Sins of the Tongue
William Bacon Stevens
"When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by Hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. James 3:3-8
Speech is at once the glory — and the shame of man.
His glory . . .
as it distinguishes him above all earthly creatures;
as it puts him in communication with his fellow men;
as it enables him to pray to and praise his Creator;
as it allies him to angelic beings.
His shame — in that he uses this noble faculty . . .
to dishonor himself,
to dishonor his neighbor,
and to dishonor his God.
In no work of the human mind, do we find so terse and truthful a description of the character and power of the human tongue, as in the Epistle of James. In these few verses, is found the most graphic outlines of what this tongue is, has been, can be, and ought to be. And by a series of most striking statements and illustrations, he sets forth the tongue in its qualities of good or bad; warning us against the bad — and urging us to cultivate the good.
Before we proceed to discuss the quality of the tongue, let us first take up the apostle's words, and show the POWER of the tongue. In doing this he uses three illustrations.
First, he compares it "to bits" in horses' mouths. The horse is more powerful than several men; yet by putting a small bit into his mouth, a little child can guide him, and turn about his whole huge body. As the bit is small, in comparison with the size of the horse, and yet controls the horse — so the tongue is small in comparison with the whole body, and yet it is the controlling member of that body.
Secondly, James compares the tongue to "the rudder" of a ship. The largest vessels, in the fiercest gales, and on the most boisterous seas — are steered by a small rudder; a little and almost insignificant piece of wood, in comparison with the gigantic ship which it controls. Yet, as small as it is, by it, the helmsman steers the rolling and toppling vessel, and guides it through storm and billows to the haven where he would be. Just so the tongue, little, and like the rudder kept almost always out of sight — yet controls the whole body. The tongue is to the life of man — what the rudder is to the ship. It steers all his movements and guides him into the port of peace — or into the pit of woe.
Thirdly, James compares the power of the tongue to a fire. "Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles," and "the tongue is a fire." A spark lighting on the dry wood of a forest, may cause one branch of a tree to take fire; it may spread to the trunk; it may catch the next tree, and thus progress, until the whole forest shall be burned by one little spark! So a spark-like word dropped from a tongue burning with anger or with envy — may fall into a family, a church, a community, a town, a whole country — and set them in a blaze of consuming, burning rage!
With regard to this tongue under the figure of a fire, James goes on to say, that "it sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by Hell." These are strong words. What do they mean?
The word "course" is, in the original, wheel or circle of nature, and may mean the generations of men following each other with the rapidity of the revolutions of a wheel; or the course of a man's life; or the circle of human affairs. Each of these ideas, might have been in the mind of the apostle, because, the tongue . . .
sets on fire a whole generation of men;
ignites the whole course of a man's life; and
makes the circle of social life to blaze under its fiery appliances.
But James goes on to say of this tongue, which is itself a fire, that "it is set on fire by Hell." The idea is that the tongue derives all its power to do harm, from the evil influences which have their origin in Hell. That which conveyed to the Hebrew mind the most vivid impression of eternal suffering, was the ever-burning fire of Gehenna. This fire — originally kindled in the valley of the son of Hinnom to burn up the refuse of the city of Jerusalem, and kept supplied with its filthy fuel night and day — conveyed to the mind of the Israelite, an idea of intense pollution, mingled with intense suffering. And as every fire kindled from the fire on the altar was regarded as holy — so every fire kindled from that in Gehenna, or Hell, was deemed unclean and defiling. Hence the tongue as a fire ignited from Hell — partakes of the nature of Hell, and becomes a hellish tongue!
But the idea conveys even more than this. The Prince of darkness who reigns in Hell over fallen angels and fallen men, is designated in the Bible, not only as a liar from the beginning — but as "the father of lies," and he is said by Paul to "work with all lying wonders and deceivableness of unrighteousness," and John calls him "the great dragon, that old serpent, the devil, and Satan who deceives the whole world." It is he then, who has his abode in Hell — who instigates every lie, and every filthy word, and all sinful speech of men. And hence the tongue of fire, which sets on fire the course of nature, is justly said to be set on fire from Hell, because it is instigated to do its evil by the Prince of Hell. That is the birthplace of each sin of the tongue, as well as each sin of the heart!
James illustrates still further the power of the tongue, by comparing it with ferocious beasts and other animals; and pronouncing it more ferocious and untamable than anything on earth!
You can sooner make the condor of the Andes perch upon your wrist;
you can sooner make leviathan sport with you, in the cresting surf;
you can sooner make the boa-constrictor coil harmlessly around your neck;
you can sooner make the lion so gentle that a little child can lead him —
than tame the tongue; for "the tongue," he says, "no man can tame." What a strong declaration this is concerning the power of the tongue! Well may he say, "it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison!"
