Taming the Tongue

Pastor Kim Gilliland
September 12, 2021 Proper 19
SCRIPTURE: James 3: 1-12
Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
James 3: 2b (NIV)


The book of James talks about very practical ways of putting faith into practice. It reminds us of what we have to do to live the faith that we profess. Last week we looked a how James teaches us to treat others with respect and not show favouritism. Today we are going to look at one of the most difficult teachings in James and it is all about the tongue. This is a tough one, maybe the toughest teaching in the book of James.

Let’s face it. Of all of the parts of the body, it is the tongue that can get us into the most trouble the most quickly. The wrong word said in the wrong way to the wrong person can have lasting and detrimental effects on the rest of your life or the life of someone else. How many times have you said something that you later wished you hadn’t? Have you ever said something very innocently but later learned that someone else took it the wrong way? Have you ever said something and immediately regretted it because you knew it was the exact wrong thing to say at that moment?

The tongue, indeed, is a very powerful tool. James talks about it in chapter 3 of his epistle and he points out some of the big issues. James 3:1-2 (NIV) says:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

He connects teaching with the tongue. That makes sense. Back then, most teaching was verbal. It was the spoken word. James says that teachers have a special responsibility to teach well. But he also knows that everyone makes mistakes. We all stumble in many ways. But then he adds this; that anyone who never says anything wrong is perfect. That’s a bit tongue in cheek because, as we’ve already said, no one is perfect. But James also says this. If someone is perfect in what they say then they are perfect in every other way. Why? Because if you can control your tongue, then you should be able to control everything else. That’s because the tongue is the hardest of all things to control.


Let’s move on to James 3:3-6 (NIV):

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. 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 body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

Little things can make a big difference. They can be very powerful. A little bit in a horses mouth helps the rider control the horse. A little rudder at the back of a ship is used to steer massive vessels. A tiny spark, if it lands in a pile of dried brush at the wrong time can cause an entire forest to burn to the ground. James tells us that the tongue can be just as damaging and just as deadly. Just ask the people out west who had to deal with so many forest fires this summer. At one point the smoke from British Columbia could be seen in our skies here in Southwestern Ontario. You have to be aware of little things – bits, rudders, sparks – and the power that they can wield. The tongue is a little thing but it’s also very powerful.

As Christians, we have to be very careful about how we use our tongues. With our tongues we can lead people to Christ or we can turn them off. It’s as simple as that. If we use our tongues to lead people to Christ, God is glorified. If we use them to turn people off, we push people away from the cross and they may never get to know Jesus and his saving love. That’s the power of that little tongue in your head.


Any country music fans out there? If you are, then you’ve probably seen the music video or heard the song called Watching You by Rodney Atkins. The message is spot on with what I want to say today. The song is about a father and his four-year old son. They appear to have a good relationship. They’re having fun together. In the first verse, they’re driving along down the road when all of a sudden Dad hits the breaks and junior’s happy meal goes flying all over the truck and his orange pop ends up in his lap. What does the boy do? He lets out a four-letter word beginning with S. And the Dad is concerned because he wonders how his son learned that word. And his son tells him:

He said, “I’ve been watching you, dad. Ain’t that cool?

I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you.

And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are.

We got cowboy boots and camo pants.

Yeah, we’re just alike. Hey, ain’t we, dad?

I wanna do everything you do.

So I’ve been watching you.’

Where did he get that four-letter word? It wasn’t in the playground or at day care. It wasn’t at school or on the soccer field. He learned it from his father. Did the father remember teaching his son to be vulgar? No. Did he remember using the four-letter word in front of his son? No. But he must have. And before we get too technical on what is appropriate language and what is not, I realize that the word that is being referenced in this song is really fairly mild. But the point is that it could have been any word and there are a lot of worse words out there.

