Q&A: The Importance of Words

The Importance of Words

Question

How important are our words? We say so many of them per day. Some seem to be non-consequential and others more consequential. Just how important are our words?

Answer

The universe was created by the divine words the Lord God himself spoke (Gen. 1:1-2:4). Also in the beginning, the Lord God spoke to man and even gave him the ability to speak with words (Gen. 3:9-13, et. al.). The Bible is written with everlasting words (Psa. 119:89). Our covenant Lord hears our words and dispatches angels to come for them (Dan. 10:12). Worship songs (Psa. 104:33) and preaching (Acts 2:14-41) contain words. We pray with words (Matt. 6:9-13). Whether social media, school, work, politics or relationships, words are part of everyday life.

Words are more than mere letters of the alphabet that are strung together. Words have real power. They have genuine meaning. They make a tangible impact. Each word we use and don’t use is significant, even those that may seem to be inconsequential at the time. They have the power to build up others or destroy them (Prov. 12:6). They have the power of life and death (Prov. 18:21). They may help change the course of a nation (Jonah 3:1-3, 4-5, 6-9, 10). And our words even have significance in the world to come (Matt. 13:36-37).

When it comes to words, Jesus reminds us "the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil" (Matt. 12:34-35). Sinners are full of corrupt words (Rom. 3:14). Their throats are open graves (Rom. 3:13), and inside graves are skeletons and stench. Not a very pleasant image, is it?

However, words may also do a lot of good (Matt. 12:35). A person is converted (though not regenerated) to Christ through the power of the Spirit by words (Rom. 10:9-10). And those who are saved are commanded to let their speech "always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:6; 3:16). As believers, our mouths are to be opened to praise and glorify God (Rom. 15:6). And they are supposed to speak gently and respectfully to others (1 Pet. 3:15).

Much can be said about words, but let’s consider particularly James 3:1-12 which deals with our tongues — that muscular organ responsible for articulating words. Christian maturity means taming the tongue to control our spoken words. But the tongue is difficult to tame (Jas. 3:1-2). It is powerful (Jas. 3:3-5) and can be destructive (Jas. 3:6-7). It is also inconsistent (Jas. 3:8-12).

Difficult: The Taming of the Tongue (Jas. 3:1-2)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.

James was a teacher. Through the Holy Spirit he taught that teachers should be conscious of the weight and impact of their words. Teachers have the responsibility to rightly study, know, and communicate the truth. The right thing must be said in the right way, as words can sway entire lives. This implies that the communicator must also know both the Spirit and his audience well. Thus they are held to a greater standard of accountability (cf. Luke 12:47-48).

James states that no one has arrived at perfection when it comes to the matter of the tongue. He says, "For we all stumble in many ways" (Jas. 3:2). Notice the phrase "in many ways" as opposed to just one or a couple of ways. By saying all he includes himself. James wasn’t perfect in his speech. In fact, wasn’t he among those that said of Jesus, "He is out of his mind" (Mark 3:21)? At that time James wasn’t a teacher, and he wasn’t even a believer until later. So, James’ message here is applicable not only to teachers but every one of us. While James 3:1-12 has specific application to teachers, it also has general applications including both you and me. It includes all Christians. Woe is me!

A doctor can learn a lot about our physical health by examining our mouths. It can reveal such things as hand-foot-mouth disease, cancer or other abnormal growths. The tongue can tell how hydrated we are. Your gums and teeth can indicate a possible heart condition. Likewise, the words that proceed from our mouths are a good indicator of our spiritual health. What’s the condition of our hearts? (Matt. 12:34). What spiritual abnormalities are we dealing with? What cancerous curses are said by us? Or what healing balms? It's important for believers to take their spiritual temperatures by reviewing what comes out of their mouths.

Scripture tells us it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34; 15:18-19). Think about the spiritual anatomy here. It's as though the tongue is directly connected to the heart and it projects the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Depending on the condition of the heart, words may be used for good (Prov. 15:4) or ill (Luke 22:4).

James 3:2 says, "And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body." Since there is no such thing as a perfect man (save Christ alone), this implies that the tongue is difficult to master. Then in verse 8 James more than implies this when he says "no human being can tame the tongue" (James 3:8).

James is teaching what we refer to as vocal or verbal holiness. And vocal holiness is the most difficult struggle in the Christian life. Just like soldiers on a battlefield, words must be controlled. If they aren't, chaos results and others may die or be wounded, some even due to friendly fire. We must discern when we are to be silent and when we are to speak. And if we are to speak, what words are we to say? What is their tone? Life's everyday battlefield conditions must be evaluated and these questions continuously asked.

Powerful: The Taming of the Tongue (Jas. 3:3-5)

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

James provides us with some vivid illustrations of the power of the tongue. Let's first consider his reference to bits: "A bit is a piece of metal or synthetic material that fits in a horse's mouth and aids in the communication between the horse and rider. It's part of the bridle and allows the rider to connect with the horse via the reins." [1] So a small thing in a horse's mouth enables a rider to guide his horse. Similarly, the tongue is very small and is also in our mouths. James' point is that the course of our overall lives is controlled by our very small tongues.