If we look into other portions of the Bible, we shall find further metaphors to indicate the power of the tongue.
Job calls it "a scourge or a whip" whose every blow inflicts severe wounds on the character and leaves its purple welts on the lacerated peace and reputation.
Daniel styles the tongue "a sharp sword" — a murderous weapon, which hews down those upon whom it falls, and drips with the gore of slaughtered innocence or virtue.
Jeremiah says of the tongue, it "is an arrow, shot out." A pointed arrow shot by wicked archers, against those whom they wish to pierce through with anguish, and yet themselves keep at a distance from the one whose good name they aim to destroy.
Paul, speaking of the lips through which the tongue speaks, says "the poison of asps is under their lips!"
And James says it is full of deadly poison — as the great venom bag from which the viper or the serpent ejects his poison lies under the tongue, and when that is excited he thrusts his forked fangs into its victim! So under the tongue of such men as slanderers, lies a poison bag which secretes its deadly venom, and spits it forth into the wound which its viper-tongue makes, and there it rankles and swells and does its deadly work!
These are some of the illustrations which the Bible uses in speaking of the evil tongue, and they show in striking light, the power of the tongue. Nor are these metaphors at all too strong to express the might and influence of this little member, concerning which the Bible says, "life and death are in the power of the tongue!"
Does not all history confirm this statement. Has not the strife of tongues, been the fruitful cause of nearly all the wars which have saturated the ground with blood? Has not an evil tongue, been that which has broken up the peace of families and churches and communities and nations? Does not lying, falsehood, deceit, hypocrisy, slander, and backbiting — issue forth from the tongue? Are not profanity and cursing, and filthy talking — the soul-destroying products of an uncircumcised tongue? Surely it is not too strong language to say with James, that "the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by Hell!"
Such being the general outlines of the character of an evil tongue; let us now descend to some particular SINS of the tongue; because only as we expose and drag to light those sins — can their vileness and influence be made apparent. To enumerate all our tongue-sins would be impossible; for they ramify into every department of public and private life, and cover the entire face of the world. There are several, however, which the Bible brings prominently before us, and to these we must confine ourselves at this time.
1. The first tongue-sin which I will name is that of chattering. "A chattering fool comes to ruin!" Proverbs 10:10. By this I mean thoughtless, trifling, heedless talking. Paul speaks of such chatterers, and calls them "busybodies," who out of idleness roam about retailing from house to house, the talk which they have heard. The chatterer is never so happy as when talking. He must speak, it matters little what he says; and hence he rattles away, telling anything, and everything, that comes into his mind. Their conversation is, as one says, "merely an exercise of the tongue — no other human faculty has any share in it."
There is a process in chemistry, by which you can capture the invisible gas, and weigh it, and separate it into its constituent elements. And were there a moral chemistry by which we could capture the gaseous chatter of these busybodies, and resolve it into its elements — its constituent parts would be folly, slander, falsehood, flattery, and boastfulness!
What a source of domestic and social misery, is found in the tongue of the talebearer. He indeed "scatters firebrands, arrows, and death," and says, "I was only joking!" Proverbs 26:19. It has been well said by an English writer, that "the author of an evil insinuation or slander does not usually carry it about himself; but he ties it to a few idle vagabonds; just as Samson tied firebrands to the tails of the three hundred foxes and turned them free into the standing corn of the Philistines."
These chatterers with their fire-kindling tongues, do indeed set in a flame a whole town, a whole community. It is impossible to estimate the evils of this unrestrained fluency — this loose chattering of an unbridled tongue. It is the fruitful source of strifes, anger, heart-burnings, dissensions in families, defamation, malice. Such a tongue is indeed set on fire by Hell!
2. The second tongue-sin is slander. Under this head I enumerate:
backbiting, or speaking evil of one behind his back;
defaming one's good name by absolute or implied blame;
and all other ways by which the tongue wounds and injures the name and reputation of another.
Twice, does the apostle, speaking of false accusers, term them Diaboloi; and the meaning of the word Diaboloi is slanderous, libelous, injurious; and this is the term constantly applied to the devil, because he is, as John styles him, "the accuser of our brethren." The devil then, is, as Christ says, "the father of lies," and every one who gives his tongue to slander, and maligns his neighbors, or utters words of falsehood or detraction — comes into the class of those false accusers, those Diaboloi of which Jesus truly said, "You are of your father the devil!"
There are various ways in which slander is uttered, each of which finds its illustration, and each its condemnation, in Scripture. Let me specify a few. The grossest kind of slander is bearing false witness — that is, saying a person did things which he did not do; as was the case with those suborned to testify against Naboth whose vineyard Ahab coveted; as was the case with the false witness, who laid to David's charge, things which he knew nothing of.
