Measure your words

James 3:1-12

Words are tools which we use every day, from an early age.  Some of us can remember impatiently waiting for our children to say their first word so we could understand what their cries and motions meant.  Then when the incessant “Whys?” came, we wondered if they would ever stop using words long enough to catch a breath.

Words are present in every aspect of our lives, from labels that help us find things and keep us safe, to poetry and prose which touch our hearts, and long explanations that help us understand complex emotions or concepts.  Then there are words in those directions we ignore and in the recipes we love to modify.

If we don’t gain an understanding of how to use words, it impacts our ability to stay employed, to have good relationships, as well as to communicate in ways that help us successfully navigate life in general.

In this passage, James emphasizes the importance of words, the potential of using them as weapons and the need for us to use them for healing instead.

The command to control our words isn’t new when we hear it in James.  Proverbs reminds us that “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues guard themselves from trouble.” 21:23; the book of Psalms does as well, saying “Then you must keep your tongue from evil and keep your lips from speaking lies!” 34:13.

Jesus weighs in telling us it is not what goes into our mouths that defiles us, but the words that comes out of them.

James does stand alone in the vivid imagery he brings to this message of taming our tongues.  That imagery brings to light the intense power of words for both good and evil.

Forty-three percent of the Book of James deals with the power of words, 46 of the one hundred and eight verses. In these first verses in Chapter 3 we see the tongue having the power to keep us faithful to God, as a bridle is required to control a spirited horse, a rudder is needed to steer a mighty ship, and a small spark can control by consuming an entire forest.[1]

Before we are drawn to point out how others use words in harmful ways, James is quick to point out that we all have a tendency to say things we shouldn’t and for many of us, not all that infrequently.  I found how The Message paraphrases it: “We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life,” pretty accurate

The Apostle Paul struggled with his desire to do and say the things reflecting what God was working within him, and his inclination to do things he wished he hadn’t and to leave undone some things he wished he had done.  While I think God is moving me toward perfection, I know I am not there and need this reminder.  That knowledge pushes me to dig deeply into God’s Word, prayerfully considering the words I use each time I share with you.

James calls all of us to choose our words carefully, as they reveal much about the depth and authenticity of our faith.  While it is our tongue that frames our words, the source of our words which harm or heal, is our heart. Our words reflect our character, the direction our lives have taken

This week while the team was working on the ingredients they will use to bake pies this week, Kathy was distracted and put together several packets of dry ingredients that had a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar (I may have the exact measurement off, but you get the idea).  She caught the mistake, and all of the packets with the wrong ratio of ingredients were thrown away.

A potential disaster was avoided.  Double checking the measurements, the error was discovered and fixed.

I think James is telling us sometimes we get distracted and find ourselves with way too many harmful words.  Salty, brackish water coming out when the faith we have in God, the work of the Holy Spirit within us, should have us flowing words of healing, refreshing, sweet water.

Our feelings, our pain, our history, distract us and we fill our word packets with salt.  We find fault with one another, we gossip, backbite, slander, and spread rumors.

When we are  alert, carefully measuring our words, selecting the ones meant to build up, to encourage, to acknowledge that each one is directed at someone created in the image of God, we praise God out of both sides of our mouth.  We should be people of great joy and enthusiasm and hope because of what God has done for us.  Grounded in that reality there is little reason for grumbling and complaining in the body of Christ.

Careful measurement of our words leads us to choose them wisely, not content with the words on the street that convey contempt, anger, and distrust.  Careful measurement of our words causes us to use God’s name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in praise, gratitude, prayer, and witness, not as a means to reflect our dissatisfaction with a situation.

Careful measurement of our words leads us to talk less about the laws – the ways we should do it or have always done it – and more about the love we experience in God and the ways that love changes our life.   Sometimes it calls us to hold each other accountable in love.

Sometimes not saying what you should say to someone who heeds to hear it is as harmful as saying something you shouldn’t.  Jesus told a rich man that his addiction to money was preventing him from entering the kingdom, he told one of his closest friends that he wasn’t as loyal as he thought he was going to be, he told a crowd of religious leaders that they were in direct opposition to the will of God.  He told an angry crowd that their anger against a sinful woman should have been channeled against their own sins.  Sometimes, sharing the truth hurts, is costly, and is painful.  But when shared in love and genuine concern for other people, in the long run, it is for the benefit of all involved.  We will speak faithfully, in a holy manner with truth.[2]

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a rule for his students, “never speak of someone who is not present”.  One of the commentaries this week extended that rule.  “Never speak of someone who is not present, unless you are praising her, or him.”[3]

This week, let’s follow that rule, Let’s also speak without grumbling and complaining, let our word be our word no hidden agendas or intent to mislead, be quick to listen and slow to speak.  Let our actions speak louder than our words, and when necessary speak the truth to some in love.

We have the power of the Holy Spirit and this community of faith to help us tame, what is untamable.   Let’s strive to tame our tongues so we can measure the healing words we choose in gallons and the words we choose that harm in grams.


[1] Tom Still, “Taming the Tongue” The letter of James, Center for Christian Ethics


[2] The Rev. Magrey deVega, Tame Your Tongue,
[3] Howell

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