The Untamable Beast
The Untamable Beast
Text: James 3:1-12
Have you been on Facebook recently? Some of us are on every day. Some of us are on far too long and far too often. For many people, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have replaced face-to-face relationships and conversation. Social media appears to set up each of us as the king of our own universe, the lone voice of expertise. We have, in my opinion, lost the meaning of the word “friend.” We number faceless people we have never met, and probably wouldn’t like if we did, as “friends.” We have hundreds and thousands of friends we don’t even know - except through social media. In the meantime, we have very few real friendships, people with whom we can cry and laugh and share a cuppa. The sad fact is that many on social media have no one who is truly a friend – they live in an artificial world filled with artificial relationships.
I say all that to say this: Social media has replaced the human tongue. Instead of talking face- to-face, we argue, debate, or converse through memes, emojis, and text-speak. Instead of responding rationally, we use insult and innuendo. We say things on social media that we would never say to a person’s face. It is the anonymity and facelessness of Facebook that frees us from civility and social convention. We don’t have to be nice. We type language - profanity and scatological words - that we would never speak. We post pictures that would embarrass our mothers if they could see them. And, folks, I’m talking about Christians – or people who claim to be Christians. People who know better than to speak foul language have no such filters, reservations, or qualms when it comes to Facebook. We who would never speak a discouraging word seem uninhibited in typing them.
If James were writing his letter to the church today, I’m certain that it would not only be the tongue he would be trying to rein in. And I’m certain, beyond any doubt, that Jesus would condemn our use of social media, what comes through our fingers, the same way he did “what comes out of our mouth” (Matthew 15:10-20, Mark 7:14-23). It’s not what goes in that makes us unclean, but what comes out of our mouths - or through our fingers. It’s what comes from the heart.
Well, let’s get there by starting where James begins.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. There are a lot of people who want to be leaders who have never learned to follow. There are a lot of people who want to teach who don’t know anything. I have met a number, more than a few actually, a number of pastors, so-called, who began to preach shortly after they became believers. There was no period of preparation, no study, no discipling, no education – they just picked up the Bible and began to preach. Some were made pastors or assumed the role
within months of their salvation. I’ve had them tell me they don’t need study – all they need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit tells them what to preach. They’re not interested in learning the original languages; they’re not interested in context; they’re not interested in what John Wesley called “the whole tenor of the Scripture” - that is, taking into account the whole teaching. They’re not interested in what they dismiss as “man’s opinion”. Does anyone else see a problem with that?
It’s not a matter of protectionism on my part, as if my own job were at stake, or as if I wanted only certain people to be pastors. Well, actually, the last part is true. I want as pastors only those who are known to be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, have gifts and grace for ministry, and care deeply about truth and context. I want pastors prepared and filled with the spirit of understanding. But I also want pastors who are reverently terrified of misleading people in the name of Christ.As Jesus welcomed children to his arms, he told the adults around him, “If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!” (Matthew 18:6-7). A teacher is responsible for the eternal destiny of his students. He must be cautious and fearful of misleading them or teaching falsehood. We are under judgment for what we teach and preach. That means that those who teach and preach must know the Scripture well and know how to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). In James’ context, it also means that we need to teach carefully, mindful of the words we use and the way we use them. As teachers, we learn that words can kill or they can give live. Words can discourage or they can encourage. Words can tear down or they can build up. And we are responsible before God for the use of our tongue, for our choice of words. We, of all people, must learn to control the tongue.How difficult is it? James gives three examples – a horse, a ship, and a fire.
A horse is a big animal, but even a small child can make a horse go where he wants – just by the use of the bit in the horse’s mouth. The bit is uncomfortable, fitting over the tongue, and pulling against the sides of the mouth. It is less uncomfortable when it is straight, so the horse will respond in a way to straighten the bit in his mouth. Pull to one side and the horse will move to that side. Pull back and the horse will stop. Just a small piece of leather, rope, or steel is all it takes to control the horse. Likewise, the human tongue is a very small thing capable of doing much more than its size would indicate.
Those ships James knew are nothing compared to the great tankers, cruise ships, and military craft in use today, but they still rely on a relatively small appliance - the rudder. A flat piece of wood or metal, diverting the water one direction or another, is all it takes to turn those great ships. Likewise, James says, the tongue is capable of changing the direction of a life.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by forests, we know the danger and destruction of fire. In September, 2017, a teenager playing with fireworks ignited the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge. It burned for three months before being contained and consumed some 50,000
acres - over 78 square miles. The Camp Fire, that destroyed Paradise, California, cost 85 lives, caused $16.5 billion damage, destroyed almost 19,000 structures, and burned nearly 240 square miles, was apparently caused by an electrical failure. We know that it only takes a spark, a carelessly discarded cigarette, an untended campfire, to set an entire forest ablaze. Likewise, the tongue, James says, is capable of incredible destruction.
