Taming the Tongue

9.12.21 homily on James 3:1-12 by Pastor Galen

When I was learning how to drive a car, I remember thinking to myself that driving was nothing like I had imagined. My main experience with “driving” prior to that had been bumper cars at the amusement park, go-karts, and video games.

But driving a real vehicle was a completely different experience altogether. Something about the weight of the vehicle, and the fact that the steering wheel, which is such a disproportionately small part of the vehicle, could turn this rather huge piece of machinery without hardly any effort at all. I remember driving down the highway, and being in awe that even the slightest movement of the steering wheel could cause this 2 ton vehicle to move into the other lane. I remember thinking about how much of a responsibility it was and is to drive such a heavy piece of machinery and how even just a slight movement or mistake could have a destructive impact on myself and others. 

In James chapter 3, James uses similar analogies of the technology of his day. Rudders on ships were relatively small pieces of wood on the bottom of the boat that were connected to the helm or steering wheel of the ship – and the direction of the rudder determined the direction of the ship – such that the pilot can turn the ship in whatever direction they wanted. Bits were small pieces of metal placed in horse’s mouths, connected to the reins, that could cause a strong workhorse to change direction.

And James says that our tongue is sort of like that. Our tongues and our vocal chords are relatively small and seemingly insignificant parts of our body and yet there’s incredible power there, because our tongues and the words they produce have the power to change the course and direction of our lives. If we’re not careful, the words we speak can break us or other people. Our words have incredible power to do terrible devastation.

Think of someone who spreads rumors about someone else – or who slanders someone else or spreads misinformation. Our words can be as destructive as a wildfire, lit by a seemingly innocent little spark but that grows into a blazing fire that consumes and destroys. Our words can cause untold harm to ourselves and others. Think of political candidates who say racial slurs and effectively kill their political careers. Think of a judge, who sentences someone wrongly because someone else has lied under oath. Think of someone who has been verbally abused or bullied, or who has been repeatedly told that they’re not worthy enough, or good enough, or that they’ll never amount to anything. Think about how those words can destroy someone’s life.

Our words have power to destroy, and to tear down. Words can be devastating. We have to be careful with the words we say.

Type, Text, and Tweet

Of course if James were writing today, he would probably also want to talk about the words that we type, or the things we text, tweet, or post on social media. These words have just as much power. James was writing in a period of time when many people didn’t even know how to read or write. They would have been hearing this letter read to them in a church gathering. Most of them did not have access to words in written form. (This is why earlier in James he talked about hearers of the Word, rather than readers of the word – James 1:22).

But today most of us type or tweet or post or text or email almost as much as we speak. The average young adult ages 18 to 24 sends and receives on average 3,853 text messages per month, which works out to over 46,000 text messages per year. And although the average American still probably speaks more words per day than we type, the words that we type can cause as much devastation as the words we speak. 

Rumors and misinformation spread at an even faster pace online than they do in person. Recently a friend of mine jokingly posted on Facebook that it’s so difficult to know what’s true online anymore. He said, “all the scientists and doctors and experts are saying one thing – but my second cousin’s boyfriend who has never studied any of this stuff said something completely different. It’s hard to know who to believe! 

In this age of technology we have greater access to information and data from experts and scientists, but we also have access to more of the thoughts and opinions and conspiracy theories from people who are trying to subvert the truth. Rumors and misinformation have a life of their own. And so we have to be careful what we type, and text – and also what we share. (There have been a lot of posts that I’ve been tempted to share, until I fact-checked them and realized they were completely or at least partially false. We would all do well to spend a couple minutes checking the fact-checking website snopes.com before we reshare any information that may seem too good, or too bad, to be true).

Whether the words come out of our mouths or whether they’re written down on paper or typed or shared on a screen, our words have incredible power to destroy others, and ourselves. It’s hard to erase words once we put them out there into the Twittersphere. 

It starts in the Heart

Of course the words that we say or write or tweet or share originate not in our vocal chords or finger tips, but in our hearts and minds. We generally think before we speak. 

For some of us there may only be a split second between when we think it and say it, while others may plan their words out a lot further in advance. The other day I overheard two of my daughters talking in the back of the car. They were talking about talking, and one of them said, “you know, it’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s just that I don’t know what to say.” The other daughter said, “Well I talk even if I don’t know what to say!” 

But whether or not you are someone who thinks long and hard before you speak, generally the sentiments that we express have been inside of us for a long time before we ever formulate them into words. And so if we want to be mindful of the words that we say, we have to guard our thoughts. We have to be diligent about rooting out destructive thoughts from our minds if we ever want to avoid destructive words.

