3. Living with Liars

Meditations in David’s Psalms : 3 :  Living with Liars  – Psa 5

Psa 5:9   Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit.

Meditating on the psalms of David can appear to be a somewhat dismal experience because so many of the psalms of his are cries for help. This is, as we’ve commented before, because David is best described as a warrior as he spent much of his time fighting. But then we might wonder, did people such as Genghis Khan  or Attila the Hun have such anguishes as we find in David, and the answer almost certainly was no. This is what makes David so distinctive, that he was a warrior yet still a man after God’s own heart and it is this heart that so often cries out.

Again we find here a prayer: Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (v.1,2) There are stresses and strains in David’s life and the heart after God means that he takes them to the Lord. Sometimes my wife will suddenly say to me, “That was a big sigh,” and I realise that I had expressed by means of a sigh the heaviness that I was feeling about something. David was sighing with the heaviness he felt and he feels he needs the Lord’s help.

David is obviously a ‘morning person’: “In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.” (v.3)  If you wake up with a burden on your heart you don’t wait until the evening to pass it on to the Lord. What a good practice it is to take time out each morning to spend with the Lord, thinking on His word, sharing your heart with Him and listening to what He has to say.

He ponders on the Lord’s holiness: “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.” (v.4-6) God may be a God of love but that doesn’t mean He tolerates all that is wrong. He doesn’t take pleasure in what is evil and so wicked people will not live with Him or commune with Him. Those who are arrogant (and proud and boastful) are not able to stand in His presence and, indeed, the Lord hates that part of every person that does wrong. Those who live a life of lies and deceit will end up being destroyed (if they will never come to repentance). So often that deceitfulness is linked with blood thirstiness and these things the Lord cannot stand. It is interesting to note that although David speaks of the wicked, the arrogant, wrong doers and the bloodthirsty, it is liars who receive the greatest censure for lies and deceit are the enemies weapons that keep us from God and those who refuse to turn from such a way of life will end up destroyed.

David compares himself by contrast to these people: “But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple. Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies– make straight your way before me.” (v.7,8) They may be arrogant, but he will humble himself and come and bow before the Lord. They may insist on doing their own thing, but he asks the Lord to lead his life. He appeals to the Lord’s righteousness, the Lord’s desire to always do the right thing, to deal with the ungodly and lead him in the way the Lord wants him to go.

He speaks again of these liars: “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit.” (v.9) Their words – what we hear from them – are lies and cannot be trusted and so their heart – what is on the inside, hidden from us – only desires destruction. The truth leads to life, lies lead to death. Their throats – from which come their words – are like a grave, places of death and so their words come out of death and bring death, their words speak deceit, lies designed to lead astray and to destruction. The condemnation of these people, whoever they are, is strong and what follows is the logical follow-on from a righteous heart: “Declare them guilty, O God! Let their intrigues be their downfall. Banish them for their many sins, for they have rebelled against you.” (v.10) Let the Lord judge them and declare their guilt, let all their intrigues and scheming be their downfall, may they be cast away for their sins and their rebellion.

Thus the guilty are condemned but to finish, David contrasts the righteous: “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” (v.11)  These schemers and liars seek the downfall of the righteous but we may take refuge in the Lord’s presence, and there we find security and are glad and can sing for joy. He calls to the Lord to bring His protection to cover the righteous, those who love the Lord, so that they may be able to rejoice in Him. He concludes, “For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.” (v.12)  Yes, the Lord blesses the righteous and His favour surrounds them and acts as a shield. The ungodly and the unrighteous may still be there, but we remain at peace and are able to sing for joy in the protection that we have in the wonder of the Lord’s presence. Hallelujah!

43. What you say

Meditations in James: 43 : Beware what you say about others

Jas 4:11,12     Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor?

