Life: The pressure of words

• The Bible Studies for Life lesson for Sept. 22 focus on James 3:1-18.

It’s wildfire season. As I’m writing this, the Rim Fire is threatening the giant sequoia trees of Yosemite National Park. Already the fifth-largest fire in California history, the Rim Fire has swept through 200,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 buildings. While we don’t yet know the cause of this specific fire, we know most wildfires originate from human activity. A power line downed in a storm, an unattended campfire, a spark thrown from a railroad track or a cigarette butt carelessly tossed from a car window all can ignite fires that burn out of control. “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 such a small spark” (James 3:5).

Like small sparks, our words carry destructive power. Have you ever said something and instantly wished you could unsay it? Had a relationship broken beyond repair because of the scorched earth left behind angry words? Intended your words as a joke and realized they actually left a wound? Seen someone’s career end because of a few poorly chosen words?

Culture vs. God's Word

Yet while our lives demonstrate the power of words, our culture tells us words are cheap. We live in a day with an abundance of words. Our noisy culture bombards us with words, from shock jocks on the radio to talking heads on TV. Sitcom stars get laughs by throwing zingers and insults across the screen. Rap stars make millions with songs that objectify and demean women, and politicians battle for sound bites and screen time. Culture says the battle goes to the person who speaks the loudest. The Bible speaks differently.

James warns us about the power our words have over our lives. Just as a horse can be directed with a small bit and a ship is steered with a rudder, the words we speak can change the direction of our lives (James 3:3-4). Think for a moment about someone who affected your life like a parent, grandparent or teacher. Was there something that person said that impacted you so greatly you’ve held on to that statement through the years? On the other hand, are there wounds you carry from someone’s careless words—even things you heard in childhood? Our words have great power to encourage, but they also can destroy. When we use our words carelessly, we do more than damage our relationships. We grieve the Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:29-30).

Controlling our speech

If we recognize our words have power, why is it so difficult for us to control our speech? We may vow to stop snapping at our children. We do better for a couple days, and then one night fatigue sets in. We’re tired. They’re cranky. Someone needs a drink of water. One won’t stay in bed. The other one is dragging his feet. Frustration rises, and we find ourselves resorting to the same pattern of sharp words and a harsh tone. Maybe for you it’s a different button—the guy who cuts you off in traffic, the bubble-gum snapping cashier who can’t make change or the worship leader who insists on singing 29 verses of the song you can’t stand. Instead of building up, encouraging or gently correcting, we use our words to criticize, tear down and destroy.

Here’s the problem: Our words reveal what is in our hearts. “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matthew 12:34-35). Our speech only reflects what already is in our hearts.

To bridle our tongues, we can’t just change our words. We have to change our hearts. Fig trees don’t produce olives, and saltwater springs don’t flow with fresh thirst-quenching water (James 3:11-12). To change the fruit, you have to change the tree.

A transformed heart

A transformed tongue requires a transformed heart. If we want to control our speech, we have to let God do his redemptive work in our lives. We let God so fill us with his love it overflows in our speech. We learn to bless those who curse us and pray for those who hate us. Even when we must speak hard words, we learn to speak them in love. Instead of the world’s lies, we fill our minds and hearts with God’s truth. When our hearts and minds are fixed on Christ, we learn to speak with godly wisdom and love.

Our words matter. As followers of Christ, our words should honor God. We cannot say we love God and use our speech to tear down others. Yet transforming our speech is something we cannot do on our own. It requires the redemptive power of the Holy Spirit. As we submit our lives and tongues to Christ, we become what he meant for us to be—a people of blessing.

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