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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Taming the Tongue

In a few weeks I will be completing a twelve-week sermon series on the book of James. In the third chapter James talks about the trouble the tongue can cause in our lives.

Years ago I read a story about a woman in a small village in France who was known as the town gossip. Her tongue was always wagging about the latest bit of juicy news. Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her so she went to see the priest. She poured out her heart to the kindly old father. After listening to her tale of woe, he said, “My child, this is what I want you to do. Pluck chickens until you have filled a flour sack. Then walk throughout the village tossing the feathers into the air until you have emptied the sack. When you are finished, come back and see me.” Thinking this to be a rather odd request, the woman nonetheless, did as the priest asked. When she went back to see him, he gave her an additional assignment. This time she was to walk throughout the village just as before, only this time she was to pick up all the feathers she had tossed about. Stunned, the woman looked at the priest feeling she had not heard him right. He smiled kindly and assured her he was perfectly serious. The woman replied, “But Father, that would be impossible!” “Exactly!” he replied. Once you lose control of your tongue and speak badly of others, you cannot take it back.”

The amount of heartache that the tongue has caused is known only by God. James is right on the money when he says, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. 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.” How many times have you found yourself saying, “I didn’t mean it” or “Why did I say that?”

As kids we were taught to think first, then speak. This goes right along with the admonitions of Scripture. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Now that’s wisdom! Just think! If you and I would discipline ourselves in first learning to listen, how much trouble we would avoid. And while you’re listening, I mean really listening, you won’t be occupied with preparing a rebuttal, or waiting for the other person to take a breath so you can jump in. To listen at that level means you would take your time in responding, assuming a response was even necessary. Further, you avoid the emotional trap of reacting too quickly. Instead, by listening well, the initial emotional reaction passes, therefore giving no opportunity for your anger to take over.

With the tongue we are able to “slice and dice” another person. We can harm a person in the very depths of their soul with a simple well-timed word. We Roots men are slow to grow to our full height. We eventually get there – it just takes a while. Anyway, I remember being much shorter than all the other kids as I was growing up – including the girls! The bigger boys used to call me names until the day I decided I wasn’t going to stand for that anymore. After decking the kid who’d been giving me the most trouble, everyone left me alone. But to this day I can still hear the hurtful comments as if it was yesterday. Like you, I heard the old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” That’s utter nonsense! Like the woman in the story who spread the feathers, it was impossible to gather them back. Those words spoken some forty-five years ago are still with me.

Finally, James says, “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Ouch!

So let me ask you. How are you using your tongue? Do you constantly criticize your spouse, or make fun of them in front of others? Do you take time to compliment your employees, thanking them for the job they’re doing, or do you endlessly berate them? Is your child a target of your criticism? Can they do anything right in your eyes? Do you constantly spill out poison, spreading hurt as you walk through your village?

Consider Paul’s words in the book of Ephesians: “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.” Now that’s sound advice! Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths. That word “unwholesome,” literally means “rotten.” Be done with rotten talk. Instead, use words that build others up, which in the Greek, literally means to “build a house.” Catch the imagery?

It’s your call – positive or negative – using words that encourage or discourage. If you have trouble with your tongue, that’s okay. You see, God knows, and he’s the best one to help you clean up your act, starting with your tongue. Just ask him, and see what happens!
You’ll like the change!

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