The Untamed Tongue
September 29th, 1974 @ 10:50 AM
THE UNTAMED TONGUE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-29-74 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television we are sharing together the First Baptist Church worship service in Dallas. In our preaching through the Word of God, in the Epistle of James, we have come to the third chapter. And the title of the sermon is The Untamed Tongue. The pastor writes:
My brethren, if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able also 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 pilot 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 it is set on fire of Gehenna.
Every kind of beasts, birds, things of the sea, is tamed … But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless God, even the Father; and with it we curse 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.
A very practical, down-to-earth discussion with us about our words and what we say.
The Lord God assigned the development of different aspects of spiritual truth to different apostles. For example, He gave to the apostle Paul the assignment, by inspiration, to develop the truth of justification by faith [Romans 5:1]; saved by grace, and not by our works [Ephesians 2:8-9]. He gave to the author of Hebrews the assignment to develop the doctrine of the atonement of Christ [Hebrews 2:17-18], and His high priesthood [Hebrews 4:14-16]. He gave to, say, John the assignment to develop the doctrine of the deity of our Lord and of the love of God [John 1:1, 3:15; 1 John 4:7-11].
Likewise, the same Holy Spirit assigned to James, the Lord’s brother and the pastor of the church at Jerusalem, this assignment to develop the practical aspects of the Christian faith; our moral rectitude in living the Christian life. He himself was a man of singular and unusual integrity. In secular history he is called James the Just—the only man in the New Testament that I know of that is described and presented in secular history—this man, James, pastor of the church at Jerusalem [Acts 21:18; Galatians 2:12].
So he writes under inspiration of the practicalities of the Christian life, and one he discusses in the passage the pastor expounds this morning on our words upon our tongue. He will say here that history and life and destiny are changed by our words. He gives an illustration of it. How great a matter just a little thing is able to bring to pass. Here’s a big giant of a horse, and it’s turned about with a little bit in the mouth [James 3:3]. Here is a tremendous ship and it is guided by a little rudder, a little helm [James 3:4]. Here is a vast conflagration, and it was set fire by a little spark. How big a matter a little fire, a little spark, will kindle! [James 3:5].
Then he describes here how the tongue can be used to destroy and to poison. He says, “The tongue can be an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” [James 3:8]. There are many people who have never set fire to a man burned at the stake. They have never clapped their hands at the shrieks of those who, in agony, were being torn apart in their vital organs by a ferocious lion in some coliseum. There are people who have never beat the drums to drown out the agonizing cries of those who were offered to the fiery god of Molech.
But there are people without number who assassinate friends and neighbors and acquaintances by untruths, tale-bearing, vicious and evil words, sometimes by half a truth, which is worse than a whole falsehood, sometimes just by the arching of an eyebrow or a sneer from the lips or a shrug of the shoulders. And I don’t think there are any one of us but has felt the sting of unkind words.
There was a godly Quaker who came up to her pastor and said, “Pastor,
I would think—and dost thou not also think?—that if one lived beautifully, and walked correctly, and stayed away from evil that others, seeing us, would be inclined to love our religion?” And the pastor replied, “Sister, if thee covered thyself with a coat of feathers white as the driven snow, and if thee had a pair of wings as shining as those of the angel Gabriel, on this footstool of the earth there would be somebody, somewhere, so colorblind as to shoot thee for a blackbird.”
You can’t get away from the unkind word. All of us have felt it and the sting and the hurt of it. And sometimes, it can be disastrous. “With that tongue,” he says,” we bless God. And with the same tongue, we curse men, who are made after the similitude of God” [James 3:9]. We hurt them. And we do it. That is a tragic to come to pass in our lives, that with the same voice, and the same words, and the same tongue by which we approach the throne of grace, we also hurt men sometimes almost irrevocably.
Why do we do that? Why do I? I take a leaf out of my life of which I am abjectly ashamed. There came to the parsonage where we live, a man in this church, bringing a present to me. And when I sought to detain him, he said, “No, I must hasten. I’m going to see such-and-such man. He once was a preacher, and he’s fallen into lots of troubles, and I’m going to see him.”