I know that people have always used profanity. I spent thirty-one years in the army and can safely say that there is probably nothing I have not heard in both official languages. And in my weaker moments, I’ve probably said most of those four-letter words as well. I’m not perfect and I know that I have to catch myself far too often when it comes to profanity. Usually I catch it but part of me is concerned about what will happen when I get old and some of my filters begin to decay. It’s almost frightening to think what’s going to come out of my mouth. But here’s the problem. While people have always used those words, especially men, we used to know better than to take them home. Now people talk at home or in public the same way they do at work or in the army.

In the second verse we see something quite different. The impact of his actions hit Dad square on as he realizes where his son picked that little four-letter word do he goes to the barn and prays, asking God to help him not to be so incredibly stupid.

That night, as he’s putting his son to bed, his little boy crawls out of bed, kneels down and starts to pray, talking to God just like a friend. Dad is both impressed and awed. And he asks his son how he learned to pray like that. And his son tells him:

He said I’ve been watching you dad, ain’t that cool

I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you

And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are

We like fixing things and holding mama’s hand

Yeah we’re just alike, hey ain’t we dad

I wanna do everything you do

So I’ve been watching you

Did his dad remember teaching his son to pray? No. Can he remember knelling down with him for bedside prayers? No. Did he do that intentionally? Apparently not but somehow his son learned it from his dad. You just never know when a person is watching you so perhaps its best to act as if you think someone is because, guess what? Someone is watching, His name is Jesus and he cares about what you do and he cares about what you say.

Rodney Atkins’ song reminds us of something very important. Every day, we have the opportunity to use our mouths for profanity or praise and every day we choose which one it will be. Our choices effect not only us but also those around us because they will decide what they think about us and our God based on what comes out of our mouths. The question is this: what will you choose?

So what? Why should we care? We should care because this video highlights the fact that, as parents, we set the examples for our children and, I would suggest, not just for our children but for all of those around us as well.

Here’s another thing we need to keep in mind because even Christians are often guilty of it. Many Christians, when they want to express surprise or pleasure say, “O my God.” You hear it all the time. I have no problem with people saying, “O my God,” as part of prayer or in adoration. But as an arbitrary or flippant expression of joy or surprise, it’s taking the name of the Lord in vain and we are called in Scripture not to do that.

James 3:7-8 (NIV) says this: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” But as difficult as it is to tame the tongue, it is important that we try because, while we cannot expect ourselves to be perfect, we know that with God’s help we can get better.

Jesus reiterated these thoughts in Matthew 15:11 (NIV) which says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Did you get that? It’s not what goes into your mouth that makes defiles you. You are defiled by what comes out of your mouth. Why does it defile you? Because it dishonours God. Whenever people take the Lord’s name in vain or use vulgar language it dishonours God and that is a sin.

Here’s the point. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to take James’ words seriously. The tongue is the part of the body that can get us into the most trouble the fastest. We need to be very aware of that and very aware that what we say can have serious and lasting repercussions not just for us but also for those around us. As we read in James 3:7-8 (NIV): “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”


The first verse of Watching You depicts a father who realizes that he taught his son to use his tongue for profanity. The second verse depicts the same father realizing that he also taught his son how to praise God. The song moved from profanity to praise.

Here’s a thought. When it comes to praise or profanity, which one do you think is more natural? To answer that question, I want to turn to Psalm 19. Psalm 19:1-4a says this:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;

    night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;

    no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,

    their words to the ends of the world.

This psalm isn’t hard to understand. It lists many of the things that God created during the first five days of creation in the Genesis story. There are the heavens and the sky, the day and the night and the earth complete with land and water. Before God created us, God created them. Guess what they naturally do? They use their voices to praise God. The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day pours forth speech. Night displays knowledge. Their words are heard all over the face of the earth. Here, at the very dawn of creation, everything sings praises to God. Before humans are created, praise is on the lips of creation. It is only after God created people, and I would suggest that it was only after the fall, that people begin to replace praise with profanity. But the default position for creation has always been to praise God. That should always be our default position too. When given the choice between praise and profanity, we should always choose praise.

