Commentary by Walter Albritton


                                   August 17, 2008


No One but the Holy Spirit Can Tame the Tongue


James 3:1-10, 13-18


Key Verse: From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. – James 3:10


          Words can destroy. Words can give life. Words can be vicious. Words can be gracious. Words can kill. Words can heal. Words can pierce the heart. Words can fill the heart with joy. Words have unbelievable power. James understood this. So he warns his readers of the desperate need to find a way to control the tongue.

          Some years ago Grace Ketterman published a helpful book titled Verbal Abuse: Healing the Hidden Wound. Ketterman shattered the myth that verbal abuse “isn’t so bad.” It is bad, so bad that it devastates millions of people. Ketterman’s insights helped many wounded people to find hope and healing.

          Many other books offer people advice about how to deal with words – their own as well as those spoken by others. Such books speak to an abiding human need. All of us have been brought to our knees by our own misspoken words or the hurtful, angry words others have spoken to us. None of us is perfect. Even devout believers are guilty, as James says, of making “many mistakes” in speaking.

          James speaks bluntly about the unruly tongue. It is “a fire” that is uncontrollable and able to corrupt the whole body. The tongue’s fire has its origin in hell and thus is a tool of Satan. He uses the fire of the tongue to separate us from one another and from God. This divisiveness soon gives way to anger and hatred. Wrongly used, words can destroy people, reputations, and relationships.

The tongue is so powerful that no human being has the strength to tame or control it. The bewildering truth is that one day the tongue will praise God and the next day curse someone. So James laments, “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so”!

          Is there no remedy for this problem? Yes, James says, there is a solution. The answer is wisdom, God’s wisdom. We can obtain it by admitting our need and calling upon God. Earthly wisdom is insufficient. Reading a hundred “self-help” books may be insightful and informative but we will remain defeated by the tongue. Only God can help us tame the tongue.

          It is not simplistic then to say that to tame the tongue we must invite the Holy Spirit to take over. The Spirit can tame our tongue; we cannot. But the Spirit must first be given control of our mind and heart.

When the Spirit is in control, he guides us to know when to be silent and when to speak. He gives us the power to resist gossiping or to speak cruelly to others and the power to speak words of love and peace. Words of loving encouragement can bring healing to wounded souls. Words of affirmation can help to restore those whose self-esteem has been crushed by destructive words.

          When James advises us to “be wise,” he is inviting us to be guided by the Spirit who is the source of God’s wisdom “from above.” The New Living Translation offers clarity to James’ advice:

 13 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. 15 For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. 16 For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.

 17 But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. 18 And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

One day when crossing a narrow bridge on horseback, John Wesley’s path was blocked by another man on horseback who had no use for Wesley. The man refused to back up or allow Wesley to pass, and said, “I shall not give way to a fool.” Wesley replied, “Then I shall,” and pulled his horse aside so the man could pass.

Wesley was often a wise steward of words. The Spirit helped him discern when to “yield to others” and when to speak the truth in love so that his words could produce “a harvest of righteousness.” By surrendering to the Spirit’s control we can do that also.

Though we will never become perfect in speaking, we can improve. We can call upon the Spirit to inject our minds with God’s wisdom so that our words become less hurtful to others and more pleasing to the Lord. We can become more skilled in planting seeds of peace with our words. We can make it our heart’s desire that the words of our mouth be words of blessing and not cursing. We can join with the Psalmist in praying,

          May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

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