A passage like today’s two verses is simple and straight forward, but we might wonder, why is James going off on another tangent?  Well he isn’t, but again we have to look at what has gone before in this chapter to catch the flow. Remember at the beginning of the chapter James was facing us with the inner turmoil that goes on within us because of not having surrendered everything to God (v.1-3). Then he implied that all these desires that had not been submitted to God were the same sort of thing that the rest of the world wrestled with in their unregenerate state, and he called us to side with God against the ungodliness and unrighteous attitudes of the world (v.4).  He then pointed out that God is jealous for a relationship with us (v.5) and longs to give us the grace we need for living, but can only give it to those who humbly seek him (v.6). Out of that came a call to come to God in submission, resisting the tactics of the enemy who would seek to draw us away (v.7), come with a right perspective (v.8-10) and God will lift us up. This has all been a natural progressive flow in his appeal and it is important that we see how one thing flows on from another.

So he has come to a point of appealing that we submit to God, and so what follows? It is important to see this! When our relationship with the Lord is established or re-established, it always has practical outworkings in respect of how we relate to other people. The vertical relationship with God ALWAYS results in changes to the horizontal relationships with people. You cannot have a real relationship with the Lord and it not have impact on the way you relate to people.  In passing we might consider how we relate to other people because, as the other side of the same coin so to speak, it is an indicator of the level of relationship we have with the Lord!

James, as a good pastor, knows this, that the Lord wants the expression of our relationship with Him to have an impact on the way we relate to people, and James has it in the back of his mind that he has already written to us about the use of the tongue as being the first outward indicator of how we are on the inside. Right, he says now, if you have submitted yourself to God, check now what is coming out of your mouth in respect of people, because your words now need to reflect your newly re-established relationship with the Lord.

This is a terribly important issue in Christian circles. See what he says: Brothers, do not slander one another. Brothers indicates that he is speaking to Christians, and his simple injunction is don’t say wrong things about other Christians. Now I’ve just suggested that this is a terribly important issue in Christian circles.  Listen to the chatter that goes on in church. Listen to the chatter that goes on between little groups of Christians. Here is the challenge from James. If you refer to your minister or leaders, or to anyone else in the church for that matter, are you careful not to offend on this point? ‘Gossip’ in the church is wrong chattering that pulls down people. Gossip does not look for the well-being and uplifting of people. Gossip is so often slanderous; it does not wholly speak the truth. Slander is speaking wrongly about others. If we give an opinion about our leaders or about others with whom we perhaps disagree, is it an opinion that puts down or does it uplift? What you speak is a reflection of what goes on inside you, and if you speak untruth, it is an indication of a weak relationship with the Lord, and you need to go back over the previous verses in this chapter because they obviously apply to you. But see what else James says about this.

He says, Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. What does he mean? Well today, as Christians, we are under one Law, the Law of love: Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40). If we slander other people, we are rejecting that Law, and putting ourselves above it. It’s like we make a judgment, “I don’t need to be bound by that,” and we put ourselves on the level of the Lawmaker, God! You’re not keeping the royal law of love, says James, if you speak badly of other people, you are judging it. God is the only one who can put aside the Law. An expression of our real relationship with the Lord is that we keep this law and love others, and if we love them we will not speak badly of them. It is that simple!

After all that we have said about the previous verses and how James calls us into relationship with the Lord, the way we speak about others will be the measuring stick for how real our responses to all of that have been. If we find ourselves speaking wrongly of others, we need to pull ourselves up, go back to God, submit ourselves humbly to Him and ask for His forgiveness. A relationship with God is a very practical thing in the Bible. Ensure it is also in your life.

33. Humility

Meditations in James: 33 : Humility with Wisdom

Jas 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

We have in this day, in the West, many TV games shows that test knowledge. We may watch and wonder sometimes at the shear breadth or depth of knowledge that a particular contestant shows.  We move on to programmes about specialist subjects and we watch and listen to men or women who are ‘experts’ in their field, regaling us with the wonders that they know about. We think how great these people must be. We wonder at their learning, their scholarship, and their experience of life. And then the media tells us something about their personal life, and we hear they have just parted from their third partner, and a little nagging doubt rises in our mind. Then there are politicians or some of the world’s shakers and movers. We watch on TV as their latest achievements are being lauded and we think about what incredible people they must be. We slightly wonder about some of the people who are their friends, because they are those who live in the shadows, and we wonder. We don’t ‘know’ but we wonder. But God knows.

