Dec 21 - Joyful Heart, Joyful Words

Joyful Hearts, Joyful Words

December 21, 2014

James 3:1-12

James 3:1-12
December 21st, 2014

20 things we should say more often.  And even though Christmas may be the season of joy at God’s love for us demonstrated in the birth of his son, Jesus Christ, I believe that joyful, encouraging, life-giving words ought to be part of every day of our lives … how we communicate with ourselves, our self-talk, with our family members, with our friends, with fellow students or co-workers, with the people we rub shoulders with or encounter in the grocery store or on the bus or at the gym.

The problem is that we are not that consistent with speaking words of joy.  In fact at times we can speak words that hurt or tear down and intentionally so.  We can speak out of our own hurts, our exhaustion, our stress, our pain.  

A lady asked a young man working in the produce department at the grocery store if she could buy a half of a cucumber. He looked at her incredulously.  “Sorry, we generally don’t sell half of a cucumber.” But she insisted that he go ask the manager.  When the young man found the manager at the service desk he said exasperated, “You won’t believe what just happened. Back in produce this crazy woman wants to buy half a cucumber.” The manager kept a straight face but pointed surreptitiously to the lady who had followed the young man from produce and was standing to his left behind him.  Without missing a beat, the young man turned to his left and said with a smile, “Oh, and this nice lady would like to know if she can have the other half.”

We should pray to God that our words are gracious and tender so we don’t have to eat them.

As we continue on in the book of James, I want us to consider this morning just how important what we say is to God, to ourselves, and to those we rub shoulders with. 

I have skipped a large section in James chapter 2 (vv. 14-26), even though you could say that it is the heart of the letter.  In essence the point that James makes in those verses are that proclaimed faith without accompanying action is not real faith, it is not the kind of faith that indicates that a person is saved.  

If we compare what Paul and James wrote side by side, we can see that James was trying to bring a corrective to the misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching:

Paul    James
By works no one will be justified in God’s eyes                      Romans 3:20    A person is justified by works and not by faith alone                    James 2:24
Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness           
                                          Romans 4:3    Abraham our father was justified by works … faith was completed by his works                                  James 2:21,22
You have been saved through faith … it is a gift of God, not the result of works  
                                         Ephesians 2:8-9    Faith without works is dead 
                                            James 2:17,26
Faith without works is useless
                                             James 2:20
Even the demons believe (in God’s existence) and shudder
                                             James 2:19

Many individuals who read the words think that James actually contradicts Paul.  For example, Martin Luther back in the 1500’s, called James “a letter of straw” because of this.  The real problem is that Paul and James mean different things with the word “works.”  Paul thought of it in terms of trying to following an external set of rules,” while James thought of “works” in terms of the good actions that follow genuine faith.  

In fact, we can think of this passage, as with most of this letter, in one sentence:  “For faith (belief) to be genuine, it has to be followed by right action.”  So if we look at the essence of what Paul and James are saying, it could look something like this: 

Paul    James
We cannot earn our salvation by what we do or how we speak    What we do and how we speak verifies the reality of our faith

In chapter 3 of his letter, James focuses on what comes out of our mouths, and he makes the point, among others, that the way that we speak, either verifies or puts into question the reality of our faith, whether or not we truly believe what we say we believe.  

Jesus at times taught about the connection between how a person speaks and who he or she really is.  For example, one day, while teaching his followers (in response to the Pharisees’ accusation that he was neglecting the rabbinic traditions, including the ceremonial washing of hands), Jesus said:

… what comes out of a person’s mouth comes from the heart and it is this that makes him unclean.  Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, giving false witness, and slander.                             Matthew 15:18-20

In Jewish thought, the heart was the seat of the conscience, emotions and attitudes, and the seat of reason.  In essence, the heart actually refers to the mind.  So, WHO WE ARE IS DETERMINED BY WHAT WE THINK.  Marcus Aurelius said this, Buddha said this, Ghandi said this, Jesus said this.
 “Unclean” speaks of a person being defiled in God’s eyes, that is, they are out of sync with God.  So Jesus was saying that how we speak actually determines whether or not we are right with God.

