The Untamed Tongue
May 29th, 1960 @ 10:50 AM
THE UNTAMED TONGUE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-29-60 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, those who share this hour on radio. This is the fifteenth year that the pastor has been preaching through the Bible. Last Sunday evening we left off at the last verse of the second chapter of the Book of James. This morning we begin at the first verse of the third chapter of the Book of James and preach through the twelfth verse, James 3: 1-12. And the title of the message is The Untamed Tongue:
My brethren, be not many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation . . .
If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body.
Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
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 is set on fire of hell.
For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olives? or a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
Unto these different apostles were committed the development of different aspects of the divine revelation. To the apostle Paul was given the privilege of developing the marvelous doctrine of grace, justification by faith [Romans 5:1]. To the sainted apostle John was given the privilege of revealing the love of God [John 3:16]. And to the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, to James the brother of the Lord called also an apostle, was given the privilege of developing the practical aspects of Christianity. He speaks of its moral and ethical implications and applications.
James himself was a man of singular and unusual integrity. In Josephus and in secular profane literature he was called "The Just." And as such, of course, is preeminently qualified to write this letter to the Diaspora in which he inculcates vigorously, most vigorously, the ethical content of the Christian message.
So in the passage before us this morning, he is speaking of our tongues. Now he says three things about it, then he also implements what he says by the consequences of it. First of all, the way he describes the tongue: he says first that the tongue is capable of changing life and destiny. And he speaks of it by illustration. He says a horse so big and so strong can be guided and turned by just a small bit placed in his mouth [James 3:3]. Then he says the ship, though so great and so big, yet can be guided by so small a helm [James 3:4]. Then he speaks of a conflagration, a great fire [James 3:5-6] created by, say, the cow that kicked over the widow O’Leary’s lantern.
So he says the tongue so small, yet can change life and destiny [James 3:8-10]. Sometimes in history the whole course has been changed by the violent outbreak of a man’s tongue. Sometimes wrong directions are given to the cities of refuge. Sometimes character is assassinated by something somebody has said. Sometimes the whole life and destiny is turned by a word, by what is said.
Then he says in the second place, he says that the tongue is full of deadly poison [James 3:8]. That is, it is capable of violent and terrible destruction. Now, there are people who have never set fire as they burned anybody at the stake. Most of us have never clapped our hands in a coliseum like a Roman amphitheater while the wild and vicious lion buried his fang in a vital organ. And most of us have never beat on a tom-tom or a drum to drown the death shriek of those who were offered to Moloch or to an Aztec god. But how many are guilty of that awful assassination by the word in the sentence that we speak? It is full of deadly poison.
Sometimes it’s just an outright thing that is said. Sometimes it is half a truth which is more violent and virulent than a whole falsehood. Sometimes it’s just a shrug of the shoulder or the arching of an eyebrow or a significant look. But, oh! The devastation and destruction that is carried with it; and all of us have felt that. There is nobody that lives that has not felt the sting and the bite and the hurt of a thing that is falsely and hurtfully said about you.
There was a dear, sainted woman who met her pastor, a Quaker, and she said in her Quaker language, "Doth thee not think that we could live so correctly, and follow life so beautifully, and avoid evil so assiduously that all would want our religion?" And the Quaker preacher replied, "Dear sister, if thee had a coat of feathers as white as the driven snow, and if thee had a pair of wings as shining as Gabriel’s, somewhere on this footstool would be found somebody so colorblind as to shoot thee for a blackbird" All of us have felt that. You may be the finest creature that ever walked the streets, and you may be the most splendid character that the world ever saw, but if you have walked through these days, and if you live in this vale of tears, you will know the sting of what people sometimes say about you.
Now, also he says that with the tongue we curse men, who are made after the similitude of God [James 3:9]. The tongue was made to honor and to glorify and to bless. But with the tongue we can damn men and curse men and destroy men. With the tongue, he says, curse we men, blast their lives, and ruin their opportunities. All of us are guilty.