This false witness is sometimes spoken openly, sometimes in secret — but always with malicious intent. And in every instance the tongue which utters it, not only sets on fire the course of nature — but is set on fire by Hell.
Another way of slandering is by the use of scandalous and opprobrious epithets — as when Korah accused Moses of being unjust and selfishly ambitious; as when the Pharisees called our Lord a gluttonous man. Every epithet which you apply to a man is designed to brand the character of that person, and render it odious in the sight of others. This is mostly done behind one's back; where for a long time, perhaps, he cannot hear of it; and where, it may be, he can never defend or clear himself of the slander. Such a tongue is indeed like a viper's tongue — lurking in secret, and suddenly shooting out its fatal venom!
"No might nor greatness in mortality,
Can censure 'scape. Back-wounding calumny,
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong,
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?"
Another way of slandering is to impute false motives to good actions. When we say . . .
of a liberal man — that he is vainglorious;
of an active man in church affairs — that he is a Diotrephes;
of a prudent man — that he is miserly;
of a devout man — that he is hypocritical;
ascribing to the actions of persons — not good motives and designs, but evil ones, wherever it is possible to imagine such.
Another way of slandering is, to distort and pervert views, words, and actions . . .
giving them a false construction;
suppressing what might appear good;
magnifying what might seem to be evil.
This is taking a man's words and deeds, and, like Romish inquisitors, stretching them upon the rack until they become disjointed, and the once symmetrical form is all distorted and warped, by reason of the unjust treatment to which slander subjects it.
Another way of slandering is by . . .
expressions of doubt,
intimations as to something concealed,
a qualifying of the praise of others, by some question implying distrust, or lack of confidence.
In this way, without any downright assertions — but by skewed remarks and masked calumnies — is the character of your neighbor made to suffer; distrust of him is spread abroad, and he is pierced through by the arrow of malevolence, which the tongue of the slanderer, like a bow bent and charged with lies, has shot against him!
A good character is one of the richest estates man can own. "A good name," says the wise man, "is better than precious ointment. Yes, a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches!" Yet the slanderer steals away this good name, and seeks to ruin this goodly possession. Yet how often he goes unwhipped by justice.
"Who steals my purse, steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, now 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he who filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that, which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed!"
3. The third tongue-sin which James mentions, is, the murmuring, complaining, tongue. There are those who are always discontent, repining, and complaining. Even if blessings come, they murmur because they are no greater, and are ready to find fault, not only with all the dealings of their fellow-men — but with all the providences of God Himself! Nothing receives their unqualified commendation. There is always some abating, or qualifying, expression. They never give full credit for goodness; but always overestimate badness. Peevishness is the habitual tone of their talk. They look at everything through this jaundiced medium — and they make the air around them pestilent with the poisonous exhalations of their complaining tongue.
No character escapes their malevolence — the more polish and luster a character has — the more they delight to tarnish it, by the breath of slander. Such persons are miserable, unless they are engaged in detraction. They glory in their shame.
4. Falsehood is another grievous tongue-sin; and in this I would include all kinds of lying:
the positive lie — and the negative lie;
the direct lie — and the lie by implication;
the malignant lie — and the sportive lie.
Every designed departure from truth, is falsehood; and every falsehood is . . .
a sin against one's own soul,
a sin against your fellow-men,
and a sin against God —
which He will punish with fearful severity.
Were you able to sift the conversation which you hear in the common interactions of life — you would be surprised to find how much of falsehood it contains. Not the glaring, naked lie, bold, impudent, heaven-defying — but in the form of prevarication, distortion of facts, suppression of truth, or some one of the many minor forms which the tongue employs in uttering lies before God.
5. The tongue commits a great sin, when it is used in filthy talking and indecent speech. It is greatly to be lamented that even in polite, and what would pass for modest society — there is too much of tampering with this sin. Gross indelicacy would of course be avoided; but covert expressions, double entendres, innuendoes, passing allusions, indirect assertions — are too much indulged in; and with a relish which shows, alas! that the heart is not averse from that kind of talking, which it rather countenances than condemns.
The unclean tongue evidences an unclean heart — for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The unclean heart, like the volcano — is ever ejecting from its sulphurous mouth its unclean belchings, and pours its indecencies over the fairest aspects of society.
6. Another tongue-sin is boasting. "The tongue is a little member — but boasts great things." Boasting results from an over-estimate of ourselves — and an underestimate of others. It is selfishness manifesting itself in words. It is the inflated mind, venting itself in windy words. It betrays weakness, littleness, ignorance, vanity, self-conceit, arrogance, and pride! Yet it is a sin which we daily meet with; for men ever delight to talk about themselves, their sayings and doings, puffing themselves up above measure. And in order to elevate themselves — they make stilts of the reputation of others, and decry the doings of their neighbors — that their own may appear more grand and towering!
