I had the opportunity this summer to serve as a counselor for the first time at Camp Woodmen, part of the United Church of God's United Youth Camps program. As a counselor, I found myself constantly focused on others and giving of myself without hesitation and without limits. If someone needed encouragement, I stepped in and encouraged; if they needed advice, I gave advice; if they had a question, I was glad to give them the answer that God has led me to over the course of my Christian walk.
I was discussing with a friend just how awesome it felt to be able to give people what they needed—to supply others' needs for that week and to be completely focused on serving—and I had a thought. I thought about the power that Jesus gave the apostles had to heal the sick, and how exciting that must have been for them to be able to givesomething so great to these people in need! In Acts 5:12-15, it says that people would line up in the streets just so that Peter's shadow might pass over them when he walked by, so that people would be healed; with that kind of power to heal, wouldn't you just want to sprint around the entire town, letting your shadow fall on as many people as possible?
As I thought about what an incredible gift that would be, after seeing that week how good it felt to give, I wished that I had such a great gift as this to give to people in need. I thought about how good it must have felt for Peter, or Jesus, or any of the apostles, to be able to walk up to a person and relieve them of the physical burden that they suffered under.
I realized later that Jesus and the apostles wielded an even greater gift than this. While very few have had the power to heal, this greater power is something that every follower of God has access to.
“Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (James 3:3-6).
I've thought about this and other scriptures about how we use our words many times. Most of those times, my take-away has been to make sure that I don't use my tongue wrongly. To be fair, that's the side of the issue that James is emphasizing! However, James expresses a greater underlying truth that I didn't fully grasp: our words are powerful. On the one hand, they have the power to defile our entire bodies and bring great destruction to us as well as those around us. But on the other hand, it's by our tongue that we are saved from death. In Romans 10:8-10, Paul reminds us that it's by the confession of our mouths that we receive salvation!
Words, improperly used, spread death. But even greater than their destructive potential is their potential to bring life. I was thinking about how great of a gift it would be to heal people like Peter did, but I failed to realize that God has given me and you a greater power than Peter's ability to heal people with the touch of his shadow. Consider what Jesus said about the words that He spoke:
“It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).
Through their words, Jesus and the apostles wielded a more awesome power than healing in the flesh, which is the power to give life! James said that the tongue is like the rudder of a large ship, able to guide it “wherever the pilot desires,” not that we should tear it off and let the ship go undirected! It doesn't have to be an instrument of death. It doesn't have to be "an unruly evil, full of deadly poison," as James says, and he goes on to admit this:
“But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).
So many times, I've read this and thought, “No man can tame it! It's right there!” Earlier he even says that everyone stumbles in word! But, James also tempers that message by saying “these things ought not to be so!” It shouldn't be this way. Too often I've thought to myself, “Well, I guess the best I can do with this evil mouth of mine is to try to keep bad stuff from coming out of it,” but in truth, we can do much better than that.
God wants more for us than to simply avoid speaking evil. He doesn't want us to try to sail the ship without a rudder, but to use the rudder to steer the ship in the other direction. We have power through the Spirit of God to use our tongue for good—and how great that good can be!
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).
If you are evil and can only speak evil things, then it's better for you that you never speak again. But if you have the Spirit of God in your heart, then out of the abundance of your heart let your mouth so speak. We need not only fear condemnation and judgment for idle words, but to look forward to the righteous judgment of the good words that we speak, “For by your words you will be justified.” Words of encouragement, words that exhort, confession of sins, loving words, gentle words, soft answers that turn away wrath, lips that proclaim the gospel, discussion with brethren about the word of God, songs of praise, prayers, and every other kind of speech that glorifies God—by these words you will be justified!
Consider, if you had the power to reach out and heal someone by touching them, how would you handle that gift? Would you be shy to use it, or would you be incredibly eager and glad to help anyone you met? Would you be lazy about using it because you felt tired or down, or would the opportunity to use it lift your spirits and give you energy and enthusiasm? We have a greater gift than physical healing that we can share every day; do we act like it?
“Death and life arein the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21).
Should we hate our tongue because of the evil that it can bring? But if it brings life, do we love the life that it brings? As Jesus said: make the tree good and the fruit will be good. James echoed this words again in James 3:11-12. The power of life is in the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit!
If you love to use your tongue for evil and death, then you will eat the fruit of evil and death. But if instead you love the life that God has given you, and if you have been filled with the Holy Spirit that gives you life, then let your tongue bear the excellent fruit of life, and you will eat of it.