I so well remember a member of our church who, at Christmas time, brought me a present. And he also had in his hand another present. And he said to me, "I am going to visit," and he called a man’s name who once was a minister, a preacher, and he said, "I am going to give this present to him." He said, "He has been in lots of trouble."
And I interrupted and said, "Oh yes, I know he has been in lots of trouble." And I started to recount the sordid tale that had destroyed his ministry. But this member, apparently not hearing me and not paying attention – willfully or kindly – however; he didn’t let me speak on. He said, "Yes. He has been in lots of trouble. He’s been sick a long time." He said, "You know that man? He won me to Christ and I’ve always thought a lot of him." He said, "Nobody ever paid any attention to me, but he did. And I found the Lord through his love and through his kindness, and I’ve always loved him. And this present is for him." And he left.
And as he left, I sat there in the chair and thought, "Why tell it? Why tell it? Why should I have thought to recount that?"
If you see a tall fellow ahead of the crowd,
A leader of the group, marching fearless and proud,
And you know of a tale whose mere telling aloud
Would cause his proud head in anguish be bowed,
It’s a pretty good plan to forget it!
If you know of a skeleton hidden away hidden in a closet,
Guarded and kept from the day in the dark,
Whose sowing, whose sudden display,
Would cause grief and sorrow and lifelong dismay,
It’s a pretty good plan to forget it!
If you know of a spot in the life of a friend
We all have spots concealed, world without end,
Whose touching his heartstring would hurt or rend,
’til the shame of the showing no grieving could mend,
It’s a pretty good plan to forget it!
If you know of a thing that will darken joy
Of a man or a woman, or a girl or a boy,
That will wipe out a smile, or the least way annoy
A fellow or cause any gladness to cloy,
It’s a pretty good plan to forget it!
["Forget It," by Judd Mortimer Lewis]
Ah! That I could remember that! I know anything and it doesn’t bless and it doesn’t help, forget it! Leave it with God. "Thereby," he says, "curse we men" [James 3:9.
Now he says here, things that are consequences of the use of our tongues. And, I mention them here as he does. First he says, "So is the tongue among our members. It defileth." It can defile the whole body, "It defileth the whole body" [James 3:6]. Isn’t that a remarkable thing that this pastor would say that the tongue has that power? It can change a man’s eyes, and it can change a man’s looks, and it can change a man’s attitude, and it can change a man’s personality, and it can change a man’s disposition, and it can change a man’s character.
I got to thinking about that. And I tell you, the more you consider it and the more you look at it, the more you discover how true what the pastor here, Pastor James is saying. What you say, if it’s evil, and vile, and foul, and dirty, and unclean, can warp a man’s whole personality. Here’s the finest looking boy, here’s the most splendid girl, and you’d just look at them, and their countenance is fine and their face is beautiful and they just look so attractive. Then you listen to them talk, and it’s some dirty and foul thing – and it’s some oath and some curse. Somehow they’re not pretty anymore. They look foul and unclean and unattractive. "It defileth the whole body" [James 3:6]. And when you get to thinking about all the parts of the body, everything is defiled, everything, by that vicious tongue. I ran across this:
A gossipy tongue is a dangerous thing
If its owner is evil at heart,
He can give whom he chooses many a sting
That will woefully linger and smart.
But the gossipy tongue would be balked in its plan
For causing heart burning and tears
If it were not helped out by the misguided man
Who possesses two gossipy ears.
The gossipy ears are the ones that believe
The evil reports that are told;
The sly, subtle tales which they gladly receive
Would tarnish the purest of gold.
The cruel they say which goes floating about
Like a hidden foe fostering fears,
Would lose all its force were it firmly shut out
By the man with the gossipy ears.
When the man with a gossipy tongue happens by
With his stories of evil and strife,
We surely should look him right square in the eye
And ask him his mission in life.
We ought to refuse him a chance to retell
The false, idle rumors he "hears,"
He ought to be locked up in the same cell
With the man with the gossipy ears.
["Gossipy Ears," Author Unknown]
Well that’s what James talking about, it defiles the whole body. Every part of the anatomy becomes defiled and fouled by the tongue full of poison.