And I said, “That’s correct. He has fallen into lots of troubles.” Then I purposed I was going to repeat to that man the sordid tale of how the one he’s going to visit fell out of the ministry and ruined his life. He, not knowing that I was getting ready to repeat a tale, he interrupted and said, “Yes, yes, he has lots of troubles. And he’s sick now and I’m going to see him. For, you see,” he said to me, “he’s the man that won me to Christ.” He said, “Nobody paid any attention to me. Nobody ever sought me out. Nobody ever invited me to the Lord, but he did. And I have loved him ever since, for he won me to Christ, so I’m going to see him. He needs me. He’s in trouble, and he’s sick.”
The man went on his way and I bowed my head. I felt so wrong and so unclean. What good would it have done for me to repeat the tale that took him out of the ministry and destroyed his life? What purpose would it have served? What good would it have done? I felt dirty and unclean. And when I think of it, I think of it to this day with shame.
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 in a closet,
Guarded and kept from the day in the dark,
Whose showing, whose sudden display,
Would cause grief and sorrow and life-long 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 it showing no grieving could mend,
I think 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,” Mortimer Lewis]
If I cannot say something good, let’s say nothing at all, for—for us, God has set us in the world to encourage, to be a blessing, to help.
Now the inspired pastor of the church writes of the effect of our words that hurt. He says here, in an amazing way, that it hurts us who say them. “The tongue is a fire… and it defileth the whole body” [James 3:6], when it is set on fire of Gehenna. Isn’t that a strange thing? When I repeat a sordid tale, or when I magnify a falsehood, or when I use words that hurt, it does something to me. It defiles the whole body. It has an effect upon my personality.
Think of a beautiful boy. Think of a glorious girl. And then you hear the language they use and the tales they tell, and immediately they are unclean and unattractive. It defiles the whole body. That’s unusual. It defiles my mind, my heart, my soul, my very anatomical well-being. It hurts!
Do you remember those three little monkeys? One has his eyes covered; see no evil. One has his mouth covered; speak no evil. And one has his ears covered; hear no evil; the whole body.
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 heartburning and tears,
If it were not helped out by the misguided man
Who possesses two gossipy ears.
The whole body is involved; and the whole body is defiled when we use our tongue and our words to hurt and not to bless. He says here that it is uncontrollable. We can tame beasts, and birds, and serpents, and animals in the sea. You can go right out here near to Dallas and see fish—big fish—that are just trained to do unusual things. You can just tame anything and train anything. But the tongue, when it gives itself to words of hurt are beyond recovery, beyond taming, it is uncontrollable. It is away [James 3:6-8].
There was a woman in a town who repeated a tale on another woman. It brought that other woman misery and agony. It was found later that the tale was not true. And the woman who bore it and scattered it abroad, went to a sage and said, “What shall I do?” And the sage said, “Take a pillow of feathers and scatter them over the town.” So she took a pillow of feathers and just scattered them up-and-down the streets of the town, and then came back to the sage and said, “Now, what shall I do?” And the sage said, “Go gather them all up again.” And she replied, “Gone to the wind, I could never do such a thing.” And he said, “Nor can you ever gather back all of these words that you’ve said.” It is uncontrollable. When I say it, I can’t pull it back. I can’t unsay it, nor can I make atonement for the hurt that is done; it is irreparable.
Oh! Oh! And then he closes with that tongue; we bless God, with the same tongue we hurt men. “Out of the same mouth proceedeth those words of blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” [James 3:9-10].
And now he’s going to speak of the unnaturalness of it. And as I read this, it seems to have nothing to do with the subject. But wait, “Doth a fountain send forth from the same place sweet water and bitter? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives? Or a vine, figs? So can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” [James 3:11-12]. Looks like he just turned aside from the subject. No. What he’s talking about is this: he is saying that when God made us—when things are put together right—when they are natural, we bless God and we bless our fellow men. But sin and wrong and evil are unnatural; they are not according to God’s infinite plan. And he illustrates it here in nature: you don’t see a fig tree bearing olives and you don’t see a grapevine bearing figs, it’s not natural. It’s against what God had intended and what God has made [James 3:11-12].
