“The roof would cave in if I ever came to church!” That’s what he always said, whenever somebody said anything to him about coming to church – “The roof would cave in…” He said it so often, I think he even started believing it himself. He wasn’t a wicked man, he just didn’t want to come to church, and that seemed like the fastest way to get people off his back.
His wife had quit asking him a long time ago, but out of the blue – I think it was a Mother’s Day – he got up put on a coat and tie, and told his wife, “I’m coming to church with you.” She said, “You are?!?” “I am.” (I think even she was a little afraid for the structural integrity of the church building.) But she said, “Thank you.” And she kissed him and they loaded up the kids in the car, and off they drove to that poor unwitting building that would soon have to have major structural repair if he had been right all these years.
He walked in the door, and nothing moved – except the mouth of the greeter who loudly exclaimed, “Bobby! What are you doing here? I never expected to see you in a church. Can you believe it everybody? Bobby here came to church. I guess the roof’s going to cave in.” He really said it. He shouldn’t have, but he did.
I don’t have to tell you that was the last time Bobby ever came to church, Mother’s Day or not. In fact, he never made it past the front door that morning – he just turned around and walked out, with his wife and kids following behind him, crying. It was just miserable.
And the greeter with the big mouth? He said, “I didn’t mean nothing by it!” And I thought about the fellow in Proverbs: “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’”
There’s a phrase that has become familiar over the last several years in warfare – “friendly fire.” Sometimes, our soldiers are killed not by enemy weapons, but our own. Missile coordinates are a degree off and instead of landing a laser guided bomb on the enemy it lands among our own soldiers. A policeman is killed, not by the gunfire of the bank robber, but by his own partner’s stray bullet. It’s tragic and unintended, but deadly nevertheless. And how many wives have been wounded and children damaged by the careless words of an angry husband or father?
They say that in the early days of naval warfare, they lost more sailors to the kickback of the cannons following the firing than were ever killed by enemy cannon fire. The cannon would fire off a shot, and that cannon would come roaring back from its seat on deck and men would be crushed and burned and thrown overboard. They tried all kinds of ways of securing those cannons, but they’d still have them break loose and more men would be killed. I guess that’s why we still talk about loose cannons. A loose cannon is someone you can’t trust to say the right thing (or maybe, you really can count on them – to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.)
The sages in Proverbs have lots of names for people who are careless with their words – fools, simpletons, senseless, mockers. The name he uses here really drives home the irony of it – he’s a madman, he’s crazy, he’s out of his mind – he’s shooting and maiming and killing recklessly – not enemies, not strangers, but his neighbors – leaving a trail of dead and wounded in his wake. Like a mother who would kill her own children, or a husband who would murder his family. What are they thinking? We don’t know, they’re out of their minds. It doesn’t make any sense.
Why would anyone use words to hurt the people he loves and cares for? I don’t know, but every now and then, I plead insanity. I say things I really don’t mean. But they just come out of my mouth and there they are, crushing my wife, knocking my friends into the ocean, piercing their hearts with flaming arrows. I don’t know why I said them, I wasn’t thinking, I was only joking. But they hurt worse than if a stranger had said them, because my opinion counts in their eyes.
We say things at church. We’ve sanctified the art of picking and put-downs. We’ve all done it – we’ll pick on each other and then say, “I only do it because I love you.” Thanks a lot. I wonder how mean you are to the people you don’t like. Of course, there’s a place for humor and laughter – we’re a family. And every now and then, a little good-natured ribbing isn’t out of place. But I’ve been around some brothers who couldn’t carry on a conversation if they weren’t saying hurtful things (all in the name of “showing people I love them,” of course).
Even more dangerous are the people who intentionally take aim at brothers and sisters and send their wounding arrows flying. Criticizing a brother for doing a good work because they think he’s pushy; spreading gossip about a sister who’s struggling getting her life back in order; going behind the scenes spreading opposition to something going on at church and working disunity by setting one group against another. And they justify their words, thinking, “somebody’s got to speak up,” or “I’m only saying what everybody else is thinking.” Our words have the power to heal but they have an even greater power to hurt and destroy. And we use them so flippantly, so thoughtlessly.
Solomon said in Prov.18, “The tongue has the power of life and death…” And every one of us knows the truth of that. Our words have an incredible power. The things we say, intentionally or unintentionally, can literally change the course of another person’s life.
