“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
I can only remember one time in my life when I was slapped by a girl. I was a senior in high school, and there was a certain sophomore girl who was looking for a boyfriend, and for some reason she set her sights on me. I wasn’t interested, so when I found out that my friend Rusty liked her, I opened my big mouth and gave him her phone number. This might not have been a big deal were it not for the fact that most girls found Rusty to be…well, less than a catch. He was socially awkward, and, honestly, he looked like a younger version of Orville Redenbacher.
Well, the following Sunday as I was standing in front of the youth room at church, the girl in question spotted me from across the parking lot. She walked up to me, called me a name that I can’t repeat in The Daily Press, and smacked me upside the head. As far as slaps go, It was a “10 out of 10.” Excellent form, good follow-through, and a large red mark on my cheek to prove it happened. As a 17-year-old high school student, I learned a very important lesson: My mouth can get me into a whole lot of trouble.
Nowhere is this lesson made more clear than in the New Testament book of James, chapter 3. In verses 2-12, James paints a vivid picture of how influential and powerful our tongues really are. In fact, he teaches us that our tongues are powerful in three key ways.
#1: OUR TONGUES HAVE THE POWER TO DIRECT (vs2-4). Just as a one-pound bit in the mouth of a one-thousand-pound horse can direct him wherever the rider wants to go, our two-ounce tongues have the power to steer and direct our entire lives. James is very honest with us in these verses. He basically says, Hey, Christians! Face the facts. We’re all screw-ups. Every one of us stumbles in many ways, not least of which is with our mouth. In fact, whenever you reach a point where you can successfully keep your big mouth in check, you’ll be able to keep the rest of your body in check as well. Because as goes the mouth, so goes the body.
#2: OUR TONGUES HAVE THE POWER TO DESTROY (vs5-8). James gives us an illustration to convey the destructive power of the tongue: he compares it to a single spark. Do you remember the Ranch Fire? In the summer of 2018, the Ranch Fire destroyed 410,203 acres across four counties in northern
. It was the largest wildfire in California history. Do
you know how the fire began? It began with a single spark that flew from a
hammer as a man was driving a metal stake into the ground. Isn’t that
remarkable? A single spark grew into the largest fire in California history. California
Similarly, a single sentence—even a single word—can destroy countless lives. Consider this: Adolf Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, contains 153,750 words and takes the average reader about ten hours to read. Someone has calculated that for every single word in Hitler’s toxic book, 125 lives were snuffed out by the Nazis during World War II. How tragic! Over the course of human history, hateful words have caused wars and destroyed nations. We know this! But we tend to think that our tongues can’t do nearly as much damage. Well, don’t be so sure.
#3: OUR TONGUES HAVE THE POWER TO DEFILE (vs9-12). In verse 10, James offers a strong rebuke to every Christian with a mouth: “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” Point well taken! We shouldn’t be singing praises to God with our mouths on a Sunday morning and dropping “F-bombs” with these same mouths an hour later when someone cuts us off on the drive home. We shouldn’t be saying, “God bless you!” to strangers one minute and saying, “I can’t stand you!” to our family members the next.
Just like on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), God desires to set our tongues on fire for His purposes with the flames of heaven. But far too often we allow our tongues to recklessly burn with the fires of hell. And when we do, a few seconds of hell-bent language can completely defile days, weeks, even years of good, heaven-bent language. Consider how many marriages have been destroyed by a few hateful words and how many people have left churches because of a few careless comments.
But there is good news. If we allow God to take the reins of our tongues every day, He can use our tongues for great good. Our tongues can be used to speak peace, kindness, and hope into the lives of others. And if God holds the reins of our tongue, He can help us keep our big mouths shut so that we don’t defile the good things that we’ve already said and done.
In closing, let me be bold enough to suggest that you incorporate the following twelve life-giving words into your vocabulary every day. These are twelve of the most God-honoring words that could ever come out of your mouth: PLEASE and THANK YOU. These three words never grow old. Use them every day. I’M SORRY. Don’t be stubborn. Let God use your tongue to sincerely apologize and bring healing to the relationships you’ve strained or broken. YOU ARE LOVED. Whether you’re talking to a family member or a stranger, everyone needs to know that God loves them. I’M PRAYING FOR YOU. Don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you.” Make it immediate. Make it definite.
Yes, your tongue can cause a whole lot of damage. But, praise God, in the hands of God it can do a whole lot of good—more good than you’ll ever know.