Then he says a second thing here. He says, "It is set on fire of hell" [James 3:6]. This man talks straight. He talks right square. Set on fire of hell, he says. It can be diabolical. Did you know the word devil, we have devil, the word devil, literally means traducer or slanderer? And he’s been that way from the beginning. I picked out just three illustrations to illustrate him, like James says here the tongue is capable of.
The first time you meet him, the first time we see him, is in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, the first time here in the Bible. And that old serpent – now he wasn’t a snake like you think of now; he’s cursed now, and he crawls on his stomach, and he eats dust because of the curse. He must have been a fine looking creation when God first made him. And he said to the woman, "Did God say that? ‘Do not touch that tree’ [Genesis 3:1]. Did God say you would die if you transgress that commandment? Ye shall not surely die" [Genesis 3:2-4]. That is the first lie; now watch him, "For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" [Genesis 3:5]. In other words, he insinuates that the Almighty is robbing Adam and Eve of something good and something wonderful and something fine. God is doing that to you. God is doing that to you. The insinuation – diabolical!
Over here, the second instance, in the Book of Job. And God says, "’Look at him. Not another man in the earth like him, one of the best men." And the Lord said unto Satan, "Hath thou considered him?" [Job 1:8]
And Satan says, "Sure I have looked at him and considered him. But doth Job fear God for nought? It pays him a dividend; that’s why he does it. He doesn’t get ten percent or eighteen percent. He gets a hundred-fifty percent on in his investments because he’s serving Thee." That’s the devil. That’s the devil. "Doth Job fear God for nought?" [Job 1:8]
Then I had you read the third instance I picked out. The Pharisee said, "This fellow, look at Him, this fellow couldn’t deny the miracle and the marvelous power but look at Him. He does it by the devil" [Matthew 12:22-24]. And the Lord said, "What you say against the Son of Man is forgiven you. What you say against God is forgiven you. But whosoever speaketh a word against the Holy Ghost it’ll not be forgiven. Not in this world nor in that which is to come [Matthew 12:31-32]. But I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof on the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified. And by thy words thou shalt be condemned" [Matthew 12:36-37].
Ah! It makes you tremble. Makes you tremble. What you say. What you say. Then he says here again, "The tongue can no man tame" [James 3:8]. It is untamable. How would you get hold of a man’s tongue to guide it and to tame it and to course it and to channel it? How, just how would you do it? You can lay hands on a horse and tame and guide and train that horse. You can lay hands on a dog and train and guide that dog. Just how do you get hold of a man’s tongue to train and to channel that man’s tongue if that man is given to evil?
"The tongue can no man tame. It is an unruly evil," says the pastor. He says something here that you don’t see in this King James translation. He says, "It setteth on fire the course of nature" [James 3:6]. Now, the Greek word there, trochos, is "wheel," trochos, wheel. And "it sets on fire the wheel of nature." That is, as it begins to roll, and as it begins to roll then it catches fire and the conflagration burns fiercer and fiercer as it continues to burn and to roll. "How do you guide and contain a thing like that?" says James. Or as he says, "this untamableness" [James 3:8], how do you get hold of it? How do you stop it? How do you contain it?
There was a woman who told a vicious and slanderous thing about another woman. And this ear heard it, and that tongue passed it, and those tongues passed it, until all of the town repeated it and broke the dear woman’s heart. Later on, the woman who started it found out that it wasn’t true. It was a false thing. And she went to the sage and asked how could she make atonement for what she had done. And the sage says, "Bring a pillow of feathers." Then when she brought the pillow of feathers, he said, "Take the feathers and scatter them up and down the streets of the city."
She went up and down the streets of the city scattering the feathers. Then, when she’d done it, she came back to the sage and said, "And now what shall I do?" And he said, "Take your pillow slip and go up and down the streets of the city and gather all of the feathers again." And she looked at him in consternation and aghast and said, "But the wind has blown them to the four winds of the earth."
And the sage replied, "Neither can you make atonement for what you have said."
