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Speaking to Edify the Hearer

(James 3:1-18)

Lesson 12 -- third quarter 2008
August 17, 2008

by Mark Roth
© Copyright 2008

How do I control my tongue?

In James 3 we learn (again) that we humans have no power to control our own tongues. We may exercise all the will power we can muster and try all the psychological techniques we can think of. But our efforts will always fall short because, "the tongue can no man tame" (8).

The Christian, though, is not left without hope. Despite our own inability to master the tongue, we do have recourse to some powerful tools. So let's consider just a few.

Ask God to work in you. God's power and wisdom will accomplish that at which we fail: tongue control. But He will not barge in to snatch up the assignment; we must give it to Him. As I read Psalm 19:14, I can somewhat imagine the fervency (perhaps even desperation) in David's heart: "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer." I believe that was more than a wish on David's part. I think it was an appeal for divine intervention in order to bring about soundness of thought and speech. We can and must do the same. As we learn in Philippians 2:13, "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." God not only sets a divine standard for Christian speech, He makes available divine power to live by that standard!

Yield yourself to God daily. I know that all Christians have yielded themselves at least once to the Lordship of Jesus. That's the beginning, and as with all beginnings, that's not enough. The Christian walk is a life of daily surrender to the Master. Romans 6:13 gives us some practical direction in this surrender: "Yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God." To bring your tongue under control, develop the practice of consciously surrendering it to God each day...as often as you need to.

Choose right thinking. Jesus taught that "of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:45). To speak rightly we must think rightly. Rejecting thoughts that oppose themselves to godliness will remove much source material for ungodly speech. Second Corinthians 10:5 instructs us to bring "into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ." The obedience required of us encompasses internal (thought) obedience in addition to external (life) obedience. So choose the true, honest, just, pure, lovely, positive, virtuous, praise-worthy thinking commanded in Philippians 4:8.

Set your heart to obey. Perhaps you are like me in that choosing right thinking isn't as easy as it might sound. Sometimes it seems I can't get my thoughts and feelings to line up with godliness. Since godly speech depends on godly thinking, does that mean that right speaking also becomes unattainable? If I can't get my thoughts in line, how shall my speech become God-pleasing?! Read Proverbs 16:3 and be instructed and encouraged, my friend: "Commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established." When I set my heart to obey, when I do what is right in any area, I free God to initiate and continue His marvelous work of stabilizing my thoughts according to His thoughts. And one result of that is godly speech!

Our speech

Your tongue functions as a mirror, reflecting outwardly what shines inwardly. Your mouth could be likened to a faucet -- open it to get what's inside. So to know someone better, listen to them; for through the lips streams the abundance of the heart.

Now, suppose you aren't entirely satisfied with your speech. Worse yet, imagine you are quite displeased with certain elements of your speech. How shall you resolve so great a dilemma! And this is a terrific dilemma, for Man the Tamer has never tamed his own tongue. Nor will he. The obvious answer in light of the first paragraph lies in dealing with something other than the tongue, lips and mouth.

Fix the heart, fix the tongue! The bad news is, the human heart is beyond repair. We all need replacements...and even the world's premier heart surgeon fails in the type of surgery required. Only the Lord Jesus can work so miraculous a change in us. Only the Holy Spirit can maintain us with good post-operative care. Need more good news? The divine health care team requires no appointments; it works promptly upon the sincere request of the patient.

So what is your speech impediment? You're right, I'm not talking about stuttering, slurring or anything of the sort. I'm talking about such things as harshness, coldness, hastiness, unkindness, deceptiveness and lots of other things that like to nest in our mouths. Having identified your impediment, go to God for help. Not just in controlling your tongue, but in cleansing your heart. You must realize, though, that His work in your heart will affect much more than just your speech! Are you willing for a complete change of life should that result?

As we consider the tongue and its need for "reform," we may question whether imperfect speech is such a big deal. After all, if I lose control of my tongue, won't remorse and apology work wonders? Besides, we often easily think of words as nothing, and opt to make excuses and explanations. For our own good, let's consider a few concepts yet from our lesson text.

Keep your tongue; keep your life. Did you ever imagine the secret of success, happiness, longevity and satisfaction could be reduced to such simple terms?! Without doubt, death and life are in the power of the tongue. So make sure you keep it under control -- God's control.

Keep your tongue; keep your soul. We all know what a troubled mind is like -- restless, weighted down, random thoughts, hard-to-control thoughts. We all know what a troubled will is like -- at times rebellious, at times wishy-washy, at times hard to sort out. And we all know what troubled emotions are like -- wild, unstable, flighty, unexplainable, wearing. You can help prevent all these by keeping your tongue.

Speak with your heart. Almost everybody can speak with their tongues, so there is nothing particularly novel in being able to utter words. The studied answer, though, distinguishes the righteous person. Take the time to think, to consider knowledge, to choose righteousness -- then speak. If by that time you missed your opportunity, it was likely an opportunity well missed!

Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Whole volumes. Speech so readily flows forth. May it be characterized by health, blessing, good, sweetness and pleasantness!

Choose a soft answer

Reining in the tongue though the heart is contaminated with anger begins to address that inner problem. You see, choosing calm, gentle words has a wonderful effect on hearts.

The first part of Proverbs 15:1 gives us this assurance: "A soft answer turneth away wrath." Notice that it doesn't say whose wrath! Most often we understand this to speak of the effect of our soft answer on someone who is angry with us. And without question, that understanding is correct. However, let's not overlook the calming, cleansing effect our soft answer has on our own anger. When we choose the soft answer, the wrath in us starts turning away and dissipating. The choice of a soft answer begins the process of inner calming, healing, and restoration.

Sometime when you're angry or disturbed, try a soft answer. I have tried this approach, and it works!

Speak with discernment

Have you ever noticed how certain people (no names, of course, but definitely not you and I) seem to lack the sense that guides them in knowing what to leave unsaid? It seems as though what they know they feel compelled to tell. Whether it's something good that should be kept confidential or something bad that shouldn't be revealed, if they know it, they tell it.

But that's they. One struggle I have is with using fire to fight fire. For example, if someone comes to me with an accusation (or legitimate concern), I generally know enough about him to respond in kind.

Oh, to have tongues trained to use knowledge aright (Proverbs 15:2)!

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