May 8th, 2016

Words conduct power from either heaven or hell.

James 3:1-12


Warnings for this day

More often than not, I give my sermon a title on Thursday around midday to meet the bulletin deadline. Sometimes I have second thoughts, and wonder how what that sermon title conveys. Yesterday I Googled “Mother’s Day Warning,”, and here are some of the hits –

  • Mother’s Day Facebook Warning. Snopes.com says that mothers who post their children’s names, birthdates, and birth weights on Facebook are exposing their children to scammers and criminals.
  • Warning! 10 Films Not to Watch with your Mother. One of the films, for example, is about two girls who conspire to kill their mother. It’s not a good thing to say, “Hey, Mom, do you want to watch this with me on Netflix?”
  • Mother’s Day Lily Warning – Don’t give your Mom a bouquet with lilies in it if she has cats, because the flower is toxic to felines. (Then again, if you don’t like her cat….)

Google did not offer any sites that correlate with where I want to take this sermon today. The sermon title was inspired by a comment Pastor Paul Cummings tends to make this time of year – that the typical Mother’s Day sermon is about appreciation (“Moms, we don’t tell you often enough how great you are and how much we appreciate you”) while the typical Father’s Day sermon is a warning (“Dads, your kids are going to hell unless you shape up.”) So I thought for a little equal time, we’d have a Mother’s Day warning this year and a Father’s Day appreciation.

The Mother’s Day warning emerges straight from the book of James, chapter 3, on the power of the tongue. The Female Brain, written in 2006 by British psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, concluded that women average 20,000 spoken words a day compared to only 7,000 for men. Some of you probably agree with critics of the book who argue that’s a sexist conclusion, while others are thinking, “Who needed research from a psychiatrist to figure that out?”

If it’s true that Moms talk more than Dads, perhaps James’ multi-faceted warning about the power of words is an appropriate theme for Mother’s Day. To be clear, though, this sermon is not a Warning to Mothers. It’s a Warning to All that falls on Mother’s Day. Moms are not the target, but neither do Moms get a pass. James is addressing anyone who uses words.

Three misconceptions

A first reading of James 3:1-12 may be misleading. First, it seems like James has strung together a random collection of wisdom sayings, as if he had Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations open to the section on the tongue, and jotted down a few proverbs. Second, this reads on the surface like a secular approach to controlling the tongue. Why doesn’t he point us to the Holy Spirit for help, since the fruit of the Spirit is self-control? And why doesn’t he quote from Jesus or the Old Testament instead of using analogies commonly known in the secular world? Third, James seems totally pessimistic about controlling the tongue. He thinks it can’t be done. Let me address each of these three misconceptions.

First, this is not a random collection of sayings. It is a self-contained teaching unit that begins and ends with “my brothers (and sisters)” (1,12). There are linking words all through the passage – “for,” “and,” “because,” “but,” “also” – not all of which appear in English translations. What James does is to construct what was considered to be a perfect logical argument according to Hellenistic (Greek) thought[1]

  1. Theme: Not many of you should become teachers (1).
  2. Reason: Teaching requires maturity in use of words (2).
  3. Proof: The tongue’s influence is disproportionate to its size (3-5a).
  4. Embellishment: The tongue has great power for evil (5b-10).
  5. Conclusion: Determine never to be double-tongued (11-12).


If this analysis is correct, then we know James has only one main point – teaching is not for everyone, because teachers use more words, and words have power.

Second, this is far from a secular approach to tongue control. James is writing in the style of wisdom literature, but he is thoroughly biblical and Christian in his thinking. “Teachers” (1) are not public school masters. The word didaskolos is a Greek parallel to “Rabbi,” used most often in the Gospels[2] and indicates those who instruct in the faith community. When James says, “You know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (1), he’s referring to words of Jesus[3] and Paul[4] that were probably familiar to his readers. “We all stumble in many ways” (2) is a thoroughly biblical idea. Greeks understood that nobody is perfect, but believed humans on their own could attain great self-control. James’ pessimism humbles his reader into realization that we need help. That’s even more evident when James says hell itself is at work when the tongue destroys (6) – the idea of Satanic forces involved is biblical. But finally, when James brings in how we “praise our Lord and Father” with the tongue but “curse human beings who have been made in God’s likeness” (9), he is speaking as a Christian thinker, not a Hellenistic moralist.