At another time, Jesus also mentioned the seriousness of what comes out of our mouths.

A tree is recognized by its fruit.  You brood of vipers.  How can you speak what is good when you are evil, because the mouth speaks from what fills the heart?  A good person speaks what is good because he is filled with goodness, and an evil person speaks evil because he is filled with evil. …  I say to you: on the day of judgment people will have to give an account concerning every careless word they speak.  On the basis of your words you will be acquitted (proclaimed innocent) or condemned (proclaimed guilty).                          Matthew 12:33-35

So the words out of our mouths reveal the person we are inside, the real us.  What is in our hearts inevitably comes out of our mouths.  The words coming out of our mouths accurately reveal the kind of heart we have – the ultimate proof what kind of a tree we’re looking at is the fruit it produces.   

The Roman politician and philosopher Seneca, who was born in the very year Jesus was born and unjustly forced to commit suicide in the year that the apostle Paul was executed, said much the same that Jesus said, 

"Speech is the mirror of the mind” 

“Where speech is corrupted, the mind is also.” 


So, hurtful speech is a sign of a hurtful mind.  A foul mouth is a sign of a polluted mind.

This week I celebrated my sister’s birthday and was struck by two elderly couples in their late 70’s or early 80’s sitting at the table next to us.  They used the words “Jesus” and “Christ” on a consistent, ongoing basis as expletives.  It was just part of the way they conversed.  According to Jesus and James, their language reflected what was in their heart, in their mind, a disconcerting disrespect or maybe even rejection of God.

Continuing on with what Jesus said in Matt 12 …

A tree is recognized by its fruit.  You brood of vipers.  How can you speak what is good when you are evil, because the mouth speaks from what fills the heart?  A good person speaks what is good because he is filled with goodness, and an evil person speaks evil because he is filled with evil.  I say to you: on the day of judgment people will have to give an account concerning every careless word they speak.  On the basis of your words you will be acquitted (proclaimed innocent) or condemned (proclaimed guilty).      Matthew 12:36-37

Jesus pointed out that because our words are a reflection of what is in our minds, they are a sign of whether or not we are truly saved.   

This concept, that we might be saved because of what we believe (salvation by faith), but that our actions and words are in fact a reflection of whether or not we are saved (judgment by works), is why Jesus pointed out in the parable of the sheep and goats, that people are judged on the basis of what they do or what they did not do (Matt 25:31-46 – gave food to the hungry, give to drink to the parched, gave clothing to the naked, visited the sick…).  Similarly, Paul could write that people are judged according to what they do (Rom 2:6).   

And this leads us right into James chapter 3

1 My brothers, not so many of you should become (religious) teachers, because as you know, we who teach will be judged more strictly (at the last judgment).  2 We all miss the mark in many ways.  The one who never misses the mark with his words is a complete person and can also keep his whole body in check.  

James is beginning his section with a warning, given what he is about to write to them, just a few verses further on about the last judgment being based on how we speak.  Teachers … and he is thinking here about those who teach spiritual truth in a variety of settings.   

Preaching and teaching can be all the things he later talks about – destructive, hellish, corrupt, destructive, and divided.  I personally heard enough messages or Bible studies that made me cringe because they consisted of finger pointing, self-aggrandizement, and plain wrong.  By the way, that verse does not make it more comfortable being a pastor or Kidzone teacher or home group leader.

A little boy was leaving church one Sunday morning when he slipped a loony into the pastor’s hand. The pastor looked at him confused and asked him, “What’s that for?” The little boy looked up at him and said, “Cuz I felt sorry for you and want to help you out.” That confused him even more, so he asked, “Why do you feel you need to help me out?” Then the boy said, “Cuz my daddy says you’re the poorest preacher he’s ever heard.”