James also describes the tongue as the rudder on a ship. Ships were well known in the Old Testament (Prov. 30:19; Jonah 1:3-4, etc.). Four different Greek words (naus, ploiarion, ploionm and skaphe) are used for ships or boats in the New Testament. In Acts 27:41, naus defines a large sea-going vessel in which Paul suffered shipwreck. James is referring to another small thing with significant effect. In the same way, again, the little tongue can control the course of our entire life. (Note: Noah’s ark had no rudder because God controlled it — oh to have this spiritual rudder!)

The point here is clear: the tongue may be small but its power is out of proportion to its overall size. Perhaps a modern-day example will help: One gram of uranium per day liberates about 1 megawatt. One megawatt = 1,000 kilowatts = 1,000,000 watts. This is the energy equivalent of 3 tons of coal or about 600 gallons of fuel oil per day. [2] The use of a small amount of uranium for nuclear energy can power large cities. Or when not controlled properly, it can destroy them. Just like a small gram of uranium, a small tongue is very powerful and can be used for good or ill.

Destructive: The Taming of the Tongue (Jas. 3:6-7)

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind.

An uncontrolled tongue is like a fire that flames out of control (Psa. 120:3-4; Prov. 16:27). Fires cause damage and fires kill. As of October 2020, California alone has had over 8400 wildfires, burning more than 4 million acres, destroying 9200 structures, and killing at least 31 people. [3]

The imagery used by James is that of "fire" and "hell" itself. He uses the term "Gehenna" for hell referring to a burning garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Burning "garbage speech" such as gossip, lying, empty chatter, and slander can cause incredible harm. Even one word out of place can consume and destroy a life.

James tells us the tongue is "a world of unrighteousness … staining the whole body." In our natural sinful state, our uncontrolled words don't just occasionally go bad. It's pretty continuous because the words come from a burning garbage dump (our hearts) that are completely bad in every way. They can also make toxic what we think, what we assume, what we plan, what we do. An uncontrolled tongue is an evil that scorches and destroys everything in its path.

James also says animals can be tamed but the tongue is untamable by normal means. During the pot-bellied pet pig craze of the mid-80s to early 90s, a friend of mine owned one. It was a nicely groomed fat pig. It wore a colorful collar, a bow on its head, and even perfume. One day, on finding the patio door was open, that pig took off for a pond a few hundred steps away so it could wallow in the mud. Our mouths may appear to be dressed-up domesticated pets, but our tongues retain their pig nature and often wander off to the gutters.

Inconsistency: The Taming of the Tongue (Jas. 3:8-12)

James 3:8-12 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and saltwater? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

The tongue is not just untamable, it is a restless evil. The Greek word James uses for "restless" is derived from the Greek word akastatatos. It is also used in James 1:8 where it's interpreted as "unstable." In a sense, an uncontrolled tongue is like a gun in a nervous hand threatening anyone near it with venomous bullets (Psa. 140:3; Rom. 3:13). [4]

James points us to the sad contradiction of the same tongue that can so destructively curse others can also be used to praise God. Doesn’t this seem strange? James then cleverly uses a chiasm to illustrate and emphasize the inconsistent use of our tongues.

  • Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? (Jas. 3:11)
    • Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, (Jas. 3:12)
    • or a grapevine produce figs? (Jas. 3:12)
  • Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water (Jas. 3:12)

Inspired Scripture makes it clear here that the believer’s use of words is often more contradictory than anything we find in nature itself. The same tongue that praises God should respect others made in his image! (Jas. 3:9-10). What can we do to be consistent? How do we become verbally holy? It certainly involves spiritual maturity and this is gained by studying, understanding, and practicing the wisdom which is from above (Jas. 3:17-18).

May God give us all grace and mercy to acknowledge the importance of words, to make us aware of what proceeds from our mouths, and to work at being sure they bring blessing to others and glory to God.

Footnotes

[1] Deb M. Eldredge, DVM. A "Bit" About Bits. (https://www.horsehealthproducts.com/horsemans-report/horse-care/a-bit-about-bits). Last Accessed 8 October 2020.

[2] Nuclear Fission Energy. (https://www2.lbl.gov/abc/wallchart/chapters/14/1.html). Last Accessed 9 October 2020.

[3] Northern California Wildfires: Where To Find Updates On Air Quality, Evacuations, And Official Information. (https://www.capradio.org/articles/2020/10/08/latest-updates-on-northern-california-wildfires/). Last Accessed 9 October 2020.

[4] In the metaphor "full of deadly poison," James is possibly referring to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He used what sounded like innocent-sounding words which ultimately brought about death (Gen. 3).

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What are Biblical Chiasms?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).