October 13, 2014.
In this world full of various pleasures and temptations, we often tend to categorize and rank sins based on how “bad” they are relative to one another. We see murder as an obvious and terrible sin, where as lying here and there is really not that big of a deal. We see adultery and fornication as “major” sins (though probably not as bad as we view murder) but using the Lord’s name in vain is fine in most cases. Though there may indeed be somewhat of a hierarchy of sin, the inherent problem with this ideology is that we almost certainly are going to get that hierarchy wrong, because we are not God. Of course the sins that we commit on a regular basis are not going to seem as “bad” as the sins of other people. The sins that we struggle with are going to be more “normal” than those awful sins that we don’t really have a problem with avoiding. This is not the way God views sin.
Today I want to discuss a sin (well, it’s more of a category of sin really) that seems to be bad in the eyes of God but is not really viewed as “bad” per say, relative to other sins, in our own eyes. This category is perhaps laid out most clearly in the book of James.
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
If you were going to pick a category of sin that would cause your religion to be worthless, what would it be? Blasphemy? Fornication? Anger and hate? Would you have even considered sins of the tongue? I would imagine that many people would not have even put this sin on the radar as to be the category that could make your whole religion worthless, yet this is exactly what James says. James goes on to elaborate on this point later on in his epistle, commenting on how influential the tongue can be.
“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.”
The tongue is compared to the rudder of a ship, which is able to steer these larges vessels many orders of magnitude larger than the device itself. So to is the tongue, though small, so powerful and potentially detrimental. I think we have a basic understanding of this concept. The use of our tongue is vital to most of our lives. The words we use, the syntax we choose, the way we communicate our thoughts and persuade others is basically the core of our social existence. It is the tool, or weapon if so used, that we have the most experience with, the skill that we have been polishing essentially since we could talk. Whole wars have been waged over a few chosen words. What power this small member holds!
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Yet we don’t really look at the tongue as having this much power. We don’t see sins of the tongue to matter much at all in the long run (obviously I’m speaking in general terms here). Whereas sins such as murder and adultery we wouldn’t dare go near as to justify them (and rightly so), a slip of the tongue here and there… well, what does it really matter? Perhaps this is one of the very reasons that the tongue is so deadly- it is underestimated in power. When you don’t fully appreciate the amount of power an object holds, you are much more likely to use it to cause damage.
So what are sins of the tongue? The term seems a little vague. Sins of the tongue involve using choice words and phrases to blaspheme, discourage, tear down, put down, gossip, take the Lord’s name in vain, lie, make crude jokes, make vulgar comments, exhale profanity and other things like these. Some of these sins we view as worse than the others, but they all fall into the same category. Sins of this nature tend to be deceptive, starting off small but growing unnoticeably larger as time goes on until we are caught up in a lifestyle of using the tongue in one or more of these ways. At this point, many don’t even recognize sins of the tongue to be sins at all.
But is this category of sin really that bad? Does it really matter if I tell that off color joke, or say curse a few times here or there? I think the word of God is actually a lot clearer than we would like it to be on this subject. Paul deals with this kind of sin rather bluntly in his letter to the Ephesians.
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”
Paul seems to put filthy talk and crude joking on the level of sexual immorality! The crude joking he is referencing here probably has to do with sexual immorality. But Paul even takes it a step further in the previous chapter:
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
This is a hard passage, not because it is difficult to understand, but because it steps on so many toes. It is not one of the favorite passages to be read amongst many Christians today because it seems so harsh and judgmental. “Why would it matter if I say a certain word? Why does it matter if what I say doesn’t build up other people? Just because I cuss a little doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.” And indeed, I’m not saying that it does mean you are a bad person if unwholesome words come out of your mouth from time to time. But it is a principle that is laid down in the word of God to not let this happen. It is sin, and we should not sugarcoat it. The problem with this sin in particular is that if we let it in a little bit, it will eventually push it’s way though on a regular basis (well, I guess you could say that about many, if not all, sins). It is one that we say “Oh, it just slipped,” when in reality, it slipped on this occasion because it has become habitual on other occasions.
Sins of the tongue are dangerous. They have the power to hurt and destroy. They have the power to tear down our fellow Christians, place stumbling blocks and shine a negative light on Christ. Sins of the tongue are detrimental even when they seem innocent in relative terms. Many try and justify sins of the tongue to ease their conscious, as we do for most of the sin in our lives, and in doing have allowed filth to enter their daily routine. This does not build towards godliness, no matter how one spins it. If we are to be holy, we must live our lives in a holy manner.
The tongue has a great deal of power, and it takes so much to control this little member. James says that no man can tame the tongue. We must have self control in order to keep it in check, and this self control does not come easily. One question that some people ask to judge whether or not a comment is appropriate to make is “Would you say that around your grandmother?” I realize that this question does not work for everyone, as many would probably say “Well sure, she says the same things.” So a better question might be, would I say this in the company of Christ Himself? If the answer is no, then the word should not be spoken (if the answer is yes, but for the wrong reason, then we might need to discuss further in level of importance of sins of the tongue, or rather further define what this sin is). Paul said that if we are going to speak, we need to speak words that are encouraging. Words that are meant to build people up. Sins of the tongue have the opposite effect.
Perhaps what makes this sin so hard to deal with, or at least one reason, is because it is enhanced with emotion. People tend to curse more when they are angry and upset, when they are tired or even when they are very happy. People justify the sin by claiming there are no other words to adequately describe what they are feeling. This too I believe to be a lack of self-control. The english language is immense. A four letter word that can be used by anyone does not improve the quality or level of a sentence, nor is it associated with good. We must show self-control through our emotions which leads to godliness.
If you have a problem with a sin of the tongue, I’m not insinuating that it is going to be easy to overcome. It is probably going to be quite difficult, especially if the sin has become a habit. But I do believe that you have the power through our Lord to overcome whatever sin it is, and I believe that it is the will of God that you do so. When we put on Christ, we died to our old self of flesh and put on the new self that seeks after God. We died to sin that we might live to Christ. We have the Holy Spirit who is willing and able to guide us through and empower us to overcome sin. We must, however, be willing to do our part and work on it. First, we must admit to whatever we do as being sin, however. As in any recovery process, the first step is recognizing/admitting the problem. I pray that this finds you well and that if need be, you will take the initiative to silence the sins of the tongue. I believe that together with Christ, we have the power to overcome.
Let us bridle the tongue and in so doing, produce a worthwhile religion.
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Suggested Daily Reading: Ephesians 4-5, James 1, 3.
Grace and peace.