The Power of Words – September 17, 2006

Proverbs 1:20-33, James 3:1-12

September 17, 2006

We continue in James today. Two weeks ago, we talked about James and some of his more “famous” statements. For instance, he said, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” And he said, “Faith without works is dead.” We noted then how James tends to deal with the practical side of our faith – the “living out of our faith” – perhaps more than any of the other New Testament writers. And as we’ve said before, that is the hardest part of our faith. It’s always much easier to “learn stuff” than it is to “live stuff,” isn’t it?

Well, today we have some more “practical stuff” from James. And I think this subject is one that has more “bang for the buck” then a lot of others. Some parts of our lives are not as “efficient” that way. Some things we do take a lot of effort but yield less results. Not this one! The part of faith that James is telling us we are to put into actions, according to this passage, has to do with words, and the power of words.

Words are a big part of our lives, aren’t they? We all use them – all the time. In fact, I’m using them right now – just to tell you how we all use them! How about that?! We all use words, though some use them better than others. There are some who have what we call “a great command of the language.” And then there are others who we might call “less literate” or, in our modern jargon, “verbally challenged!” But that’s not what James was talking about here. He was telling us how words have power. They do things. They produce results.

In the old TV show “You Bet Your Life,” Groucho Marx used to tell the people, “Say the secret woid and you get a hundred dollars! It’s a common woid, something you hear around the house every day.” (I used to do a better Groucho than that! Sorry!) Our words have results. They have the power to do things – much bigger things than just making that duck come down from the ceiling. (How many remember that show?)

Words have power. And I’m talking about more than just secret words, which, by the way, we use a lot more than might we think! We’re often asked to give “passwords.” You need them for bank accounts, computer programs, debit cards, and who knows what else. But James would tell us, our words are even more powerful than all that.

One of my favorite films of all time is “My Fair Lady.” Do you like that one? That story was all about words, wasn’t it? Professor Henry Higgins was attempting to turn Eliza Doolittle into a “lady” by improving the way she spoke. And I remember at one point in the film, Eliza had reached the end of her rope, and I can picture her singing in utter frustration, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?” Do you remember that? But there’s a twist in that story, isn’t there? I don’t think I saw it before until recently. You see, Professor Higgins was trying to turn Eliza into a lady by the way she spoke. But it turned out in the end that she taught him something more important. She taught him that it was not the way she spoke, but what she spoke that made her a lady! That was a great story with a great message. And James would have loved it!

James was very interested in what words are said. He said, “The tongue is a fire…” “with it we can bless or curse.” It’s the same tongue. It’s the same language. It’s the same words we use for both. And although some words are called “curse words,” we can still hurt others without the use of such words, can’t we?! James used a series of analogies here. He tells us how boats are steered by the smallest part, the rudder. He reminded us how the strongest animals are tamed with a bit in their mouths. But no one can tame the tongue!

A friend with less eloquence than James – but I think just as much wisdom – once said it like this. “Words are like toothpaste.” “Once toothpaste comes out of the tube, it’s nearly impossible to make it go back in.” Once we speak words, we cannot draw them back into our mouths. They have their impact on others, and if they’re not kind words, they can be impossible to take back, and tough to amend, no matter how much we may regret them.

Remember that we people don’t remember words like a computer remembers words, do we. We don’t have bits and bytes and letters stored up in our “melons” somewhere. Our memories of words are audiovisual. Just like images. If we say words we are not proud of to someone, they are not stored in the heads of the hearer as characters. They are replayed audibly in that person’s mind! (And visually!) So they’re not easily erased by backspacing or by deleting a file!

So, one of the most important things about living the faith has to do with what we say, doesn’t it. That’s what James tells us. As he has tried to show us the many practical ways we should be living out our faith, he’s now trying to show us that this is one of the most crucial. As we live the Christian life, we should be especially careful of the words we use!

Now, once again we need to remember the context in which we are called to live this part of our faith. And one of the reasons we need to recognize the context of our lives is that, if we don’t, too often the context will rule our lives. If we live around people who gossip, guess what we’ll start to do, if we aren’t careful?! If we live around people who use, shall we say, “colorful metaphors,” (“bad language”) guess what will start coming out of our mouths – again, if we aren’t careful?!

Well, the context in which we live is that “culture of the self” which we talked about last week. We live in this “me oriented” society, a society in which people justify practically anything, because they see themselves as the final arbiter of everything. So, the way people think it’s ok to speak, becomes ok. It becomes the norm. And that norm in our world often includes disrespect, insulting words, and lots of other uncaring ways of speaking to and treating each other.

And people will fight for the right to do that! They’ll say, “Don’t tell me what it’s ok to say to people and what isn’t.” “Don’t tell me what words are appropriate and what ones are not.” “What I feel like saying is ok – because I feel like saying it.” Or the worst, “I can’t help what I think or what I say.”

My friends, let’s make this point very clear. One of the most important teachings of the Christian faith is that we can help what we say and what we do and even what we think! And that flies in the face of the modern culture. But as Christ’s followers, we are called to be the masters of our own choices. We are told that we can “help” what we think and what we say. In fact, that’s exactly what our faith teaches us to do! And James is at the forefront of that teaching!

He’s not the only one. Jesus himself talks about this. He tells us that what’s in the heart is what comes out of our lips. So this may not be just a matter of changing the way we talk, but changing our heart! In an ominous exchange with some of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said this. “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” Then this. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks…” Did you get that? What our heart is filled with is what comes out of our mouths. Like Eliza Doolittle observed, it’s not how we speak that matters, it’s what we say that makes us ladies or gentlemen. And what we say flows from the heart.

Now, if that isn’t challenging enough, listen to how Jesus ends that exchange with the Pharisees. He said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:34-37) Friends, I thank God for the grace he gives by which we aren’t held accountable for those words. Because I know my words have not always been kind.

More than that, though, I am not just grateful for that forgiveness and grace, I am compelled by that grace to be a person of grace. And let me refine that. I am compelled by that grace to choose to be a person of grace! Will you make that choice with me?

Words are very powerful! They can hurt, and they can heal. They can curse and they can bless. They can tear down, and they can build up. And my friends, despite popular philosophies, they are always what we choose.

May we take these words of James – and of Jesus – to heart. May we seek to choose words as though they were the words of Jesus himself to the world! May we seek to have a pure heart, and a gracious soul, and may weseek to be people who use words to bless.


Eternal God, by your word the world was created, and by your word, that Word became flesh. May we be so aware of the word dwelling in our hearts that we may choose words, as often as we possibly can, that minister your grace. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.