The Sanctity of Speech
Text: James 3: 1-18
Proposition: Just as life, sexuality and freedom are sacred, designed and set apart to glorify God, so is the speech we use to express all these things.
Introduction: We have looked at the hot potatoes of Creation, the sanctity of life, the sanctity and design of sexuality and the sanctity of freedom in a world where there is still slavery.This morning let’s talk about yet another very sacred aspect of who we are as people created in His image. Let’s talk about the way we talk. The sanctity of speech is a topic that runs throughout the pages of Scripture. How you talk to or about God is included in that, how you talk to or about others, how you talk about yourself, how you talk to your children and how you talk to your spouse, it’s all referred to. From gossip to backbiting, to lying, to boasting, our speech gives us away. It can reveal the presence of sin or it can reveal the presence of righteousness and love in compliments, affirmations, encouragements. The point is that speech, what we say and why we say it is really important to God. The sanctity of speech is worth talking about! So let’s explore this in one of the most well known passages of Scripture, turn to James 3:1-18 with me.
I. Speech is Part of What it Means to be Made in the Image of God.
In the opening pages of Scripture, in Genesis 1 the very first thing we see God doing is speaking creation into existence. The Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, commune and communicate and we as mankind have been made in their image, with that design and capability that reflects God. There is no other creature that has the ability to speak as we do. Our minds, souls and bodies are designed for speech that we would commune and communicate with God and with each other. So it begs the question when you read this first verse of James 3, ‘Why should many not become teachers and why will teachers receive a more severe judgment at the Bema Seat judgment of Christ?’ I think that the answer to that is obvious in one sense, it’s so that there is a perceived sense of the responsibility you carry when you teach. We need to be careful about what we say and how we shape the lives of those we teach. It’s like the account of the woman who came up to John Wesley and said that God had given her the talent to speak her mind. Wesley’s response was simple, ‘Madam perhaps that’s a talent best left buried.’ Teaching is more about character than it is about information. What if the caution about not many becoming teachers is in essence a caution about the pride in our hearts and the possibility of hurting others by our motive and methods of teaching? Is it for this reason that teachers incur a stricter judgment? If so then we all have to recognize that teaching is not just a profession it’s something we all do at one time or another as we relate in family, community and belief. This caution is about being careful with your speech as an image bearer of God because inside each of us is a toxic presence called sin that can easily distort what God is truly like.
II. Our Speech Betrays Us, It Reveals What’s Inside. Clearly when you look at verses 2 and 8 James is saying that sin resides in each of us to such an extent that it manifests its presence most fluidly in our speech. If you were able to control your thoughts and speech all the time you would be perfect. We’re not there yet! So what is James thinking of when he speaks about our tongue being like a spark that set forests on fire? The topics of gossip, slander, accuser, grumbler all fall into this. From the earliest commandments like Exodus 20:16, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” to the exhortations of Paul in 1 Timothy chapters 5 and 6 to beware of those who gossip, Scripture calls us to think before we speak. Gossip can be defined as “Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature." It is compelling because of the power and often pleasure that accompany it. Gossip is a little like chocolate cake, the more you eat the more you want it and every bite has its pleasure points. We don’t gossip to be vindictive for the most part, we gossip because it pleases us to do so. Gossip is just a shade of grey away from slander. Proverbs 16:28 says, “A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends.” To continue the analogy of a spark setting a forest on fire Proverbs 26:20 adds, “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases.” The thing is we can so easily think is that the ‘tale bearer’ is the other person when in reality it’s in each of us. Our speech betrays us, it pours out what is within. Perhaps that’s why Scripture is so insistent that we be aware of how we talk to each other because it is so easy for words to spill out and slop onto one another and the effect of it ruins lives and leaves an unholy stink. The severity of what gossip and slander will bring is spoken of in Psalms 101:5, “Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, Him I will destroy.” Romans 1:30,32, “Backbiters are worthy of death and so are people who approve of others who practice it.” The strong cautions are there because the capability to become ensnared by this is in all of us and the cost of it to the kingdom and glory of God is greater than we ever might have imagined. James tells us that all the creatures of the world can be tamed by man but man is incapable of taming his tongue. Is this meant to imply a hopelessness in terms of sin? No, not at all. Though it reflects how slippery our sin nature can be when one moment we bless God and the next we curse a friend or neighbor, sin is not to be surrendered to but recognized and resisted. When a person begins a phrase by saying, “I shouldn’t be telling you this but…”, the response to them needs to be, “Then don’t, pay attention to your heart.’ Resist the temptation to listen to gossip. What is it that Satan tempted Eve with… I’d say the answer to that is gossip… “Did God really say…”, it tempted her to distrust God by a twist of the information. Gossip, slander, backbiting exist in us because of sin, we all stumble in many ways. But stumbling should not keep us from walking, we overcome sin by the power of Christ within us.
III. The Sanctity of Speech Is Meant to Affirm God’s Design and Character James has spent considerable effort to describe the nature of the tongue and the sin
that so easily directs it. He uses the bit in a horses mouth, ships rudders, forest fires, springs of water and fig plants all to illustrate the nature of sin. The thing is these also declare the nature that God has created, the order He purposed in it and the character of God as the Creator of it all. Horses are meant to be directed and tamed, fire is meant to burn and warm and give light, we navigate the seas. Water doesn’t change between being salt water and fresh water and fig trees only produce figs. That is the order of nature James refers to and by implication that same order exists within the Christian to be aware of sin within and yet to control its expression in our speech. Look at verse 13, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct thathis works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” How do we gain control of our speech, how do we affirm God’s design in each other and the church and creation? It begins by examining our own hearts. Do I consider myself wise and understanding? Then let it be seen in the humility of my actions more than in my speech. Check to see if bitter envy or self seeking has a root in us. What is the outcome of how we speak, what we do? Is there confusion and the evidence of evil outcomes. If this is at all the case then this is worldly wisdom and the words I choose to use will evidence that.
So what does Godly wisdom look like, how will it characterize my speech? Verse 17 details it for us, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” Pure wisdom refers to the holiness of God manifested in the way we think, the wisdom He gives and which we receive. When that wisdom is present it will affect the way you speak. Then he says it’s design is to be peaceable, not contentious, not envious. It seeks to bring peace into every conversation. It’s gentle, the Greek here means ‘fair’, ‘suitable’ ‘equitable’. Let your speech affirm God’s design for fairness, for what is just. Willing to yield, it’s the opposite of being contentious. Full of mercy and good fruit, this is a characteristic of God, it’s meant to be a characteristic of His image bearers and a characteristic of the way they speak and relate. What you do is the evidence of what is going on inside, good fruit is simply the evidence of mercy at work in and through you. Without partiality and without hypocrisy, these traits talk about how you use judgment, they mirror how God uses His judgment towards us. They will greatly reflect themselves in how you speak to others, with godly wisdom that brings peace rather than division. Your words are sacred, they mean a lot to God and they can have enormous effect for good in the lives of those around you. “Letyour speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” (Col. 4:6) Your words will affirm God’s design in you and for you and proclaim the character of Christ your King.