I’d like to introduce you to Gyles Brandreth. Gyles is a bit of a character. He once won the European Monopoly Championship (who knew there was one?). He served as President of the Association of British Scrabble Players (actual club). He is known for his impressive collection of sweaters. And most pertinent to us today, Mr. Brandreth sat down to do the math, and estimates that across the span of an average lifetime, a person will speak around 860,341,500 words. Out of your mouth will come more than 800 million words, which when strung will largely determine your legacy.
Here are thirteen of them:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is a lie!
Our words carry weight. They carry awesome weight—and by awesome I mean either frightening or inspiring. Your words can: give hope and comfort; your words can lift someone’s vision to see beyond the moment, toward the better future God wants for them; your words can pierce through foolishness and deception, to bring freedom; or our words can reveal our depravity, ruin our witness, and wreck lives. Your words matter. And it is to that we turn today.
James has already warned that if you consider yourself religious but don’t keep a tight rein on your tongue, you deceive yourself and your religion is worthless—James’ words, straight from chapter one and verse 26.
As chapter 3 opens, he circles back to the tongue—and how powerful it is. For us today, I’ve broken down James’ warning into four prayers; four prayers about the 800 million words we will speak. Here’s the first prayer:
May my words not condemn me through hypocrisy.
If you want to take notes, and I would suggest so today, the first of four prayers welling up from James’ warning is this: May my words not condemn me through hypocrisy. I’m going to ask you to repeat this prayer out loud with me after we unpack it. We’ll do that with each of these four prayers. Let’s unpack the first. James begins…
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways.”
It’s a shocking start. “Most of you shouldn’t aim to become Bible teachers, elders, or pastors—because those who teach will be held to a stricter judgment, to a higher level of accountability.”
The counterweight to this verse is 1 Timothy 3:1, where Paul is encouraging young Timothy not to hold back from growing into church leadership. There, Paul says…
“It is a true saying that if a man wants to be a pastor he has a good ambition.”
1 Timothy 3:1 TLB
Another version says, If anyone wants to provide leadership in the church, good! There is always a great need for godly leaders in the local church—men and women who teach the Scriptures clearly, accurately, compellingly, and whose lives match what they teach, who practice what they preach.
James’ warning is not to take Christian leadership flippantly. What you say impacts others, whether toward truth and goodness and Christlikeness, or toward deception, confusion, and sin. Your words matter deeply.
Parenting is the most obvious example of this. I have watched and listened as men with gray hair weep in grief or rage in anger at their dead father who never gave them the approval and blessing they longed to hear.
There’s the elementary student who had difficulty learning to read. She remembers the time one of her classmates heard her struggling to read, and called her stupid. One time.
That student went on to become a first-grade teacher. When she retired after almost forty years of teaching kids to read, at her retirement party she admitted to a relative that throughout her entire career, each time she even considered the idea of moving up to a grade above teaching first grade, that scene from long ago would replay in her memory: “You’re stupid!” She never changed grades. Two words that altered her trajectory, wounded her, and held her back. Reckless words wreck people, beginning with childhood & throughout life. Our words matter.
So we pray, “God, may my words not condemn me through hypocrisy.”
Whether aloud or silently, pray this with me: “Lord, may my words not condemn me through hypocrisy.”
That’s the first prayer about what kind of 800 million words we will speak. Here’s the second prayer:
May my words not destroy me through lack of self-control.
The Proverbs are filled with sayings about the wisdom of practicing self-control, and the foolishness of letting fly with uncontrolled anger. Proverbs 16:32, for example, advises…
“It is better to be patient than to fight.
It is better to control your temper than to take a city.”
Proverbs 16:32 NIRV
If you had to choose between a hundred Marines successfully storming a city or learning to be so patient that there’s no need to fight in the first place, choose patience. Practice controlling your temper.
Proverbs 14:29 fills in a bit more of the color on self-control, noting…
“People with understanding control their anger;
a hot temper shows great foolishness.”
Proverbs 14:29 NLT
The fool rants and raves; you’re wise if you practice self-control. Here’s how James puts it, chapter 3 and verses 2-5:
“Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their 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.”
The driving point here is that the tongue, though tiny, has an immense impact. James shows two analogies to help us see that.
First is the bit in controlling a horse. A child or adult can direct a horse that weighs anywhere from one to two thousand pounds, by putting a small piece of metal in its mouth, a bit. You can control the whole animal with it.
And how about ships? A small rudder, on a huge ship, in the hands of a skilled captain, sets a course that prevails even against the strongest winds. That was true with sailing vessels when James wrote. It’s just as true today.
The USS Gerald Ford is the Navy’s newest and largest American aircraft carrier—in fact, it is the world’s largest. It’s 134 feet tall, and has a flight deck that stretches more than 250 feet across and extends the length of more than three football fields. The ship is powered by two nuclear reactors. Fully loaded with a crew of as 5,000 sailors, planes, and munitions, it weighs as much as 400 Statues of Liberty.
