“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” we heard over and over again as children.
Yet they always seemed to be the thing that sent little girls crying to the teacher and little boys from asking to never have to go back to school. We bury the words said to us deep inside when we become teenagers and let them play out in the privacy of our own homes. As adults, the words affect how we play out our lives. Words about body image cause us to crash diet. Words about success lead us to spend nights away from our family to get more. The list goes on and on.
There was one set of words that stuck with me and changed the course of my life.
I was 10.
As I walked to recess in line with my friends, the little boy behind me whispered in my ear, “you need to go run laps around the field. You look like a whale.” I made a snarky comment back and kept on walking—unwilling to show him that he hurt me, but unable to speak for the lump in my throat.
At first, the only time I remembered those words was when I got dressed in the morning. Then they started to haunt me during the school day, then every time I ate, and so on for about three years. Finally, something had to give. And so my obsession began.
For the first three years of my teenage life, I counted every calorie I put in my mouth. I ran up and down my street, not for health, but for nice legs. I weighed 100 pounds and thought I was giant. I had a completely warped view of not only myself but everyone around me.
To be clear, I do not harbor a grudge against the boy who called me a whale in third grade. He was just a kid who said something dumb. But that dumb thing that boy said became the voice Satan used to tell me over and over again that my focus needed to be on my appearance. That dumb thing set a fire in my life. A fire that only Jesus has been able to put out.
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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…but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this ought not to be so.
James 3:5-10 ESV
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Church, we have a major problem with our tongues. For some reason, the “freedom of speech” has infiltrated our souls. It tells us that it doesn’t matter what we say or how we say it because we are free to do so.
For those of us who call ourselves children of God, we have got to start recognizing that the only freedom we should ever be seeking is that which is given by Jesus. Through Him, we have the freedom to live lives that glorify Him and serve the world. I want to take the next few minutes to address our lack of tongue taming we have so vigorously glorified in our culture. Brothers and sisters, this is so important. Our tongue is the tool we use to share the Gospel. It is the means by which we sing praises to Him. It is a gift. It can be a blessing. Let’s stop using it to curse.
We use our tongue to make ourselves feel better.
One of the most obvious ways we tend to use our mouths for evil is when we gossip about another to make ourselves look better. During my own fight with body image, I had a nasty habit of looking down on other people. When a girl would lose the weight I longed to lose, I whispered, “I bet she is anorexic.” And when the opposite was occurring, I might say, “I wonder what is going on with her.” The truth of the matter was that I didn’t care. I just didn’t want anyone looking at me. I wanted people to notice someone else because I thought I was overweight. Give them something else to talk about, I thought.
Friends, gossip has got to go. We use it for so much more than body image. We use it to judge whether or not someone is actually saved. We use it to show how hard of workers we are. We use it to distract ourselves of all the junk we have going on in our own lives.
It is nothing less than a tool the enemy uses to get us talking about things other than Jesus and taint our witnesses in the process.
We use our tongues to curse our fellow brothers and sisters.
Though this may seem dramatic, it is the very thing—the most important thing—James warns against. With the heaviest of hearts, we have to call out this issue in our own church culture today. A few months ago, I stood up in worship with a group of women from my own community for If:Gathering. We sang praises to God with our whole hearts. We raised our hands and sat down with tight throats after a long worship session. Just then, we watched a group of woman walk onto the stage. Before anyone opened their mouths, we knew what the conversation would entail. We knew because it was women of color from every corner of the world. We knew we would soon be convicted.
Over the next few minutes, we were basically told to stop talking and listen. We were told that our tendency to input our own opinions about how someone else should be feeling in this climate is pushing aside the Spirit of God and replacing it with what we perceive as the American Spirit.
Sisters and brothers, let’s stop using our tongue to curse those who say, “Black lives matter.” Let’s start by responding, yes they do. They absolutely matter. Let’s stop screaming to close the borders and use this opportunity as a gospel-sharing mission. Let’s stop talking over people who already feel silenced.
Our tongues are powerful. They have the power to make a little girl question her worth. They have the power to tell a woman she is not worthy because her body won’t let her produce kids. They have the power to destroy relationships. They have been exercising the power to marginalize people with a different color of skin for years.
I think it is about time we stop taking advantage of our freedom of speech and start taking away the enemy’s freedom over our words. He is using our lack of self-control as leverage. Oh, Beloved, he wants nothing more than to make us seem less credible. He wants to ensure that if we ever do get control over our mouths, no one will take us seriously because they won’t trust what we say. He wants the mouths that worship Jesus to be tainted with lies and hypocrisy.
What if we took a few days and simply stopped talking. What if we asked Jesus to fill our mouths. What if we rebuked the name of Satan aloud. What if our goal each Sunday or Wednesday or anytime we got up to worship King Jesus was to do so with a pure mouth.
One boy said fourteen words. He said fourteen words that were not true. Those words set a wildfire in my life. I have to fight those words every day. Jesus has to rip my focus away from the mirror every day.
But the worst thing about that whole situation is not the thing that the boy said. It was all the dumb things I said after that. It was the way I let Satan have power over me. It was the way my witness was tainted because I thought I had an excuse to do it to others.
Here’s the thing: James makes it very clear that we cannot tame our own tongue. We are not capable because we are encased in sin and flesh. Yesterday, Austin and I were navigating our new city, and I let my frustration with traffic explode into the way I talked to him. A week ago, I caught myself getting ready to gossip about someone made in the image of God. I have had to continually fight against telling a white lie about what I am going to do after college. Over and over again I am made aware that wanting to tame the tongue is simply not enough.
My prayer is this. That we would stop trying to tame our own tongues. It is that many would read these verses in James and recognize that there is far more power from the pit of hell than we have as humans. But praise God that the power in heaven trumps the fires of hell every day! My prayer is that we would stop trying to use our own human power and rely on the power of the King. His mouth is the only one that has ever breathed life, and it is through His breath that we can do the same.