Third, James is not as pessimistic as he seems on first reading. If he believed the tongue cannot be controlled, his proposition would be that no one should be a teacher. Instead, he does want to offer a strong and deliberate warning about the potential danger of words. He wants those who teach to humble themselves, but he definitely believes that mature Christians can and do learn to use words properly. It just doesn’t happen automatically, and James wants to be sure you remember that sticks and stones can only break bones, but words from hell can destroy and kill.

Power from heaven or hell

Communication is always a challenge. As I was preparing this message, my daughter, Cara, a Clinical Counselor and Marriage & Family Therapist, reminded me of the stages of communication. In every form of communication, there’s a sender and a receiver. The sender takes his or her thoughts and encodes them (most often into words) through a channel (speaking out loud, using the telephone, writing a letter or an email, or just making a face) that then must be decoded by the receiver. Each stage of communication (sender, encoding, channel, decoding, receiver) is fraught with the risk of miscommunicating.

So many factors can disrupt or interfere with these stages. The sender might be in a perky mood, for example, but if the receiver is in a funk even words as simple as “Hi, how are you?” might get a response like, “Why do you care? Mind your own business!” That’s what we call context – and it affects both the sender and the receiver. Robert McCloskey, a 20th century writer and illustrator of children’s books, is apparently the source for the following quote: “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

When we add to those factors the challenge of transferring thoughts encoded in a letter from Jesus’ little brother James, written twenty centuries ago in the Greek language to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Hellenistic world to American Christians sitting in pews at Corinth Reformed Church on Mother’s Day 2016, you see the problem. I’ve probably lived with this part of the Bible more than any of you all week long, so let me try to decode this for you a little, especially if you’re still convinced these verses are disconnected, secular, and negative. Here’s a brief and (I hope) relevant summary of what James is saying.

There’s one main point of James 3:1-12 – Words conduct power from either heaven or hell. That’s a good Mother’s Day message, isn’t it? It’s a message that mothers want to pass on to their children, and a message that mothers themselves need to be reminded of. It’s a great message for any influencer, but I hope you’re thinking especially of the home.

First, be the grownup. That’s James’ point about teachers, isn’t it? You’re not just talking, you’re shaping lives. You’re teaching people how to think, how to act, what is true and what matters. Your circle of influence is not just the student or child or patient in front of you – it’s every person that person influences. The ripple effect of your words from heaven or hell never stops.

James reminds us that influencers need to remember we are accountable to God. I’m not completely sure what he means by saying we will be “judged more strictly” (since grace covers all our sins and removes them as far as the east is from the west), but it definitely means God will hold us accountable as influencers. James’ point is not to dissuade all teachers – that would be hypocrisy, since he himself is a teacher! Nor is his point that you need to be flawless in order to teach. He admits that “We all stumble in many ways.” Stumbling is not a disqualifier. What we’re looking for in teachers is maturity. (The word translated “perfect” in verse 2 should really be “complete” or “mature.”) So if you’re going to be a teacher, or a Mom, or a Dad, or a politician, or a counselor, or a pastor, or anyone that influences others, be the grownup!

Children speak impulsively. Their filter has not yet developed. Grownups have had time to learn to measure in advance the effect of what we say.

Second, harness the power of a word. I love James’ three analogies – the horse’s bit, the ship’s rudder, and the fire’s spark. In each case, the main point of the analogy is proportion. My knowledge of riding horses is pretty much confined to watching the Kentucky Derby for two minutes once a year. My knowledge of boats and ships is even less. We have firefighters in our congregation who understand well how fire spreads.

You don’t have to know any more than I do to grasp what James is saying. How big is a bit compared to a horse, a rudder at the stern of a ship, a spark that ignites a blaze? Each one has the power to turn and transform, even though it’s small. And in each case that tiny thing has power for good or bad.