And yet for all its heft, that massive carrier is controlled by rudders that are a fraction of the ship’s size and weight. Something so comparatively small is able to steer and direct something huge.
It’s the same with the tongue, James cautions. A fully grown adult’s tongue weighs just a few ounces, but pound for pound it packs a heavyweight’s punch. Its impact is far disproportionate compared to its size. It’s a very small part of the body. But it makes big waves.
You can probably remember words that were spoken to you that either directed and influenced you toward what is good and worthwhile, or you can recall words that were hurled at you that continue to sting and hold you back. Small part of the body, but immense impact.
So we pray, “May my words not destroy me through lack of self-control.”
Whether out loud or silently, pray it with me: “Lord, may my words not destroy me through lack of self-control.”
May my words not condemn me through hypocrisy, and may my words not destroy me through lack of self-control. Two of four prayers regarding the 800 million words we will speak. Here’s the third:
May my words build up, not burn down.
Verses 5-8, James holds out two more visuals to help us see the warning.
“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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
There’s the first visual: the tongue is a fire. “Consider” this, he urges. How much damage has been done through words? We burn others when the tongue is used recklessly.
It was November of last year when one damaged hook on a high-voltage transmission tower in California’s hills sparked. Within a single day, more than 19,000 buildings had burned to the ground, and 85 people were dead. It was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in California’s history—the Paradise fire. And the whole thing started…with a spark.
Just like the destruction that follows an errant word or accusation spat out in rage or meanness. The tongue is “a world of evil among the parts of the body,” James laments. It has a capacity for evil like nothing else. John Calvin wrote of the tongue, “A slender portion of flesh contains in it the whole world of iniquity.”
When James describes the tongue as “set on fire by hell,” the word for hell there is gehenna. Gehenna was a real place—it was a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem. James was a leader in the Jerusalem church, so he knew Gehenna, and likely so did his readers.
Jewish tradition says children were sacrificed to the pagan Canaanite god Molech in Gehenna, a despicable act of violence. And so that place became associated with death.
Gehenna became the city dump. It’s where garbage was tossed, with fires stoked to incinerate the trash and keep down the stench. Gehenna also where the bodies of executed criminals and people who were denied a proper burial were dumped. It wasn’t a place you wanted to end up.
So James is as serious as you can get, warning that if you’re not careful, your tongue can land you in hell.
Something as seemingly harmless as sound waves can pull away a person’s peace, ruin a person’s reputation, fracture a friendship, and rip a family apart. One careless word. A single sentence thrown out without thinking it through: just a spark, but it can roar into a wildfire. Just a few careless words whether deliberate or unintentional, can turn harmony to chaos, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell. One commentator adds, “In the search for weapons of mass destruction, we really only need to look in the mirror and open our mouths.” Such is the tongue.
Source: Salm Alberry, James For You
From the destructive image of fire, James turns in verses 5-6 to the image of animals.
“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue. It’s never been done. We train dogs to sit, lay down, and roll over. We train elephants to paint. We train parrots to say funny things. We train dolphins for military use.
But the tongue? Our abilities to tame and train and teach hit a dead end. It is untamable. It resists all attempts to restrain it. It’s the most frustrating thing: we can accomplish so much—maybe send people to Mars soon enough. But we can’t tame this one little body part. Your tongue will never be something you can tame by yourself. So we find ourselves at a conundrum: we desperately need to control our tongues, but we can’t. It is beyond human ability to tame.
The story is told of a woman in an Irish village who began to envy a neighbor who had a nicer home, was married to what seemed to be a better man, drove a nicer car, and the woman felt the other was also more attractive. And for whatever reason, that envy started to burrow into her like a tick.
So she found herself looking for opportunities to drop little put-downs about her into conversation with others. Didn’t matter whether they were fully true; just enough to start taking her down a notch at a time, one conversation at a time.
What started out small, over time accumulated to a sizable character assassination. And it worked. Other neighbors fell for it, and began avoiding the woman. They stopped talking to her. No one so much as waved while driving by.
One morning, the woman who had started it all stepped outside to discover a “For Sale” sign in that neighbor’s yard. The rejection had become unbearable, and they moved away during the night.
She went to confession at her local parish and admitted to the priest what she had done. She asked if she could be forgiven. He replied, “No, not that quickly.” He said, Here’s what you need to do. Get a large bag of feathers, the kind you buy to stuff a down pillow. Then at night, walk around the village—every street—and put a feather in every front yard.”
She thought that was an awfully strange way to find forgiveness, but she felt badly about her words, so she went and did just what he asked. All throughout that night, she walked the streets of her village, carefully placing a single feather in the front yard of each home.