God is and never has been impressed by outward signs. We’ve seen that before with Samuel (1 Sam 16:7). The disciples were impressed by big buildings (Matt 24:1) but Jesus had bigger issues on his mind. No, we can be swayed by rhetoric or apparent knowledge, but God has different criteria for assessment of people. You can be very knowledgeable but godless. You can bring great changes in the world, but be unrighteous. Have you spotted the link yet with what James has been saying about the tongue? The tongue has the power to deceive us. We just mentioned ‘great people’ on TV who astound us with their words. There are politicians and world movers and shakers who speak and the world holds its breath. Oh yes, words are the currency of these people, but the trouble is, that so often they are godless and unrighteous people, and in God’s eyes they mean nothing. Their words do not impress Him.

So James seems to spin us on our axis and we point away from thoughts of the tongue and move to a wider sphere of thinking. Ah yes, thinking comes in here: Who is wise and understanding among you? Wisdom and understanding; these are things of the mind. They are the fruits of what has gone on inside us. Wisdom is the knowledge of ‘how to’. Moses was able to say to his people: See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut 4:5,6) God had spoken to Israel and given them His Law, which were simply rules on how to live wisely in accordance with the way He had designed people to live. If you follow them, said Moses, the nations round about will see your wisdom and comment upon it. It will be clearly visible. Wisdom is something that is practically worked out in life.

Understanding is knowing why things are. Understanding goes beyond simply knowing ‘how to’; it knows why is it right to do it. It knows the reasoning behind it. Of course as God’s people we know that it is right to follow God’s ways because He is all-wise and He is the Designer-Creator of this world and so He knows best.  The psalmist wrote, “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.” (Psa 119:104). As He studied all that God had given Israel he came to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of life. The more we consider God’s word as we seek His face, the more He gives us understanding of His ways.

James then challenges us. He basically says, if you understand life, then you will live God’s ways and if you live God’s ways, those ways will involve goodness, and people will see good deeds coming out of that knowledge and understanding. Just like Israel, as we saw just now, those round about us will see and wonder. But don’t we wonder about the life of the great and the glorious? Yes, until we start hearing about their personal lives which reveal the sort of people they are. This is where James differentiates between these people and the people of God. The people of God, he is saying, live out their lives in humility. Yes, here is an unusual characteristic in today’s age! Humility is about having a realistic assessment of yourself. When you really know yourself there is no room for pride (the opposite of humility). When we really know ourselves we know that without God we are lost. Without God we know our lives are pretence, a sham. We know that although we may look good on the outside, inside we’re something quite different. This realistic self awareness is humility. This humility comes from wisdom. Solomon said,The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Prov 9:10). An awesome respect for Almighty God brings wisdom and that wisdom brings humility as we realize our smallness and His greatness. As we live out our lives in the light of this, it will be seen, goodness!  May it be so!

31. Tamed Tongue

Meditations in James: 31 : Inability to Tame the Tongue

Jas 3:7,8   All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

There is often perceived in men or women a pride that says, “We are the peak of evolution and we can do anything. We can harness energy, use technology, bring health and longer life. We can manipulate atoms and genes and even create life. We are the lords of the universe.”  They may not say it in so many words, but those are the sentiments that the pride of man brings out.  In daily life, especially when we are young, we wake up in the morning feeling good, the sun is shining and everything is going well, and we feel invincible. And then we speak unwisely and harshly, and the world turns grey as the ugly truth is revealed: I can’t even control my tongue!

So far we have observed James’ descriptions of the tongue as he shows us that although it is small it can determine our path. He’s also pointed out that although it is small it has the power to wreak havoc and destruction. The warnings are clear: if only we would learn to harness our tongue we could use it to bless and build, encourage and energise, congratulate and create. But there is the problem and it is that which James focuses upon now; we can’t control it!  He will go on to suggest what needs to happen but for now he focuses on this terrible truth.