I talked to someone this week who feels like she’s in a bottomless pit of addiction, falling helplessly with no end to the plunge. I said I wanted to be one of the footholds in her life, and to point her to other footholds – therapy, medicine, family, and most of all, Christ. She texted me the next day and said that one word, “footholds,” had been on her mind ever since we talked. What if I had used a word like “worthless”? Precisely because of who I am, the words I use have such power to convey hope. Moms, Dads, and all fellow teachers, what one word or phrase will those we influence hold on to? James urges us to harness the power of words with those we teach.

Third, think of people as little gods. I know, that sounds like borderline heresy, but it isn’t. This is just one of many passages in the Bible that makes exactly that point. James 1:8 says a double-minded man is unstable; now James 3:9-10 addresses a double-mouthed man. How can you praise your Lord and Father with the same mouth that curses someone created in God’s image? “The same mouth,” James says, “discharging both blessing and cursing.” He’s kind of blunt about it: “This should not be.” In other words, it makes no sense.

Tim Boyd send me the link to an article by John Gottman, adapted from his book, The Seven Principles of Making a Marriage Work. Gottman claims he can predict with 96% accuracy in the first three minutes of a conversation with a married couple whether the relationship will survive. I don’t know that I believe that, but he makes some helpful points. The excerpt Dr. Boyd sent me is titled, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” “Four horsemen” is a reference to the destroying angels in Revelation 6. Gottman’s direct application is to marriage, of course, but these four behaviors have power to destroy any human connection:  criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Contempt may be the most damaging of the four. It conveys disgust, sometimes with words and sometimes through non-verbal signals. Contempt comes in the form of sarcasm, namecalling, eye rolling, and condescension. My brothers, James says, this should not be.

When you’re looking at that child, that spouse, that addict, that corporate enemy, that student, the crazy driver, that person who looks or acts differently than you do, that person with a lifestyle you believe God doesn’t approve of, any “that” who is a human being, James says, “Just remember you’re looking at someone made in God’s image. A little god” – not in the sense of someone to be worshiped, but someone of intrinsic, eternal value, someone for whom Christ died, someone whom God wants to redeem and restore according to his purposes.

Gottman gives the positive behaviors that have the potential to repair the ruptures caused by the four horsemen – listening so you can mirror the other person’s complaints, speaking respectfully even when you’re angry, living up to your side of the bargain, sharing compliments and praise daily. That’s the take home. Those responses are the power of words from heaven.

I would be true

I’m guessing…hoping, really…that you come to this point of the sermon thinking, “I need hope!” I believe James wants you exactly there. He wants you seeking a new work of the Holy Spirit to work in you the fruit of the Spirit – self-control.

Our hymn of response today, I Would Be True, was written in 1906 by a teacher, a man named Howard Walter, while he was teaching English for one year in Japan.  He sent the poem to his mother, and what mother doesn’t think her son’s poetry is the best?  She submitted the poem to Harper’s Bazaar, and they published it the following year.

Mrs. Walter especially loved the part where Howard wrote, “I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,” because she knew her son had a heart condition that often left him weak. My favorite line connecting to today’s sermon is “I would be humble, for I know my weakness.” This is also one of very few hymns to mention laughter as a Christian virtue. It’s in knowing how easy it is to tap into hell when we use our tongues that our humility causes us to depend on the Lord.

Howard Walter wrote one more verse to this hymn that’s not in our hymnal – maybe because its language of faith was not what Harper’s bazaar wanted to publish. For all of us who recognize the power of words, this verse is a prayer to help us draw on the only source that can bring life from what we say.

I would be true, for there are those who trust me.
I would be pure, for there are those who care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare. 

I would be friend of all – the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift. 

I would be prayerful through each busy moment;
I would be constantly in touch with God,
I would be tuned to hear the slightest whisper;
I would have faith to keep the path Christ trod.  Amen.



[1] See James, by Patrick J. Hartin, 181ff.  Hartin draws on the work of Duane F. Watson, but adjusts Watson’s structure slightly.  The Latin headings for “the perfect argument” are Propositio, Ratio, Rationis confirmatio, exornatio, and conplexio. 

[2] See John 1:38, where the Evangelist translates “Rabbi” as didaskalos in the text for his Greek readers.

[3] Mark 12:38-40.

[4] 1 Corinthians 9:27.

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.