The next day, bleary-eyes and hoping for forgiveness, she returned to her priest and asked, “Now may I be forgiven?”
He came back with, “Oh no, certainly not yet. Tonight, you need to take that same bag. Go back out and collect all of those feathers.”
She was floored. “That’s impossible!” she exclaimed. “By now the wind has carried the feathers who knows how far?!”
“Indeed,” the priest replied, “as far as your words.”
And so we pray, “May my words build up, not burn down.” Pray it with me: “Lord, may my words build up, not burn down.”
The fourth and final prayer regarding the 800 million words we will speak is…
May my words reflect being created in God’s image & redeemed by God’s Son.
James writes, verses 9-12…
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh ***water.”
We praise God and then curse men and women made in his image. Same mouth, coursing with curses and blessings! That cannot go unchallenged. It doesn’t pass the Jesus sniff test. Our words reveal what’s really inside us.
Imagine you build a custom home out in the country. Lavish hills, beautiful hardwood trees. You bring a drilling firm in to dig your well. They get it all done and connected to your home’s plumbing. The water is cool and clear, free from all impurities.
The next morning you grab the coffee pot and put it in the sink to make a fresh pot. You turn the handle, and what gushes out of your beautiful new faucet is dark with rotting leaves, globs of algae, even some kind of larvae. Who ever heard of such a thing, James asks—good water and disgusting water from the same source? But such are our mouths.
Or trees: you’re never going to visit a banana farm only to find bunches of onions, or visit a watermelon farm but see only beets on the vines. Totally incompatible—just like our words when they contradict being created in God’s image and being redeemed by God’s Son.
UnChristian speech is evidence of an unChristian heart. And so we pray, may my words reflect being created in God’s image & redeemed by God’s Son. Pray it with me:
“Lord, may my words reflect being created in God’s image & redeemed by God’s Son.”
I close with Michael Weisser’s story. Michael is a rabbi from New York who, in 1991 moved with his wife and five children to Lincoln, Nebraska. Just one day after they moved in the phone rang, and the person on the other end began spewing racial insults, saying, “You’re going to be sorry you moved into that house, Jew boy,” and then hung up.
A few days later a package arrived, filled with fifty or sixty racist and anti-Semitic literature along with a business card from the KKK that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
The Ku Klux Klan had a chapter in Lincoln led by a man named Larry Trapp. Rabbi Weisser guessed that Trapp was the source of the threats against him and his family.
So here’s what Michael Weisser did: he found Larry Trapp’s phone number. And once a week, he called.
Larry never answered, so each week Rabbi Michael would leave a message with some words of kindness or encouragement. He would say things like, “There’s a lot of love out there, Larry, and you’re not getting any of it. What’s wrong with you?,” and then he would hang up.
“Larry, you’d better think about all this hatred that you are involved in because you’re going to have to deal with God one day.”
Larry was a double amputee due to diabetes, so one of Michael’s messages was, “Why do you love the Nazis so much? They would have killed you first because you’re disabled.”
3 pm every Thursday, Michael would call. One Thursday, Trapp answered the call by screaming profanities and asking Weisser what he wanted. Weisser replied that he knew Trapp was disabled and offered to give him a ride to the grocery store, to which Trapp responded that he was all set and told him not to call anymore.
This continued for months, a week at a time, a loving message at a time. Finally late one night, Rabbi Michael’s phone rang. He picked it up and heard, “Is this the Rabbi?” When Michael affirmed that it was, Trapp responded by saying, “I want to get out of what I am doing and I don’t know how.”
That night, Michael drove to Larry’s home with some fried chicken, but not before calling a friend and telling him to send the police if he did not hear from Michael by midnight. Weisser thought he had made a grave mistake when Trapp opened the door sitting in his wheelchair with a Mac 10 automatic weapon in his lap, a shotgun hanging off the corner of the wheelchair, and a pistol in his lap as well.
But then Larry Trapp reached out his hand, introduced himself, and burst into tears.
He took two swastika Nazi rings off his fingers and handed them to the rabbi, pleading, “Take these away. They’ve caused me nothing but trouble all my life.”
They spent three hours talking with the local KKK leader, and began to get to know each other without the assumptions and prejudices, just as neighbors. He asked Michael to take away all of his hate-filled literature that night.
Over the next several months, Larry Trapp left the Ku Klux Klan. He publicly apologized to the people he had harmed with his hateful words. He was constantly on the phone, making amends for all the hatred he had spewed against others. This recent KKK leader began attending synagogue with the rabbi and his family.
When Larry’s health took a turn for the worse, Michael’s wife invited Larry to move into their home. She gave up her job to take care of him. Michael’s family cared for Larry all the way through to his death a year later. In that rabbi’s home, the very place where Larry Trapp had called and shipped words of hatred and violence, Larry died embraced by love from the people he had so recently hated.