When words pass the threshold of our mouths, they can never be put back, no matter how much we wish they could. Once spoken, the things we say enter into existence, and with them comes the impact of those words. Sometimes they enter the world and offer a helping hand to someone in need, other times, our words enter the world like a right hook, landing on the cheek of a loved one. Have you ever said something you immediately wished you could have back? Have your words ever exited your mouth like a fist rather than a hand of help?
Our words are powerful. They are something we ought to consider more intentionally, and speak more thoughtfully. It must be said that we are imperfect, and will say things we regret. In those instances, we must be ready to repent and seek reconciliation. Even so, by the power of God's Spirit, we must also seek to gain control over our tongue and give it direction.
James exhorts his readers to give consideration to their tongue (James 3:1-12, and in view of his reminder, here are four ways our words impact the world.
Speak words with humility
James starts with a reminder that we should seek to teach with humility. This is less about the way words impact the world, and more about the manner in which we speak them into the world. He says that "not many of you should become teachers," because those "who teach will be judged with greater strictness (Js.3:1)." When we choose to speak, especially as one with authority to teach, we must approach that role with humility. It is a weighty responsibility, and one that will be judged with greater strictness. We must enter into that role with humble hearts.
Every week, as I send a new article out into the world wide web, I do it with a bit of timidity. I am on a journey of sanctification myself, and like each of you reading this, I am imperfect in my actions. I write as someone who is still in process, and yet, when I write an article, I step into a role of teaching. It is weighty, and I feel the burden. My prayer for myself, and for anyone who aspires to teach and write, is that we would do so with great humility and a sense of the responsibility for the task.
Ideas can change the world
This doesn't necessarily come from the text in James, but something I have thought about a lot recently. Two connections from this passage warrant me mentioning it here. First, the reference to teachers. Words are a primary medium for teaching. Words are powerful, and teachers must use them well. Second, the mention of the disproportionate power of words relative to the size of the tongue. Words are powerful and God uses them to change the world.
I have recently gotten into listening to audio books when I am driving, running, cleaning or working on house projects. Through audio books, I have been able to listen to numerous biographies and history books. One theme I have noticed is that people who have had a significant impact on the world nearly always know how to use the power of ideas and words. Whether for evil, like Adolf Hitler or pro-slavery advocates in American history, or for good, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Edwards or Martin Luther.
As pastors, church leaders and Christ-followers, we have the most powerful message in the world. The good news of Jesus Christ, which permeates ever area of life. I have been challenged to consider more deeply what God teaches and how I can communicate these truths in clear and compelling ways. Words are a powerful medium to shape our world and culture. God spoke the world into being, Jesus came as the word made flesh, God's primary way of communicating with us is through His Word, and as his people, we are called to use words to serve God's mission in the world.
The tongue is more powerful than its size
It can be easy to take our words for granted, because they flow from our mouths so readily and originate from such a small part of our body. What James' letter so masterfully communicates is that the tongue has disproportionate power given its size. He utilizes some analogies to help us get a picture - the relatively small bit in a horse's mouth, which allows a rider to direct the powerful animal's movements, or the small rudder that enables a captain to steer large sea vessels, or the small fire that can set a forest ablaze. Each of these images are meant to remind us that even though our tongue is small, it can give rise to powerful words.
Further, the tongue is not easy to control. We can so quickly let something slip from our mouths that is like poison to another. Words can take on the form of many different weapons - the poisonous spread of rumor and gossip, the blunt force of vulgar yelling, the arrow like precision of a well timed smear or the suffocating force of an onslaught of insult. These weapons of verbal war flow from us, often without thinking twice. Sometimes we regret what we have said, and other times we don't even realize the pain we inflict.
Consider the words you use and the way you speak to those around you, often to the ones you love the most. First, recognize the power of the things you say. Do not take lightly the impact your words can have on the people around you. Second, ask God to help you gain control over your tongue. It is a powerful instrument, and one which cannot be easily mastered. You need God's help, so don't hesitate to ask.
Words can bless or curse
The final way our words impact the world is through the dichotomous ends of blessing or cursing. James comments on the fact that with the same mouth we "bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (Js 3:9)." We use the same mouth to sing worship songs on Sunday and fling words of insult that afternoon. We praise God with our lips and then use them to defame people made in His image. Our words can either speak life or death. They can bring blessing or cursing.
James is calling his audience to fight this inconsistent behavior when he writes, "these things ought not be so (3:10)." The mouths we use to praise God, for such a good and glorious purpose, should not be used to also degrade His people. Our words have the power to heal or hurt. With our mouths, we have the ability to extend a helping hand or swing a fist. Ask God to help you master your tongue this week, and use it as a means of blessing to those around you.