STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12 NIV84)
As a wide-eyed ten-year-old with his first television exposure, I found the Saturday morning westerns captivating. Along with the white-hatted cowboys inevitably saving the day, another memory was the occasional reference to someone speaking with a “forked tongue”—deceptively divisive, saying one thing and doing another, promising but not delivering.
Earlier in the book of James (3:1-8) our inspired Christian life-counselor James dealt with the power and destructiveness of this tiny organ, the human tongue. Like a horse’s bit or a forest fire’s small beginnings, the untamed havoc wreaked in our evil world by the tongue is evident to us all.
The real problem, however, is not with the physical organ, but rather with the sinful heart of fallen man (Matthew l5:19). Cutting out the tongue for slandering or lying, as was practiced in some early civilizations, does not remove the real problem.
And sadly, that problem is also our problem. James is addressing redeemed Christians, believers engaged daily in a lifelong struggle with their own flesh (Romans 7:18-20). Out of hearts awash in the regenerative and renewing fresh-water springs of the Gospel come forth both pure and salt (bitter) water. On the otherwise productive branches of living Gospel trees (John 15:5) can sometimes be found foreign and unwanted fruit.
The same Sunday tongue that joyously sings “O that I had a thousand voices to praise my God with thousand tongues” can in daily life curse, slander, or verbally or digitally harm his fellow man. The same tongue that often speaks kindly and lovingly to others can at other times erupt in outbursts of anger or hatred. The same tongue that boldly confesses his Savior and faith when among brethren is sometimes loudly silent when it should be speaking or sharing or defending the faith among others. “My brothers, this should not be!” Let each of us take brother James’s words to heart personally. Look in the mirror (James 1:23). Examine, take to heart, honestly confess our own consistently inconsistent Christian hearts and lives and tongues. Seek and find forgiveness at the cross. “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord” with full faith-confidence in His promise that “He will lift you up.” (James 4:10) Thank God daily that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
What is James’ wonderful solution for our divided minds, forked tongues and inconsistent Christian lives? Let that living, powerful, true and “unforked” tongue—the Word of God—knife through our fleshly, self-righteous facade, piercing to the depths of our soul, exposing all. And let that same Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ heal our hearts as our souls are daily spoonfed with the faith-nourishing and strengthening Bread and Water of Life. In that faith and hope we echo the hymn writer’s striking contrast between our inconsistent earthly tongues and our eternally unforked, God-glorifying tongues:
“When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy power to save.” (TLH 157:5)
David Schierenbeck is a retired pastor and a member of the CLC Board of Doctrine. He lives in St. Paul Park, Minnesota.