But someone will ask the question, “What if I do both?” That’s a reasonable question and James provides a reasonable answer. James 3:9-12 (NIV) says:

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

Think about those words. Should praise and profanity come from the same mouth? Can fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? No, they can’t and neither should we use our mouths for anything other than praise. Jesus said that it is not what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of them. It is not what goes into our mouth but what comes out of them that is the problem.

That’s a hard teaching. It’s hard because it is so contrary to the ways of the world. Profanity has become so commonplace that many people think it is just the way people should talk. As Christians, we must resist the temptation to fall to the easy road and talk like everyone else. God expects something more from us.

Here’s the final question. How do we know what we can say and what we can’t say? That’s an easy question to answer. It’s as basic as this. If you wouldn’t say it here in worship on Sunday morning than you probably shouldn’t say it anywhere else. That’s a great guideline. If you aren’t comfortable saying it in here, you probably shouldn’t be saying it out there. And yet people do and they do it all the time. And it is so hard to change because words are so easy to say but impossible to take back. It is not what goes into a person that defiles them. It is what comes out.

Psalm 19:14 (NIV) ends with these powerful but familiar verse: “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart  be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Those words don’t just apply to the weekly sermon. They apply to everything we say along every step of life. May the words that we all use be acceptable to God that we may praise him and give him glory.


Gracious God, your love spreads out over the heavens. Your Spirit breathes over the face of the earth bringing life and hope and promise. Bless us in all of our days. Enable us to live in the fullness of Christ, to walk in your way and to be your people.

We give thanks for all those who reach out to the poor, the destitute and the dying. Their dedication is an inspiration to us all. Forgive us, God, when we complain that we do not have enough. Forgive us when we are critical of those who send money overseas saying that we have enough need in Canada. Compared to the rest of the world, we do not know the meaning of poverty. Encourage us to reach out beyond ourselves to support ministries to the poorest of the poor.

We lift up the political leaders of our nation as they seek to find viable and fair solutions to very important and complex issues. These prayers are especially important as we approach a federal election in just a couple of weeks. We pray for understanding and the ability to see beyond our own needs to the legitimate needs of others. Once again, we remember the Canadian Forces personnel in various parts of the world. Bless them in their roles as peace makers and justice seekers.

We remember the violence perpetrated by extremists in Afghanistan who continue to betray the people. We realize, O God, that this can not be from you but we also ask that you would touch their hearts with the truth that they may put aside their violence and embrace your way which is shown to us in Jesus Christ.

We lift up in prayer for the sick of our congregation and community: Mark, Carol, Richard, Angela and others who we know and love. Grant them your healing O God. Our prayers, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


September 12, 2021 / Proper 19 / Creation 1


Psalm 19; Proverbs 1:20-30; Mark 8:27-38; James 3:1-12


The heavens declare the glory of the Lord;

The creatures of earth give praise to the Most High.

God’s law is perfect, God’s precepts just.

Praise be to the One who gives us life.

Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy


The heavens declare the glory of the Lord. The earth shouts with joy to the Rock of our Salvation. We come into your presence, O God, as travellers on a journey. As you have set the stars in the courses and the planets in their orbits, so you set a path for us. As we worship, help us to see your path more clearly for we know that when we follow your way, our feet with not falter nor our hopes be dimmed. Renew us with your power and delight us with your love. Amen.


Your path is set before us, O God, but we often choose to wander from your way. We do things that are contrary to your will. We say things that are hurtful and disrespectful of others. Sometimes we sin by omission, at other times we fall by an act of our own free will. Place our feet upon your path, O God of Mercy, and lead us back to you again. Amen.


Our sins are washed away not by our own actions or by our own will. We cannot, on our own, earn our salvation. We are cleansed by the sacrifice of Jesus who gave his sinless life as a ransom for all that we may approach the throne of grace with the assurance that we accepted by God.


As the earth provides its fruit in season, so do you provide for our needs, O God of Plenty. These gifts are but tokens of all that you have given to us, reminders that we need to give thanks for all things in all ways for everything has its source in you. Amen.


As children of God, go forth to love and serve God and, in serving God, care for your sisters and brothers. Share the Word with them that they also come to the faith of Jesus.

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