that he either surrender or they will destroy the ship. Upon his refusal, the Navy brings in the necessary fire power and begins to fight. During the battle many men on the rebel ship are wounded. The doctor inspires their morale with his speeches and risks his own life over and over again helping them. When the Navy finally captures the ship they will hang both the doctor and his men because of their mutiny. The heroic ‘good’ which the doctor did in encouraging his men will help neither him nor them at the trial. The judge who sentences the man to die may ‘admire his eloquence’ but he is still a traitor against the government and will therefore be put to death. None of his ‘good’ will count anything” (ibid)

So it is with all the good words spoken by sinful men. An earlier grace in the world or in that particular culture, the effect of the Bible, the church as light, all such influences salt the words even of unbelievers. Again think how one form of sin will often exclude another form of sin. The miser will be delivered from the sin of wastefulness. The workaholic will be delivered from sloth and laziness. The pride of position will often exclude a deceitful tongue, but only for fear of being caught. Shakespeare said, “I see it has pleased Devil drunkenness to give place to Devil wrath.” Respectability, education and wealth can all cover the enmity to God which is in everyone’s heart. There’s the old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Man’s hostility to God is like the filthy mud puddles on the road right after heavy rain. Those same puddles become clear as crystal after several days. The mud is still there but it has all settled on the bottom and is not visible. However, if you started stirring the puddle with a stick, the mud would soon come to the surface. Man’s sinful heart is the same way. He does not like the Lord’s word, or the Lord’s Day, or the Lord’s house, because those forces start to stir up the mud at the bottom of his life. He thinks God is unreasonable and too strict. But when God gives him a new nature he speaks well of the Bible and of the very laws of God he objected to. His problem is not the strictness of God’s commandments but his own natural hostility to them.

The answer to better language doesn’t lie in some great resolution that from now on you are never going to say a mean word again. Think of the salt spring; could its owner by mere determination, will it to become a fountain of sweet water ? Think of a Dalmatian dog. What if that dog decided one day to become an albino – not a solitary black hair. That decision would not make any difference to him. He could will until his tail dropped off, he would still be a Dalmatian. A leopard cannot change his spots simply by willing his spots to go. Or what if an Ethiopian wished he could become white ? He could not change the colour of his skin by an act of will any more than the leopard or Dalmatian can. There is a famous American pop singer whose skin colour has changed. When he was a boy he was black, but now his skin is white. We know he has gone to plastic surgeons, and maybe there’s a cosmetic reason his skin colour has changed – though he says it’s because of some ailment. Certainly it was not through wishing alone. A black man’s nature must long for it (though why we cannot dream) and then he must have the money and take the medical steps necessary for such a change. He has to put himself in the hands of an expert and go through the treatment. To tame our tongues we have to be outraged at the way we speak and cry mightily to God that he will deal with our lives and change our hearts. We pray, “O Lord, men can tame fish and hawks and monkeys and charm snakes, but they cannot tame their tongues so that they honour you in what they say. So give me a new birth, make me new, and every part of me.” Remember how Peter the fisherman swore and cursed that he wasn’t a Christian. “Out of the same mouth came praise and cursing.” Later he wept bitterly that he could have spoken like that. What regrets ! Then on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon him and he was a new man. We never read that Peter cursed again. God the Holy Spirit had changed him.

You can change ! The inconsistency of holy language Sundays, and bad language Mondays, can cease. The antithesis of happy words of love and forgiveness flowing alongside the bitter words of hatred can cease. The fruit of peace and gentleness and encouragement can be found on your lips. Grace can prevail in your life. Its beginning is a new birth. God must take away your stony heart and give you a new heart, and then your language will become different. Only then. Increasingly you will then be changed from one degree of glory to another. The effectual sanctification of the indwelling Spirit will make you increasingly sensitive in your language and you will become wise. This has happened to millions of people of the same passions and regrets as yourself. You are no different from them. Cry mightily to God that he make you a new creation, and that all things will become new. If you don’t do that, what an appalling future faces you – words that hurt and destroy other people until you die and face a holy God. Present your body to God as a living sacrifice. Pray with all your heart, “Take my lips and let them be filled with messages from Thee.” Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. You will be saved.

November 15 1998 =

Geoffrey Thomas