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Book of James: Study 5 -- Power of the Tongue

By Fiona Soltes | Fiona Soltes if a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. | February 18 2010

This is the fifth of 13 sesions looking at selected passages from the Book of James. Click here to read the introduction and for an overview.

Click here to see the fourth session.

Session 5

Everywhere we look, it's drama, drama, drama: backbiting, insults, gossip, criticism, coarse language, not to mention statements that are just plain mean. Sometimes the cacophony of negativity surrounding us is intentional. Sometimes, though, it's the result of simple carelessness.

Sometimes, we're the ones who put it all in motion.

Funny thing about words that are spoken: Even though they're invisible, they can leave a lasting mark—for better or for worse. We may be fully aware that thoughtless comments can wound a spirit, crush a dream or damage a reputation; but consider this: That may apply to the one speaking the words as much as the one being spoken of or to.

In James 3, the writer talks about the evils of the tongue and reminds us that it's like the bit in a horse's mouth or the rudder of a ship, steering the body in the direction it will go. For many of us, however, there's a lack of understanding about just how much weight our words carry. In some situations—or with certain social groups—it may feel more comfortable to relax our standards, to gossip just a little or be snarky now and then.

Yet there it is in black and white: A salt spring, James tells us, cannot produce fresh water. Water that has been polluted by too much salt no longer can satisfy a thirst. On the contrary; the more saltwater a person drinks, the more dehydrated and thirstier he or she becomes.

The more pollution one puts out there, the less fresh the rest of his or her language seems. Hearing a Christian praise God for His compassion and mercy, then hearing that same person insult someone is incongruent. It is, as James puts it, like expecting a fig tree to bear olives.

The tongue is indeed hard to control, whether it's speaking up when we know we should but really don't want to, or holding back when we want to say something but probably shouldn't. In either case, the on/off switch can seem all too accessible. There's just the continued practice of self-control, the continued reliance on the Holy Spirit's help, and the enduring revelation that careless words can hurt us as much as they can hurt others.

What the Word Says:

"Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water" (James 3:10-12).

How It Applies: 

James admits that no man can tame the tongue. So why do we even try? First, because we model ourselves after One who is perfect; second, because what we have to offer a dying world is much more than salty, polluted water that has no ability to refresh a soul.

Questions for Group Discussion:

• Do you find that you are more likely to be critical, gossip or use harsh language with some of your friends than others? If so, why do you think that is?

• Why do you think James says no [human] can tame the tongue?

• What are some ways to steer a gossip fest or trash-talk session in another direction? Why might it be important to do so?

• Have you ever had something you've said about someone else come back to haunt you? Describe the situation.

• In general, do you consider your youth group/small group a place where words shared are more likely to be positive and encouraging or potentially harmful (even if shared in a joking manner)? If it's the latter, what do you think could be done to change that?

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