Let me share a story about an old mountain minister and a young boy in the congregation.
During the children’s message this old pastor was trying to convey the sovereignty of God to his young parishioners – and to the listening ears of the rest of the congregation. As he began his summation one precocious lad tried to chime in: “Preacher…” The sage old minister looked at the boy, but continued with his conclusion.
Again the boy, begging for acknowledgement, said: “Preacher…”
After a third interruption the preacher finally responded: “Yes, Lad?”
The boy offered: “Preacher, I know one thang God cain’t do.”
The minister gently corrected: “No. There is nothing God cannot do.” But the boy insisted: “But, Preacher, I know one thang God cain’t do.”
Finally relenting, the preacher inquired: “OK. Why don’t you tell us what you think God can’t do.” The boy confidently expressed his observation: “God cain’t make your mouth no bigger without moving your ears back!”
Ah! A big mouth – the bane of many a preacher. But my ministerial colleagues and I are not the sole sufferers of this malady. Many who sit in the pews each week also exhibit a tendency to run at the mouth. And so do many who never darken a church doorway. It is a common affliction.
The great 14th Century theologian-Reformer, John Wycliffe – most renowned for being the first to translate the Bible into English – recognized the power of the tongue:
“The tongue breaks bone, although the tongue itself has none.”
Similarly, James, the brother of the Lord Jesus wrote:
“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 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.” (James 3.5-8)
I suspect more carnage has been caused by the destructive power of loose and lying tongues than by any war. The spark of a little gossip fans into flame, the fire spreads, resulting in inestimable damage.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Proverbs 12.8 tells us:
“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Do you see that? With a simple conscious adjustment of the employment of our tongues we can be transformed from destroyers to restorers.
What great news! At least it would be, except, according to James, “no man can tame the tongue”. What could he possibly mean?
James is revealing that mere will-power cannot lead to the radical change we need. No doubt a conscious effort will generate some behavioral improvement. But our condition is more chronic than most imagine. Jesus tells us the root of our problem is spiritual not muscular. (Mark 7.21-23) It’s like trying to domesticate a wolf – eventually the true nature will re-emerge. In fact, James says though man may tame wild animals, the tongue will still not be tamed. Not by our own effort, anyway. The true nature eventually resurfaces.
No need to despair. The power for transformation is found in Jesus. When we embrace Jesus, as he is offered in the gospel, everything changes. Our minds and hearts are renewed, so we begin to think and desire differently. And out of renewed hearts come redeeming words. As the psalmist discovered:
“The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just.” (Psalm 37.30)
NOTE: This post first appeared as an article for a column in the Bristol Herald Courier.