People use their minds to train themselves to be able to do great things. They discipline and stretch their physical abilities to be healthy and strong, but when it comes to focusing on harnessing something as small as the tongue, we find it is a different thing.  Singers can control their vocal cords. Ventriloquists can produce words without apparently moving the mouth, but when it comes to the words themselves and the emotions that are behind them, we seem so often completely unable to be in control. Words come out we wish we’d never said, feelings were expressed that cause hurt and upset, and once out cannot be put back in the box.  James makes us think about the natural world.  We can capture and train wild animals that seem so large and aggressive, but when it comes to something as small as the tongue, we are helpless it seems.  The tongue seems to have a life of its own at times and it seems impossible to tame it.

There are so many self-help books on the shelves of bookshops today, even books on how to say things nicely, but however many books we read, on a bad day we realise we are still not in control of this small part of our body which, as James says, seems so full of restless evil.  We can start the day out, full of good intentions.  We can make New Year resolutions, but it doesn’t take very long for a situation to arise where we find our mouth speaking out strongly and hurtfully.  If we had a hidden TV camera team filming us all day and every day for a month, how many of the words that were recorded would we be happy to be seen on the small screen?  In seeing it being replayed, how many times would we regret the words and wish either that we had said nothing or had said it differently?  Perhaps it takes a wider judging audience to face the truth about ourselves. That is what James is trying to do, to get us to think about our speech and face the truth about ourselves, because until we do that we will not see the need and if we don’t see the need we will not turn to the Lord for His help.

That’s what Scripture does so often: show us our need, show us our potential in God, so that we go to Him for His life changing power.  That is James’  aim, and that is why we continue to consider these things.  But focussing on two verses gives us a limited view. Yes, it helps us see our need but it doesn’t explain WHY and it doesn’t give us answers. For the ‘why’ of our tongues actions we have to go back again to what Jesus said about our mouths: For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt 12:34).  Yes, this is the truth.  The mouth reflects what is in the heart, what is there deep inside us. The heart is our state of mind and will. It is the innermost reach of our personality, the cause of what we think and feel. It is in many ways a mystery. Why do we have these inner inclinations, which sometimes conflict with what outwardly we’d like to be? Yes, when we think about it, we’d like to be cool, calm and collected, able to answer every unkind word from others with graciousness, able to respond to every hostile question with wisdom.  Yet, we find, so often it isn’t like that.  Why is that?  It is because our heart has not been changed.

At the centre of the New Testament teaching is the recognition that to be Christians we have to die to ourselves, we have to die to self.  The call is to put God first, then others next and ourselves last.  It sounds a good theory and when it works we find we are most blessed, but so often self pushes to the front.  The difficult truth is that the heart is only changed by difficulties. ‘Character’ is another expression of what the Bible refers to as the heart, the way we truly are.  Paul said, we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;” (Rom 5:3,4).  Our character is formed as we learn to endure in difficulties.  You’ll know how much the Lord has formed your character, how much He has moulded your heart, by the words that come out of your mouth when the circumstances are difficult and people are not being nice. At that point, your mouth will reveal what God has been able to do in you. Now there is a strange thing. It is only as He is able to do things in you, and that is determined by your willingness to let Him do it, and that is a matter of will. Don’t focus on the tongue. See it as a revealer of what you’re like inside, but having done that, ask the Lord to transform you on the inside. That’s what this is really all about.

30. Tongue Burnt

Meditations in James: 30 : Burnt by the Tongue

Jas 3:5,6 Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

There are two sorts of TV programme that don’t excite me. One is the morning TV where there is a studio full of people talking about a contentious part of life.  The other is so-called soap operas.  Imagine both of them without any sound.  First of all imagine the contentious couples debate if they, and the other participants, were dumb.  Nobody would watch it, would they, because it is the angry words spoken that stir people’s interests.  Imagine soap operas as real life dramas and imagine again the people being dumb.  Most of the ‘difficult situations’, that go to make up the interest of these ongoing television fillers, are what they are because of what the various people say.