So it is the pastor says, when a man’s words and his tongue are used to hurt and to injure, it is not natural. It’s not what God intended. It’s not what God made. For with my tongue and with my mouth, I am to bless. It is with my tongue and my mouth that I pray, that I come to God, that I tell Jesus about all the things in my deepest soul.
You know I was so moved last week. I went to see a man—God bless him—one of the sweetest members of our church. And he’s in a place—and in his age and, you know, mind wandering, put away. So as I sat down by him and we talked, and he began to cry, and he said, “You know I just get so lonely and I get so sad.” He says, “You know what I do? I get down by the side of my bed, and I tell Jesus all about it.” And he says, “When I tell Jesus all about it,” he said, “the burden is lifted from my heart, and I’m not lonely and I’m not sad anymore.” What a sweet thing for a man to know, that he can kneel down and talk to Jesus and say words to the Blessed Savior.
Is it right? Is it the way God made it, that with the same tongue, and the same voice, and the same words by which I take my soul to Jesus, that I should also use that same tongue to lash, or to hurt, or to bear a tale that brings agony to somebody else? It’s not right. He says, “These things ought not so to be” [James 3:9-10].
And with the tongue, we bless God [James 3:9]. It’s with our mouth that confession is made unto salvation. Romans 10, chapter 10 verses 9-10:
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and
believe in thine heart that He lives, thou shall be saved.
For with the heart we believe unto that God-kind of righteousness;
and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
It is with our tongue that we confess our Savior, openly, unto salvation. It is with our mouth and with our tongues that we witness to the saving grace of our Lord. In the twelfth chapter of the Revelation: “And they overcame him—our great adversary, Satan—and they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word—by the word—of their testimony” [Revelation 12:11].
When we walk through the days of our lives, always we ought to say a good word for Jesus—always; somebody in the store, somebody down the street, somebody who works in the office—always, a good word for Jesus. And when we say the good word for Jesus, that is the power of God to overwhelm and to overcome the powers of darkness. It would be impossible for me to say a good word for Jesus and at the same time use words to hurt, and to hinder, and to cause anguish, and agony, and suffering.
My words are to be in keeping with the spirit of our Lord, who said, “When you are reviled, revile not again [Matthew 5:11]. Pray for those who curse you and despitefully use you” [Matthew 5:44]. Always the Christian is to be sweet in his response, no matter what or where.
Several people, after the 8:15 service said, “You know, we’ve said to one another, “You were just talking to me today. Why didn’t you call out my name? You were so blunt.”
I said, “No. I’m just preaching to myself. And when I preach to myself, I have learned that I also preach to lots of others. For after all, we’re pretty much the same. And with our tongues we confess unto salvation [Romans 10:9-10]. And with our tongues, we witness to the saving grace of Christ. And with our tongues, we magnify the Lord.”
“O magnify the Lord with me” [Psalm 34:3]; O praise the Lord with me. I do it with the words that I say, with the glory that I feel in my soul that I express in syllable and in sentence. Don’t you think that was the beautiful meaning of the last verse of the nineteenth Psalm? “Let the words of my mouth, as well as the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” [Psalm 19:14].
Lord, grant it for me, that the words that I say, the tongue that I use, shall magnify Thee, shall reflect the goodness and the grace of Christ Jesus my Lord.
Our time is spent, and in a moment we shall stand and sing our hymn of appeal. And the while we sing it, prayerfully waiting, somebody you to confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord. Today, I take Him as my Savior,” a family you coming into the fellowship of the church, out of the balcony, down a stairway, in this lower floor, down one of these aisles, make the decision now in your heart, and on the first note of the first stanza, come. Stand up, walking down that stairway or walking down this aisle: “I make it now, pastor. Here I am and here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.