James calls the tongue a world of evil, able to corrupt the whole body, able to alter the course of one’s life, and set on fire by hell. And difficult to control. We have tamed and trained all kinds of animals, from goldfish to elephants. We have zoos and theme parks where we can go to watch them perform for us. We train them to sing, dance, and even speak human words. But, James says, no one yet has been able to tame the human tongue. It is the untamable beast, beyond human control. James seems to refer to the tongue as if it were a snake, a restless evil full of deadly poison, ready to strike without warning, ready to cut and maim and destroy.
We knew it wasn’t true, but we used to try to defend ourselves with the little couplet, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” And even if we didn’t know then that it was a lie, we soon learned how hurtful words could be. There are people here today, I’m sure, who have been deeply wounded by someone’s words, perhaps those of a parent or a teacher. You came to believe what they said to you or about you, and you have been limping from the injury ever since.
It is no wonder, to me at any rate, that self-control is listed as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23 and Peter includes self-control as a character trait that mature Christians add to their lives (1 Peter 1:6). Self-control isn’t just about what we look at or what we do. It’s not just about resisting temptation or standing strong when going through trial. Self-control, if anything, is about control of the tongue, keeping a tight reign on our lips. You should remember James’ admonition to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Maybe self-control is fruit of the Spirit because we need God’s help to hold our tongue. Let me suggest that James is urging us to sanctification.
I have heard preachers suggest that the most difficult surrender is our money – that we actually need three works of grace: salvation, sanctification, and sanctification of our money. I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong, but I think that perhaps our most difficult surrender is control of our tongues, that we need God’s miraculous work or purifying our tongues. We don’t necessarily need a gift of tongues, but we definitely need to give our tongues to God for him to purify.
Think what kind of witness we have with our words. James says we praise God with our tongues and then turn around and curse men with our tongues – people who are made in God’s image. Think about that for just a moment: we praise God and then curse God’s image. How is that even possible? Oh, we know, don’t we? It’s because we forget that we are made in God’s image. We forget that God is our creator and theirs. Our tongues do contradictory work – or our fingers, as the same sort of words flow out through our keyboard on social media. I was astonished to read a social media post filled with anger and profanity, cursing people who disagreed, and then ending with a list of Bible verses, quotes from Jesus telling us how we ought to love our neighbors and love one another. The admonitions to love just did not fit the angry profanity. From the same fingers, the same mind, the same mouth.
James says, that’s like a spring that spouts fresh and salty water at the same time. That’s not just unnatural – it’s impossible. He’s implying that there’s something seriously wrong with us when such things happen. It may be possible, but it shouldn’t be. It ought to be impossible for curses to come from a sanctified mouth. So, maybe, when that happens, it means that the mouth has not been given to God, has not been purified, has not been surrendered to the Spirit’s control. When I was a child and my parents heard bad words from me, they would say to me, “If there’s dirt in there, there needs to be soap.” And, folks, I learned to taste the difference between Dial and Ivory soap. A dirty mouth got a good, soapy, washing out. Maybe, just maybe, we need the Holy Spirit to give us a good washing out.
Cursing and blessing coming from the same mouth, James says, is like a fig tree bearing olives, or a grapevine bearing figs. It’s unnatural. It’s also unnatural for the Christian. And that’s a problem. Now, we’ve learned to graft different plants together. When we were buying trees, we found some like that. We have an apple tree that’s supposed to produce three different kinds of apples. But we have to manipulate nature to do that. Sin manipulates our nature. It corrupts us. And things that don’t normally, or naturally happen, do. We act against our creation.
The problem for us is that Paul tells us that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation – the old nature has been done away with (2 Corinthians 2:17). “For all things were changed when he found me. A new day broke through all around me. For I met the Master; now I belong to Him.” If that is true ... If we belong to Jesus ... If we are a new creation in Christ ... If, indeed, all things were changed, then we can no longer talk the way we used to talk. Our tongues, our words, must also be surrendered to God and cleansed by the Holy Spirit. As true as this is of the Christian, in general, it is even more so for those who would teach, preach, and lead the church. What comes out of our heart, through our lips – or through our fingertips – must also reflect that new creation. The untamable beast is tamed, subdued, cleansed and made new, by the work of the Holy Spirit.
I want us to take a moment, maybe more than a moment, for self-examination. Look into your heart. Is there a critical or judgmental spirit? Are you one from who’s spring flows both fresh and salty water, both blessings and curses? Is there mental dirt that needs a good Holy Spirit washing? Do you need the deeper work of heart cleansing, so that your words reflect the new creation? As we close this morning, begin to pray that God will show you such things and help you surrender them, that your heart, your words, will be purified by His Spirit.