Oh yes, the tongue is the instrument that has this devastating potential for causing upset and upheaval. Having just written about how the tongue guides our life, James now goes on to warn us of the tremendous power of the tongue.  Solomon was aware of this when he wrote Proverbs: With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor (Prov 11:9) andThrough the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.” (Prov 11:11) and A fool’s lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating.” (Prov 18:6) and A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Prov 26:28).  Note the things in that short list that the tongue is capable of doing: destroying a neighbour (presumably by slander), destroying a city (presumably by lies, deceit, and generally leading into unrighteous business deals), personal strife (probably by rudeness and verbal attack which invites retribution), and general hurt and ruin by harshness and flattery which deceives.

If you are a watcher of these “sort out the problems” morning TV programmes or of soap operas, next time think about what all the people are saying.  Observe where there are words that are attacking, words that are demeaning, words that are violent, and think how different the situation would be if the exact opposite sort of words were spoken instead.  James says, Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark and so watch and see how a few words can ignite a situation and cause hostility and upset and division and hurt and anger and….. the list goes on!  In families there are words that should never be spoken: “I hate you!” or “I wish I’d never been born!” or “You’re ugly” or “You’re stupid!”  Each one of these is a small spark that has devastating effects.  Once said they cannot be withdrawn and they set a fire of passion blazing which is not easily put out.

But James pushes it further.  He says, The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. That sounds awful!  Why is he using the analogy of a fire?  Because a fire is something out of control and capable of spreading destruction.  But why does he say that this fire is a world of evil among the parts of the body? Well we sometimes speak about how we ‘compartmentalise’ our lives, and he’s saying imagine our bodies like different compartments.  If you imagine the tongue as one ‘department’ in the running of your life, it seems that in so many people it is a department that is evil.  It may be the expression of the heart, but it is the visible, or rather audible expression of evil.  The mouth is the propaganda machine of the human body, that is able to reach out and influence or harm others by the words that come out.  It is seen in many people as evil, speaking out hurtful, harmful words.

But he goes on, It corrupts the whole person. If you corrupt something you spoil or mar it, you taint it or pollute it.   Speaking out words is very influential, and tragically most of us don’t realise this, so that when we put something into words it’s like it strengthens something in us.  While it only remains a thought, it is fairly powerless, but once we speak it out, it seems like it has the effect of spreading that negative right through us, so it is something that becomes more established in us.  If our lives were like a glass of clear water, when we speak negative, unkind, hostile, impure, unrighteous words, it is like black ink is being dripped into that clear water and it is polluted and no longer clear.  The words have the ability to change the life.  The heart was wrong, but the words established that wrong in a deeper, firmer way.

But James then piles on further pictures: It …sets the whole course of his life on fire. If the tongue is a fire, then the words are like flaming pieces that soar up into the air and where they land they spread the fire. As we’ve just suggested, when the words are spoken they affect the rest of the life. We used the analogy of clear water; James uses the analogy of fire.

Then he finishes with a strange expression: and is itself set on fire by hell. Can I use an analogy that I use often, that of anger? A person may use anger to get their own way, but that is unrighteous. Now if a person uses unrighteous anger regularly, then they open themselves up to Satan’s influence and he can press in on that person so that their anger flares up and is completely uncontrollable. Now the same thing is true of the tongue. Some people use the tongue to put down others, as a means of having influence over them, but this is unrighteous.  So what happens is that when they do this they make themselves vulnerable to Satan (and hell is just shorthand for ‘the powers of darkness and all that they bring’) and so Satan takes the fire (emotional words) that they have used, and blows on it so they become completely out of control.  What this person finds is that no longer can they control what they say; they are motivated or driven by these emotions which are beyond their control, and the fire burns and burns and burns until the person is destroyed. Did you realise the terrible power that is there in the use of the tongue and the forces of destruction that can be released by it?  Well think about these things.