In the third chapter of the book of James, James brings this power into sharp focus through a series of pictures which he paints for us. He uses familiar images in order to drive home the absolute truth and necessity of what he said just a few verses earlier in 1:26 – “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
These images are in three sets of two. The first two illustrate the power of the tongue to direct – Vss. 3-5a - When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
Some of you ride horses – some of you have been riding horses since you were little enough to walk underneath the horse without ducking. And yet, you would get up on this horse 20 times your size and weight, and you would tell that horse to go right – left – back-up – jump – whatever you said, the horse would do. How? You put a bit into the mouth of the horse and when you pulled the reign it would direct the horse to follow your instructions. Just a little piece of metal that controlled the actions of a half-ton animal.
But then James immediately switches images to a ship – a vessel capable of sailing on the ocean, carrying hundreds, even thousands of people and tons of cargo. And yet, this enormous vessel, is guided by a relatively small piece of metal below the stern of the ship called a rudder. You’ve done it in a paddle boat – turn the arm of the rudder one way and you go right, the other way and you go left. The principle is the same for an aircraft carrier – a vessel the size of 3 football fields, weighing 97,000 tons, directed by a rudder the size of a large garage door.
And James says the tongue has that kind of power to direct. Though it is small, the tongue can literally change the course of history.
Think of the power your words have to influence the lives of the people around you. You could use your words to lead someone to Christ, or you could just as easily convince someone that church is a waste of time.
In fact, think about the power your words have on your children: You could use your words to encourage your children to be strong, faithful Christians, or when you speak you could belittle the church and criticize the elders and complain about worship and drive your children away from God. Don’t tell me words don’t make a difference.
The second two images illustrate the power of the tongue to destroy – vss. 5b-8 - 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. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Though it was over twenty-two years ago, many of you vividly remember the Storm King fire that consumed 2100 acres around us and took the lives of fourteen firefighters. Even this many years later there are still blackened stumps and memorials on the mountain behind us – reminders of just how terrible and tragic a fire can be. And that fire that caused so much devastation started with a single lightning strike that set ablaze a single tree which spread and burned for 9 days in July 1994.
When the tongue starts its course of destruction, it leaves charred lives behind – through slander and gossip and hatred it spreads its bitterness to others leaving reputations ruined and relationships scorched beyond repair.
His second picture is of the animal kingdom. He says, you can tame nearly any kind of animal – large, small, bird or fish, lizard or mammal – they’ve all been tamed. But the tongue, James says, is untamable. It’s like a deadly, venomous snake going around biting and poisoning and killing wherever it goes. You might be able to tame an elephant, but you can’t control the tongue.
And it’s not just the intentional destruction that is so heartbreaking, sometimes it’s the careless words and the thoughtless remark that do just as much damage.
The third set illustrate the power of the tongue to delight – vss. 9-12 - With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 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.
He asks two questions: “Can fresh and salt water flow from the same spring?” The answer is no.
One of the delights of living in Colorado is going up into the mountains, and every now and then finding the source of a small mountain stream coming right out of the heart of the mountain – the freshest, purest, coldest water you will ever drink. But I’ve also hiked out in some of the most barren pasture land in West Texas and found brackish ponds with white alkali crusted along the shore and no vegetation for fifty yards around it. What if you leaned down to that mountain stream to take a drink and scooped up a mouthful of brackish water? Something would be wrong – the two don’t come from the same source.
The second question is similar – “Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?” Again, the answer is no – a tree bears fruit of its own kind.
And the point James makes is that your tongue is really the window of what’s inside. He says, “Out of the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”
Jesus was more explicit – in Mt. 12:34, Jesus said, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
The pictures that James paints tell us that we have the ability to choose – our words can be refreshing and nourishing and life-giving like the fresh spring and the fig tree. But those words of delight will only come from a heart that is pure and a life that is holy. You can’t live a life that ignores God and rebels against his will and expect your words to be uplifting and positive – a Christian life and destructive words are incompatible.
Paul also wrote about the importance and the impact of our words to outsiders: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” But even more so what we say to each other: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs.”
Careless words – more damaging than any calculated condemnation. When I’m angry and I think of what I want to say to the person who caused it, I’ll think through what I’ll say, I’ll carefully craft my phrases, I’ll be very specific about what I’ll say and how I’ll say it. If I’m really, really angry I’ll write it down and rehearse it… and then I’ll wad it up and throw it in the trash. I don’t ever remember delivering a one of my brilliantly crafted denunciations. It’s when I’m not thinking, when I just blurt it out and then wish I hadn’t that I cause so much hurt and regret.
The wise man of Proverbs continually reminds us of the importance of restraint, of being careful with our words, of being aware and sensitive to the effect that our actions and words have on others.
I still saw Bobby around town a lot – it was a small town. But I never heard him say another word about the roof of the church caving in. I guess it’s because for him the church really had caved in that Sunday morning on Mother’s Day.