“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh” (James 3:1-12).
As a child, I learned the nursery rhyme: “Ring Around the Rosie.” We’d hold hands and walk in a circle singing:
Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Then, on cue, we’d shout, “We all fall down!” and drop to the floor in utter amusement, giggles galore. The history and meaning of the rhyme is a matter of much debate, but we’ll let someone else wrestle with those issues another time. Our interest here relates to James’ thought that, “we all stumble in many ways,” that is, we all fall down.
Stumbling in sin isn’t the same as stubbing a toe, and it’s certainly no child’s game. We’ve all kicked a protruding stone or bit of pavement and spilled onto the floor. Usually, though, once the shock and embarrassment wear off, we collect ourselves and go on our way. Where sin is concerned, though, stumbling is a far more serious matter that describes falling under the wretch and misery of divine judgment and wrath.
Ironically (and inaccurately), we often think that a good Christian is one who has risen above all temptations, who never loses his temper, senses greed, or feels lust. We pretend shock and disbelief when a Christian leader is caught in some entanglement.
Truth is, we all fall down – all of us. We succumb to temptations. We give in to the lusts of the flesh. We capitulate to sin’s delights. What tempts one may not tempt another, but we all have weaknesses to which we are prone to yield.
James specifically referred to matters of the tongue – our words. To correct another children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can really hurt me.” Words can cut, pierce, and wound as deep as a dagger. They can inflict pain like a fist. They can leave much wreckage and ruin. Conversely, words can also heal, mend, and build. They can restore relationships, regain hope, and strengthen weaknesses.
Before the Lord saved me, I was an angry, frightened adolescent. My words were often caustic, sarcastic, and cruel. Cursing was a way of life for me. When He saved me, however, the Holy Spirit even seized control of my tongue. For weeks, I could hardly speak as the Spirit re-tooled my vocabulary. I wish I could say I’ve never slipped, but God is faithful where I have failed.
One clear indication of a life transformed by grace is a tongue that blesses instead of cursing. The tongue is a thermometer that reveals the Christlike warmth of the heart. The heart that the Spirit awakens glows with love for Christ, His Word, and His church. The tongue confesses the convictions of the heart, whether love for God or for the world.
As the world goes on cursing, threatening, and condemning one another, may Christ’s church stand apart, praising Him and speaking the healing truth to one another in love.