29. Steered

Meditations in James: 29 : Steered by the Tongue

Jas 3:3-5 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

We take life for granted. We don’t think about the things we do, because they are so natural. We get up in the morning. We get dressed, eat breakfast, go out for the day, come home, eat, rest and sleep – every day!  We have eyes to see, ears to hear and mouths to speak, and we take them all for granted.  Take the mouth for example.  We may get up in the morning and so we groan about the day negatively.  We turn on breakfast TV, or breakfast radio, or read a morning paper, and grumble about the state of the world.  We complain about a bus or train being late, or about the weather.  We criticise people in the news and at work.  And we wonder why we feel so negative about life.  We speak thoughtlessly to someone and we hurt or upset them and a relationship is broken.  We speak hastily and the die is cast and a decision made that was unwise.  Our mouths play a large part in expressing what we feel, in determining what we feel, and in creating or breaking relationships with other people.  Oh yes, our tongue is a powerful bit of our body, and the wise person thinks about this.

James has been guiding us to think about our lives and has been challenging us about the nature of them as we live them out in the midst of the world that is so often hostile to us and to God. He’s talked about the link between faith and deeds, and he’s gone on to allude to spiritual maturity, something we should be aiming for.  Have you ever used Google Earth or some other satellite system that looks down on the earth? You see the earth from a distance and then you can zoom down and roads become visible and then, as you get nearer, buildings take shape, and then details can be seen and, if it was a real shot, even people seen.  We zoom in and more and more detail is seen.  That’s what James is now doing.  He is zooming in on our lives and focusing specifically on that all-important organ, our tongue!

He doesn’t go into immediate teaching about it; he paints pictures that make us think about it.  He speaks first about the bit in the mouth of a horse.  It’s a very obvious picture.  As the rider pulls on the reins the horse’s head is pulled round and its body follows the direction of the head.  The implication is that we go where our tongue takes us.  There is a sense that the tongue controls the whole body.  Yes, we know that the tongue speaks what is in the heart: out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45).  As we feel on the inside so we speak, but it is as we speak so our direction is set.  We speak and others hear what we say, and we are committed.  If we keep quiet, we are not committed; it is only as we speak is our path set.  What we say, we tend to do.

Then James gives another picture, that of a ship. Oh yes, he says, there may be big waves and strong winds, but it is the rudder of the ship that determines where it goes.  The rudder is so small in comparison to the rest of the ship, but it is still the part that determines the course of the boat.  The same implication is there.  Our course is determined by such a small part of us. Someone offers us as job.  We say, “Yes, I’ll take it.”  Our course is set by our tongue.  Someone chides us for wrong behaviour.  We lash back with our tongue defensively.  Unfortunately they were our manager, and our future hope of promotion has just gone.  Our course is set.  In a marriage, a row ensues and angry words create division.  No healing words are spoken and the rift gets bigger. A course is being set. It is our words that set our course. Think back over the past week or month and see if you can identify times when your words set the course of what was to follow.  Think about things that are yet to happen today or tomorrow and consider how your words will set the course of what is to follow.

James gives a strong warning to finish this verse: the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. What is boasting?  It is speaking out and making claims that are untrue, claims that we are bigger and better than is really true. The tiny tongue can say such silly things, but they are things that make other people think less of us; they are things that lead us further into self-deception. Boasting reveals pride and it reveals foolish thinking, but even worse, it leads us along a course that is damaging to us.

Before we go anywhere else with James in this consideration of the use of the tongue, can we realize how significant our words are? Can we realize what our words do? Can we see that they reveal the state of our hearts and the also commit us to the path ahead. We will, in the days ahead, be determining our paths, partly by what we will be saying. That needs thinking about!

15. Tongue & Heart

Meditations in James: 15 :  Tongue & Heart

Jas 1:26 If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.