James then writes about something that permeates this passage – the incredible power of the tongue.  If a person can keep what he or she says under control, then they have the ability to keep all areas of their lives under control.  Speech, if under control, points to a mind under control and would lead to perfect self-control.  

By the way, control over our words also includes control over the way we speak to ourselves, not just out loud, but in our mind.  Imagine what would happen if we were able to stop all the negative self-talk that we are prone to and replace it with positive self-talk.

He then moves on to how our lives are controlled by what we say.

3 When we put a bit into the mouths of horses in order that them to obey us, we can direct the whole animal.  4 Or think about ships.  They are large and are driven by strong winds.  Still the pilot can steer them with a very small rudder to wherever he wants them to go.  5 In the same way the tongue is a small body part yet it boasts of great things.  

The tongue, what we say, how we speak, directs our very lives.  Imagine if we don’t gossip, we don’t speak too much, we don’t lie or distort the truth, or slander or exaggerate or distort.  We don’t swear and curse, or are crude and rude.  We don’t wound others, say hurtful and unkind words.   How would our relationships be impacted, how different would be our lives?  Could this actually change the course of our lives?

Can one sentence that someone speaks to you, change your life in an instant?  Can it shatter your world at the drop of a hat, either positively or negatively?  
What if you heard the words, “I’m sorry, your daughter didn’t make it” or, “It’s terminal.”  

Can they turn our world upside down and inside out?
Can words like these change our world from one day to another?

And isn’t the same true in the way that we speak to others. 

Guard your heart above all else for it determines the course of your life.                Proverbs 4:23

Indirectly, and as insignificant it may appear, what we say determines who we are, who we can become, the direction of our lives and, as we will see, even our eternity. 

Consider how a tiny fire can ignite a whole forest.  6 The tongue likewise is a fire, a world full of injustice.  

Most of us would never think of playing with matches in tinder dry country or fooling around with a loaded gun with the safety off, however, we think nothing of shooting from the hip, of going off half-cocked, speaking off the top of our heads, in other words of just spouting off without any thought to who we may hurt in the process.

James wants his readers to know that they need to be circumspect and aware of what they are saying because of the huge destructive potential of the tongue  

Have you ever personally experienced just how dangerous fires can be when the wind comes up and it jumps and threatens to get out of control?  That is how dangerous our words become when our anger, frustration, or meanness causes us to say things that we would never say if we were at peace with ourselves and the world.  

We often say things in the heat of the argument that we can regret for the rest of our lives.  We blow our stack and we can never undo what we’ve done.
We spread untruths about others, we share a juicy tidbit about someone else, we speak our minds and say just a bit too much, our pride makes us spout off.

On the other hand, we may fail to give praise when it’s due.  
We can feel grumpy and feel justified to make the lives of others miserable by letting them have it.
When we take others for granted we can convince ourselves that we can say anything we like to them because they can’t get away.
We can use our words like weapons to attack and diminish, debase and destroy others.

The tongue is that part that corrupts the whole person and sets on fire the whole course of life, and itself it is set on fire by hell.  

When a B29 bomber called the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb named “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, the co-pilot, Robert Lewis, looking down at the explosion, said, “What have we done?”  Sometimes when we drop a word bomb on someone else, it can be just as devastating.

Words matter.  Words count.  When spoken to ourselves or others they can determine how we feel, how we think, what we do.  Words can make someone believe in themselves or they can destroy a person.

Or what if a parent or someone close to us said, “I want you out of the house,” or “I hate you” or, “you’re an idiot,” or “you’re a mistake” or “you’re ugly, no one else would want you,” or something even more cruel and denigrating? 
What if a bully at school constantly picks on us, makes fun of us, demoralizes us?  If you experienced it you know just how death-bringing this can be?

Can we own those words and let them define us?  Can they bring emotional death?

What, on the other hand, if a parent or someone close to us said, “I believe in you,”  or “I trust you,” or “I’m so proud of you,” or “you’re beautiful,” or “ I love you”?  Can those words change the way we see ourselves?   Can they bring us life? Make us more joyful?  