You can’t gather it up again. You may be sorry, you may be regretful. You may be filled with remorse, but you don’t gather those words up again. They go from soul to soul and forever; it is untamable. It can’t be contained.
Then he says a last thing here: he says, "My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Does a fountain bring forth sweet water and bitter?" [James 3:10-11] Then he uses illustrations that look as if they are not pertinent. "Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olives? Or a vine figs?" [James 3:12] Well, how does that illustrate what he’s talking about? What he’s saying is this: evil is nothing but a thing that is contrary to God, contrary to the purposes of God. God made everything for a purpose.
Then he illustrates it, "The olive tree was made to bear olives. And the fig tree was made to bear figs. And the vine tree grapes." But if everything went contrary to the purposes of God, and when you went to the olive trees you found grapes growing on it, and when you went to the fig tree you found olives growing on it, the whole plan and purpose of God would be destroyed. So he says, in the use of our tongues. Our tongues were made to glorify God. Our tongues were made to bless mankind. And when we use them unnaturally, we harm mankind, and we blaspheme the great intent and purposes of God. The eye that sees yellow when it ought to see blue is a jaundiced eye. And the whole life is destroyed when we fail of those ultimate, marvelous, elective purposes of God.
Now, what is the purpose of God for the tongue? First of all, God gave us a tongue that we might confess our Lord Jesus.
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
For with the heart we believe unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
"Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I confess before My Father which is in heaven" [Mathew 10:32]. With our tongues we confess the Lord Jesus. Down one of these aisles and to the pastor, "Pastor, today I give my heart in faith to the Lord Jesus" – the confession of Christ.
Second, with our tongues we destroy the work of the enemy, with our tongues. Over the radio, time and again I hear the appeal in behalf of Radio America, the voice of freedom. Radio-free western world, trying by word and language to get comfort and strength to those who live in oppression and slavery. That is a God-given way to destroy the works of the devil. Revelation 12:11, "And they overcame him – Satan that arch-enemy – and they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony," both of them, by the power of Christ, by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, the tongue.
And then, this third one that James says here, "And therewith bless we God and men" [James 3:9]. We pray with the tongue, "Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed, blessed, sanctified, honored be Thy name" [Matthew 6:9], with the tongue. With the tongue we preach the gospel of the Son of God. With the tongue we sing the praises of our Lord, therewith bless we God, and therewith bless we men.
I can’t help? O God, don’t let me hurt; help me to encourage, help me to say words of comfort and of cheer. Help me, Lord, as I go along the way; help me to be a blessing and a strength.
Wouldn’t it be good, if God would be so good to us, that from our lips never would fall word or a sentence to hurt or discourage or destroy, but that always, from our lips, would fall words of encouragement and blessing and cheer? God speed you in the way. "This honors our Lord" says the pastor of the church at Jerusalem [James 3:9].
Now, while we sing our song of appeal, somebody you this day to give his heart in faith and in trust to our Savior, would you come and stand by me? Somebody you put your life in the fellowship of this precious church, would you come and stand by me? Down here at the front in the presence of men and of angels, today, this day, "I give my heart in trust to Christ." Or, "This day we are putting our lives in the fellowship of this precious congregation." In this balcony, down one of these stairways, or on the lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, on the first note of its first stanza, while we sing this appeal, would you make it now? Would you make it this morning, while we stand and while we sing?
assigned the development of different aspects of spiritual truth to different
James writes of the practicalities of Christian life
II. The power of the tongue
of changing the course of life, destiny(James
be used to destroy and to poison (James 3:8)
Capable of cursing men (James 3:9)
out of my own life – wanting to talk about pastor who has fallen into troubles
III. The evil consequences of our words
the man – the whole body(James 3:6)
1. Poem, "The gossipy
character(James 3:6, Genesis 3:5, Job 1:9,
C. Uncontrollable(James 3:8)
words used to hurt and injure, it is unnatural(James
IV. The purpose of God for our tongue
To confess Christ(Romans 10:8-9, Matthew 10:32)
To witness for Christ – destroy the work of the enemy(Revelation 12:11)