I have this picture of a heavenly watcher keeping score of all the different sorts of sins being committed on earth. I’ve got this horrible feeling that it’s not the sins of physical or sexual violence, or of taking other people’s property, that score the most, it’s sins of the tongue. Why? Because it is so easy to do!  Go into any room where there are a lot of people and just listen.  People talk. People talk a lot. In the 12th meditation of this series I quoted a verse from Proverbs which has convicted me in the past: When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19).  Some of us are quieter than others. Perhaps they are the wise ones.

Being in a church context, I’m often in a room with lots of other people and I enjoy just sitting and watching what is going on. I hope that in the church the talk is good. Mostly in my presence it is, but what about behind the closed doors where just two or three are discussing the many facets of a church’s life. If Jesus was sitting quietly in the background, listening in on what was being said, I wonder if some of the things actually would be said?  Paul challenges us about malice, slander and telling lies (Col 3:8,9). Malice is speaking unkindly about another person. Slander is speaking falsely about another person, and lies are simply not speaking the truth. Listen to the gossip in the street and it’s always about other people, and so often it is either unkind or inaccurate. For people in the world, we should expect it for they have no standard to keep to, but for people who claim to be religious, now that is something else!

But it may not be behind people’s backs; it may things said directly to someone. They may be unkind and harsh. They may be critical and demeaning. How about the husband who makes derogatory comments about his wife, or the wife who is nagging or even scathing about her husband? According to James’ general comment here, these things should not be. Or there is the parent who snaps at the child or the teenager who answers back to their parent’s rebuke. These things should not be.  Or maybe it is at work. Here is the boss who acts like a bully to his or her employees. Listen to their forceful demeaning words. If they are ‘religious’ it should not be so. Or here is the employee making excuses why their work is substandard, and the truth is not being completely told. Then there is school or college, fertile grounds for harsh use of the tongue, especially when discipline is not all it could be. Everywhere you turn, there are people and people have a habit of using their tongue and not for good and edifying purposes.

With his use of the words religious’ and ‘religion’, James seems to make an all-sweeping inclusion of anyone who purports to have spiritual beliefs, beliefs about God. Forget it, says James, if you can’t even control your tongue, your ‘religion’ is worthless. Now that is strong language! It actually says to a lot of people that their beliefs and even actions on a Sunday are worthless.  Why is he so strong on the subject of the tongue? Well it will come up again in his writings but let’s consider the motivation behind what comes out of the mouth.

Isaiah said something very simple: For the fool speaks folly (Isa 32:6). What he was saying was that because a person was a fool, he will speak foolish things. The two go together. The opposite is true also. Later he spoke of: He who walks righteously and speaks what is right (Isa 33:15). If the intent of your walk through life is righteousness, then you will speak righteously. On one occasion Jesus challenged the Pharisees of his day: You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Mt 12:34,35). Did you see what he said? The mouth speaks what is overflowing from the heart. If you have a heart that is not fully God-centred then out of the mouth will come self-centred words.  Sometimes people speak hostile attacking words because deep down they feel threatened.  Their outward angry words reveal an inner defensiveness. Young people today, from broken families, so often speak hard and harsh words as they reflect the inner pain and insecurity that they feel.

Oh yes, the reason James is so strong about what comes out of the mouth is because it reflects what is going on inside. You may ‘say’ you are religious, but if that faith is not bearing fruit inside you and bringing inner change to you, as evidenced by the words you speak, then that religion isn’t worth much, is it!  The truth is that if we really want to we can rein in our words, but that is very difficult if the heart hasn’t been dealt with. Becoming a real Christian is a heart experience. Our heart is broken and we give it to God to transform. In that attitude, He works and we are brought into a new place of security and love, and that is reflected by the words that then come out of our mouths. However, all along the path, the enemy is trying to stir up something else within us, so that out of our mouths come hurtful, harmful, unkind or untrue words. Yes, there may be the occasional slip, but if the heart is being transformed, then they will only be an occasional slip. For the most part, our words should be as Paul said, Let your conversation be always full of grace (Col 4:6). But remember, it’s a heart thing first and foremost, so check out your words and then consider whether you need to go to the Lord for further heart surgery.