Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me! How many times did you hear, or say this, growing up? If, like me, you were the object of a certain amount of taunting, you may have had a lot of practice with this little nursery rhyme. But unfortunately, it’s just not true. There is power in our words. They can cause hurt to others, sometimes long after the wound from a stick or stone would have healed and been forgotten.
There is not usually much I can do about other people’s words. But I do have a responsibility for my own. Am I careful about what I say? Do I use my words for building others up, or for tearing them down? Do I control my words, or do they just flow out of my mouth unbidden?
Teaching From James
James has a lot to say about our speech in James 3:1-12
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
James 3:1-12 NIV
The Danger of the Tongue
Our tongue is just a small chunk of meat that flaps around in our mouth. Yet it is the most visible part of our speech center. And it gets the blame for much of what we say. Learning to “control our tongues”, is a lifelong exercise for many people. While some seem to have done well with it, others seem to have given up any attempt at control.
James has a number of interesting things to say about our tongues. He calls them “a fire”, “a world of evil”, “corrupter of the body”, “set on fire by hell”, “untameable”, “a restless evil”, “full of deadly poison”. From James’ description, it would seem to be best if we were to cut it out and throw it away.
But of course, we know that the tongue only says what the brain tells it to say. And if the tongue were missing we would use our fingers (sign language) or pens (or computers) to convey the same message. Rather than our tongues, the problem is of the heart. My tongue only reflects what is on the inside. As Jesus says in Matthew 12:34, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.“
The Power of Words
We would do well to pay heed to James’ warning. Our speech can cause more harm to us, as well as to others, than just about anything else we can do. Words come so easily, and oftentimes so thoughtlessly. And once they have been spoken in another person’s hearing, they are impossible to retract. How many times has a thoughtless word destroyed a relationship, ruined a reputation, or changed the direction of a person’s life? Like the bit in a horse’s mouth or a ship’s rudder, that small tongue can have a pretty significant impact on the course of my life.
James’ challenge to us is to learn to control our tongues, and our speech; to use them to build rather than destroy. Paul tells us much the same thing in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Recognize the power of words. If what you are saying is not helpful to other people, then you should learn to keep your mouth shut.