Our tongues are muscles – and the strongest muscle in our body at that. In fact – a man once lifted a 24 lb. 3oz weight using ONLY his tongue. But for being such a strong muscle, it is also extremely flexible.
And, the tongues is the only muscle in our entire human body that is not connected on both sides. Think about it… our biceps connect at the shoulder and elbow, our calves do work through tendons connected to the bones in our legs. In fact, the work of a muscle is to contract or release and thereby move our bodies.
But the tongue is only connected at one end. With the other, it is free to roam. Free to do great good or fantastic harm. Capable of blessing and capable of cursing.
Our tongue is the only muscle that can get into trouble all by itself. Like a flame of fire it is wild and unpredictable and can easily get out of control.
As The Message translates James: you can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.
As James writes in his letter to the people of God: A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it! Our words matter because they reveal who we are.
All of the carelessness of our speech, James embodies in our tongues. He compares it to the rudder on a ship or the bit in a horses mouth. Our tongues guide our futures, direct our paths, and lead us… whether we want them to or not!
If you don’t believe our tongues are important – talk to a politician. They know, perhaps better than anyone, how every single word you utter can be taken out of context… or how the off-hand remarks you make can come back to haunt you.
But really, when you think about it… just like the rudder of the ship is controlled by the captain and the bit in a horses’s mouth is directed by the hands of the rider, our tongues are not autonomous creatures… they are a part of us. They are directed by us. And because of this, whenever the tongue moves, it is merely revealing the state of our hearts and minds.
It is precisely the condition of our hearts and minds that gets Lady Wisdom so upset in the first chapter of Proverbs. She is the Spirit of God personified and stands in the streets calling out to the people.
No one is listening to the voice of God. The people are full of mocking and curses, on one another and on the wisdom of the Lord.
Does that at all resemble our modern culture? Does it resemble how we treat one another? I can’t turn on the television or scroll through my facebook feed without seeing an attack ad, mocking, and political vitriol.
Lady Wisdom sees it too, and simply being nice hasn’t helped…
“So she changes tactics, from calling people to wisdom and the fear of the Lord to making sure everyone knows the ruin they are heading for if they do not start paying attention.” (GBOD Preaching Helps)
“You ignored all of my advice, and you didn’t want me to correct you, so I’ll laugh at your disaster; I’ll make fun of you when dread comes over you, when terror hits you like a hurricane…” (1:25-27)
As parents or aunts or big brothers – certainly you have tried that tactic yourself. When the children don’t answer when they are nicely asked, you pull out the big guns: You had better do it right now OR ELSE!
We like to be people of encouragement and blessing and support, but there are times in our lives when we need to call out the warnings and troubles that wait if we remain on the paths we tread.
As Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us:
There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens…
a time for tearing down and a time for building up.
A time for crying and a time for laughing…
a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,
a time for loving and a time for hating…
Sometimes, we need to speak the truth and call to task those who oppressive.
The question that faces us is how do we know when to bless and when to curse?
How do we get our hearts and minds in the right place so that our tongues can do God’s will?
Proverbs 1: 32 and 33 tell us:
Waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them.
Our Lord doesn’t want us to be wayward and complacent, going this way and that, controlled by nothing but the whims of the world and our hearts desires.
God wants to guide our thoughts and actions.
Like the rudder of the ship needs a strong captain, like the bit of a horse needs a discerning jockey, so our tongue… and the brain connect to it… needs some wise direction.
The problem is, that tongue isn’t going to tame itself.
As we think about what it means to be people of blessing or people of cursing, there are three traps we can avoid as we put God in control of our tongue.
First, the trap of ignorance.
Too many of us are wandering about aimlessly flapping our tongues because we never stopped to pay attention and see if God was guiding us or not.
We never stopped to look at a roadmap of faith. We haven’t opened our bibles and spent time with God’s word. And because we don’t know the Word… we can’t do anything with it.
This is one of the most biblically illiterate times in the history of the United States. In many cases, we can’t fault people for not doing God’s will – or for not knowing how to listen to God – because they have never been taught.
To use another sort of metaphor of the tongue – they are like children who are starving. They do not have good food set in front of them, if any food at all.
The best remedy for the trap of ignorance is to seek out God’s word and to share it.
Once we realize how hungry we are… how much we have been missing… then we realize just how much abundance of knowledge and wisdom is at our fingertips… and we find the source that can truly direct our tongues and our lives.
The second trap we fall into is cynicism.
Some of us curse for cursings sake. We complain about everything. When our cynical sides come out, we doubt that God’s word will have any impact on our lives. Sometimes, we even begin to be skeptical about God.
If the ignorant were starving children, then the cynic is a picky eater. They move around the items on their plate, but only eat a small amount. They complain about what they get and want something else.
And so our faith is cold and stale, picked apart and unbalanced. We do not delight in the law of the Lord, but look upon it as a burden that is getting us nowhere. We let the pain of the past dictate our future.
Katherine Kehler wrote: the only cure for cynicism is to cultivate a habit of thankfulness.
In an article about Thoreau, Wen Stephenson says that the remedy for cynicism is action, engagement, awareness of this moment that is around us.
In many ways – thankfulness and engagement are two sides of the same coin. We need to open our eyes and see the gift we have been given. We need to live into this moment and cherish it with our whole lives. And when we do so, our innate cursing turns to blessing.
The final trap we fall into is pride and the refusal to learn.
Our pride tells us that we can do it on our own. Our pride makes us believe that we don’t need anyone to guide us. We turn away from advice, scoff at help, and stubbornly stand still. We bless ourselves and curse the world around us.
In fact, this is one of the primary things James writes about. We cannot see our own faults because we are so focused on who we think we are. We let the desires of our own heart rule the day and shut the door on anything that is contrary to those desires.
We may not be starving children or picky eaters, the prideful are the ones who have a plate of good and delicious food set before them and stubbornly refuse to eat. They don’t need it. They aren’t hungry. They are just fine on their own.
But without the word of God to nourish us and give us strength, our own devices quickly fail. We stumble and fall.
Humility is the only thing that will tame a prideful tongue. Our boasting brings us low when reality sets in. We get to decide whether that humility is on our own terms or if we are destroyed by our own smugness.
Humility means that we ask for help. Humility means we admit that we need to grow. Humility means recognizing that we were not meant to go it alone and finding a group to study with, friends to lean on, and a God to depend upon.
James tells us that the wisdom from above is pure. It is gentle and reasonable. God overflows with mercy and blessings. And in a community that is healthy and robust and depends upon God for direction, your tongue will be anchored in the life-giving Word.
The good news is that Lady Wisdom is ready to pour out her spirit upon us. If we let go of our ignorance… if we shed our cynicism… if we abandon our pride… we will find direction in God….