7. Another sin of the tongue, is flattery — or the giving of undue and undeserved praise. The desire to say something . . .
which will please the person we are speaking to,
or which will secure his favor, or elevate us in his regard;
or the desire, perhaps, to have him reciprocate the compliment, and flatter us —
are the usual motives for this sin of the tongue.
Yet flattery is a species of untruth; for it magnifies real merit beyond just grounds — or feigns a merit where none exists. Flattery is used in all ranks and classes. In the family, in society, in business, in professional life, in politics, in the church. And yet how true is it, as Solomon says, "He who flatters his neighbor — spreads a net for his feet!"
8. Lastly, there is the tongue-sin of profanity — the taking of God's name in vain. I need not here speak of that open blasphemy which so offends the ear even of those who do not profess and call themselves Christians; but shall restrict myself to those who, while they would not swear, as vulgar people do — yet in various ways and by indirect methods, do take God's name in vain.
How many are the epithets, and phrases, circulating from mouth to mouth, even among good people, which, when reduced to the last analysis, is, in God's sight — a taking of His name in vain! How many ejaculations bordering on profanity, how many exclamations having the aspect of thinly-disguised blasphemies — are current in society. These tend to weaken conscience — are almost self-conscious violations of the third commandment, and always detract from integrity of character, by showing inward thoughts and emotions, which would utter themselves in profanity if they dared, and are only kept back and masked by social considerations, rather than reverence for God's hallowed name.
The Christian cannot be too careful to purge his speech of all such things, and never to let his tongue use such questionable asseverations.
Such being some of the sins of this mighty, this unbridled, this untamable tongue — what are the THREATENINGS of God against all such sinfulness of speech?
With regard to the first tongue-sin, Chattering, the Bible says, "A chattering fool comes to ruin!" It was commanded in the law of Moses, "You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people"; and the Scripture says, "The words of a tale-bearer, are as wounds"; and Solomon declares, "When words are many — sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise."
Against the second tongue-sin, Slander, God utters fierce denunciation. "Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret — him will I cut off." He who utters slander is a fool; because while he is attempting to kill the character of his neighbor — he is slaying his own!
Against the third sin, Complaining and Murmuring, there are strong threatenings; and God's deserving punishment of the murmurings of the children of Israel, are frequently mentioned in the Bible.
Against the fourth sin, Falsehood, God says, "No one who practices deceit will dwell in My house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in My presence." "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord!" ". . . all liars — their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur!"
Against the fifth sin, Filthy talking, God says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths." "Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place." He declares that nothing that defiles shall enter the gate of the Celestial City, that only "he who has pure hands and a clean heart, shall ascend into the hill of the Lord." Every impure word is a direct violation of the seventh commandment; and every unchaste thought is an insult to a holy God, who has declared that only "the pure in heart shall see God."
Against the sixth sin, Boasting, the Psalmist says, "The Lord shall cut off every boastful tongue." Paul classifies them with backbiters, haters of God, inventors of evil things, all of whom "are reprobate," and James says — "all such boasting is evil."
Against the seventh sin, Flattery, God says, "A flattering mouth works ruin." "The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips!"
Against the eighth sin, Profanity, which is a direct violation of the third commandment, God says that He will not hold him guiltless, who takes His name in vain; and that blasphemers shall have their part in the lake which burns forever.
Such are some of the more marked tongue-sins among men; and from even this brief enumeration, you will perceive that the description which James gives of this little member is not at all exaggerated. Not an epithet is applied to it, which it does not deserve; not an illustration is used, which is not of the utmost force. With what care, then, should we bridle the tongue; for God says, "If any man among you seems to be religious, and bridles not his tongue — that man's religion is vain."
With what steadiness should we hold this tongue which, like the little rudder of a ship, turns about our whole course of life! With what watchfulness should we mark the spark-dropping words of this tongue, which is itself a fire and kindles great conflagrations! With what caution should we use an instrument of speech which has under it "the poison of asps!" With what assiduity should we seek to tame that most untamable of things — that it does not tear by its fierceness, and destroy society by its brutelike goadings!
Yet we cannot do this in our own strength of wisdom. Our prayer must be that of the Psalmist, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth. Guard the door of my lips!" We must seek for divine grace to aid us in subduing and controlling the tongue. We must seek to have hearts created anew in Christ Jesus; for if our hearts are right with God — our speech will be also. If our hearts are clean — our lips will be clean. If our hearts are pure — our tongue will be pure. The cleansing process then must begin in the heart. The cleansing power must be the Holy Spirit — for He alone can sanctify it and make it pure.