Speak Up!

With all of this talk about how words have the power to destroy, we may think that it would be better for us not to speak at all! Not to text or type or tweet at all. Not to say anything, for fear that what we say might be held against us, or that our words might cause hurt or harm or destruction to others.

But while some of us would do well to talk less and listen more, it’s also important to remember that just as words have the power to destroy, they also have the power to heal. Just as words can cause devastation, they can also produce life. In fact, sometimes the best thing to do is to speak, even if we don’t want to. Sometimes not saying anything at all is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Think, for example, of how we are sometimes called to speak for those who don’t have the opportunity to speak. Think about how we are often called to speak words of hope and encouragement to someone who is downtrodden. Think about how someone at some time in your life spoke words that you needed to hear, and how those words encouraged your heart, or lifted your soul. Think about those who have felt called to speak out about injustice, and imagine if they had chosen not to speak? Think about those who have felt called to call out someone who was causing harm to themselves or others, and the boldness and courage that required. Think about what would have happened if they hadn’t spoken up. Think about how many others might have gotten hurt. Think about how when we speak the truth that reveals injustice, it can bring about change. Think about how words can liberate, and bring freedom for ourselves and others. 


Of course, we need wisdom to know what to say and how and when to say it, and who to say it to. (a friend of mine used to joke that: Saying the words “I’m sorry” and “I apologize” usually mean the same thing, but they mean something very different if you say them at a funeral!)

Wisdom is not just knowing facts or data or information. It’s knowing how to apply that data. It’s knowing when to speak up and when to be silent. If words come from our mouths and thoughts come from our minds, wisdom resides in the heart.

And so the psalmist says, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock, and our redeemer. 

What if we were to speak only those words that are pleasing in God’s sight? What if the meditations of our hearts were always acceptable to God? What if we never texted or tweeted or shared or spoke any words unless we knew that they would bring honor and glory to our Lord, our rock and our redeemer? Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” When our words are pleasing to God, we are joining in with all of creation in bringing glory to our Creator.

What i we were to only speak words that were acceptable to God? Some of us would speak less. Others of you would speak more! Most likely there’s some words that each and every one of us would need to remove from our vocabulary. Perhaps there are other words that would need to be added. We might have to come up with new ways of expressing ourselves, new ways of speaking and writing and texting and tweeting the truth in love. New ways of speaking life and hope and encouragement to those around us. 

Some might have to get used to saying words that you never heard spoken to you, or never heard frequently enough. Perhaps words like “I love you.” “you’re beautiful” “You’re wonderful.” “You’re doing a great job, keep it up!” Some of us might need to go home and practice saying these words in the mirror. Some of us might need to say them to our spouses, our children, grandchildren, or other loved ones. All of us would do well to speak more words of hope, and life, and truth and love in more ways, to more people, more often.

In closing, I’d like to share a poem entitled “A Sermon in Rhyme” that encapsulates this message from James chapter 3. This is a poem that was circulated in a number of nineteenth-century newspapers and religious magazines. It was usually published anonymously, though one reprint credits it to “Rev. D. W. Hoyt.” (I have updated some of the pronouns to be more gender inclusive).

A Sermon in Rhyme 

If you have a friend worth loving, Love them. Yes, and let them know

That you love them ere life’s evening Tinge their brow with sunset glow;

Why should good words ne’er be said Of a friend—till they are dead?

If you hear a song that thrills you, Sung by any child of song,

Praise them. Do not let the singer Wait deserved praises long;

Why should one that thrills your heart Lack that joy it may impart?

If you hear a prayer that moves you By its humble pleading tone,

Join it. Do not let the seeker Bow before her God alone;

Why should not your sister share The strength of “two or three” in prayer?

If you see the hot tears falling From a loving brother’s eyes,

Share them, and by sharing, Own your kinship with the skies;

Why should anyone be glad, When her brother’s heart is sad?

If a silver laugh goes rippling Through the sunshine on one’s face,

Share it. ‘Tis the wise one’s saying, For both grief and joy a place;

There’s health and goodness in the mirth In which an honest laugh has birth.

If your work is made more easy By a friendly helping hand,

Say so. Speak out brave and truly, Ere the darkness veil the land.

Should a fellow worker dear Falter for a word of cheer?

Scatter thus your seed of kindness, All enriching as you go—

Leave them, trust the Harvest-Giver; God will make each seed to grow.

So, until its happy end, Your life shall never lack a friend.


Published by Galen Zook

I am an artist, preacher, minister, and aspiring theologian

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