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: whoever uses it lovingly will enjoy the fruit it brings.                            Proverbs 18:21

Words count.
Isn’t there a whole different internal reaction when someone says, “Just shut up!” and “Could you please be quiet”?  
Or when you’ve done terrible at an audition and your dad says, “You were terrible, how embarrassing!”  or “Darling, that’s great.  Just think how much potential you have for improvement!”

Jesus’ golden rule can be made to say, “Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to.”  Be the attitude you want to be around.

When we change our words, we can change our world.

7 Every kind of animal can be tamed and has been tamed by humans, those on earth or in the sky, crawling on the ground or swimming in the ocean, 

James did not mean here every animal on earth but the fact that certain animals that walk, fly, slither or swim can be domesticated or tamed or trained.  I’ve given just some examples, a horse, an eagle, a lion, a sea lion, and a couple of cobras.

8 but no one can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  

If you have been to a circus or sea world in San Diego, you have likely seen some impressive animal acts. Yet for all or humanity’s power to tame wild animals, no human can control their tongue perfectly. 

The tongue cannot be fully trained.  No one can keep from saying what is wrong and destructive and always keep his words “seasons with grace” and “seasoned with salt”  (Col 4:6) on a consistent basis.

Our tongues are restless, always active, always filled with the potential to poison ourselves, our relationships, our lives and the lives of others.  However, if we do believe in God and seek to follow his will, some change in the way that we speak to ourselves and to others will need to take place.

9 With it we praise the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who have been created in God’s likeness.  10 From one and the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, this cannot be.  

To curse someone means to wish or cause something bad to happen to them.  Perhaps the worst curse is to wish that someone would go to hell.  But we also curse others whenever we denigrate them.  Our words can bring a curse down upon someone by demoralizing them, destroying their self-image, calling them names, and so on.  

Verbal abusers who think they can cut down others and still praise God deceive themselves. We cannot praise God one moment and the next tear a strip off someone because they annoyed us.  When the abuse is painfully real, it puts the authenticity of the praise or worship into question.

We cannot speak like an angel in church and like the devil at home.  One of the best evidences of our spiritual condition is the words that we use and how we speak to and about other people.  

11 Does both fresh and salt water spring forth from the same spring?  12 My brothers, can a fig tree produce olives or an olive tree produce figs?  Likewise, a salt spring cannot produce fresh water.  

James again gives us a couple of ludicrous pictures to point out that words and faith have to go hand in hand.  While there may be salt springs in certain areas of the world, and of course fresh water springs, you won’t see them flowing from the same spot.  

And the only fruit a tree can produce is in keeping with the kind of tree it is.  To James it was inconceivable that a person could be saved, but keep speaking the way he did before he became a believer.  

This is also the reason why Paul writes this admonition to believers in Asia Minor: 

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.                        Ephesians 4:29

Words that are rude and crude, and more importantly, denigrating, negative, destructive, or diminishing words have to be replace with words that benefit and lift up or encourage.   

Perhaps a rule of thumb would be not to use words that we would not want someone else to call our brother, sister, mom or dad.  Or not to use words that we would be ashamed to say in front of our grandmother and grandfather.

So it’s Christmas time.  Let us remember that our words determine to a large extent whether we are spreading good cheer, happiness, joy, or misery and unhappiness.  

How can we change the way we speak?  By taking the time and self-awareness to listen to ourselves.  By determining, with God’s ever-present help, to stop ourselves from negative self-talk and destructive and hurtful put downs.  By being intent and determined to bring life and joy to others by speaking with kindness, compassion, and patience. 

And as we sing about the joy that is ours, that is the worlds, because of God’s gift to us, the birth of his son Jesus the Messiah, may we experience the joy of giving and receiving words that lift up and encourage.   And, as I’ve said before, determine to give the gift of a better you to all your loved ones for Christmas and in the coming year.