Taming a Bitter Tongue

Dr. Rob Green July 21, 2019 James 3:1-18
Outline

James 3:10-11 - …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?

The Bible uses this word group in three distinct ways:

1. The presence of bitter conditions

2. The power of a bitter heart

3. The poison of a bitter lifestyle

3 principles to help us avoid bitter speech

I. Understand the Challenge of Bitter Speech

Proverbs 18:21 - Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

A. It is a universal problem

James 3:2 - 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.

James 3:8 - But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

Bitter (OT – Marah, NT – pikros) – sour, brackish taste, the opposite of sweet. The poisonous, putrid bile from the gall bladder. An inner emotional feeling of deep sorrow, or an outwardly directed anger that cries out to the power that seems to be causing the problem (Theological Wordbook of the OT – p. 528-529).

B. It has incredible impact

1. like a bit in a horse’s mouth

James 3:3 - Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.

2. like a rudder in a ship

James 3:4 - 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.

C. It is notoriously inconsistent

1. We use our tongues to bless God and curse people

James 3:9 - With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God…

“The Beatitudes are statements about the privileged status (blessedness) a relationship with Christ confers upon believers. Certainly, Eugena does not feel ‘blessed’ right now. But then few modern Americans would use ‘blessed’ to describe themselves if they saw themselves as ‘poor in spirit,’ ‘mournful,’ ‘persecuted,’ or ‘hungry.’ All this suggests that a different way of looking at life is needed to truly appreciate what Jesus is saying with these Beatitudes. Although Eugena won’t resonate initially with these statements of blessedness, as a child of God, they are nevertheless true for her. And that reality can help her, over time, to recover from her divorce and redirect her new life as a single woman toward God’s glorious kingdom purposes for her.” Jeff Forrey, “Beating Bitterness with the Beatitudes”, BCC blog post, July 10, 2019

2. Unlike other aspects of creation

II. Examine the Source of Bitter Speech

Matthew 12:34-37 - …For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

A. Its characteristics

1. jealousy

James 3:14 - …but if you heave bitter jealousy…

Acts 8:20-22 - But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.

Acts 8:23 - For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.

2. selfish ambition

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart…

James 3:16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist…

“Those whose lives are based on and motivated by human, ungodly wisdom are inevitably self-centered, living in a world in which their own personal ideas, desires, and standards are the measure of everything. Whatever and whoever serves those ends is considered good and friendly; whatever and whoever threatens those ends is considered bad and an enemy. Those who are engulfed in self-serving worldly wisdom resent anyone or anything that comes between them and their own objectives. John MacArthur, Commentary on James, p. 171

3. pride

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant…

4. falsehood

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

B. Its origin

1. earthly

2. natural

3. demonic

James 3:15 - This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.

C. Its result

James 3:16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.

III. Seek an Alternative to Bitter Speech

A. Its characteristics

1. pure

2. peaceable

3. reasonable

4. full of mercy

5. unwavering

6. without hypocrisy

James 3:17 - But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

B. Its result

James 3:18 - And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

As you are probably aware Pastor Viars is writing a book on bitterness. These sermons form the foundation of that book. Practically speaking that means that he has prepared each message, save the one I did while he was in Ecuador, regardless of who is speaking.

Today… he is speaking at another campus and I am using his sermon with a few minor adjustments since Pastor Viars and I do not wear the exact same size clothes. I wanted you to know that this sermon was largely his work.

Throughout human history there is one resource that determines the viability of a town or city --- water.

  • Communities cannot exist without a safe, reliable source of drinking water
  • We depend on that every day and when it can’t be trusted, the potential negative impact on citizens can’t be overstated…
  • In the mid-20th century…Flint was a growing and affluent suburb of Detroit with nearly 200,000 residents…
  • Flint was the birthplace of General Motors – and like many cities has a river flowing through the heart of town…
    • As various industries spouted up along the shores of the river, so did the discharge of sewage from manufacturing facilities, meatpacking plants, lumber and paper mills along with raw sewage from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, agricultural and urban run-off, and toxins from leaking landfills…
  • Activists who were opposed to what has happening to the Flint River actually said the river caught fire … twice
  • Is it fair to say that when the water in your river is catching fire…something has gone terribly wrong?
  • Industries closed and jobs dried up.
  • Flint’s population plummeted to 100,000 people, 45% of its remaining residents lived below the poverty line, and nearly 1 in 6 homes were abandoned… The city was in crisis at every level.
  • A decision was then made to end the city’s five-decade old practice of pumping treated water from Detroit to the residents of Flint and instead begin pumping water from…the Flint river…the one that was on fire … twice!
  • People would bring smelly, discolored jugs of water to city hall but the officials insisted the water supply was safe…
  • Then the effects started showing up in people’s health…
  • One pediatrician reported that elevated blood-levels in children had nearly doubled since 2014 and nearly tripled in certain neighborhoods…[imagine if that was happening in your subdivision…to the neighborhood children]…
  • We all need drinking water that is fresh and safe and reliable…and exposing people, especially children, to anything else – like the pediatrician said – is one of the worst things you can do in their entire life trajectory…
  • In an extended discussion about the power of the tongue, James observes… 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? – James 3:10-11.
  • This summer we’re doing a series entitled Overcoming Bitterness…and one of the principles we learned early on is that… The Bible uses this word group in three distinct ways:
  • The Egyptians oppressed the Jews with bitter working conditions
  • Hannah’s rival provoked her bitterly because of her inability to conceive a child…
  • If sinful bitterness of the heart is not handled, it will invariably come out in the way a person speaks…and think about those jugs of discolored, smelly, foul tasting water people were lugging to city hall…
  • and think about the impact some people have with their tongues…
    • they speak words that are tainted with bitterness…and their friends, and their family members, and their neighbors can’t process the tainted samples of our words fast enough….
  • and the plan is to do a biblical case study…on the life of a person named Naomi…Ruth’s mother-in-law…
  • Please take time this week to read the book of Ruth…it will take 20-30 minutes…
  • but take what we’re seeing today – and what we’ve studied throughout this entire series…and let’s practice applying it practically to what the Bible tells us about Naomi…with the goal of using that same process then of applying it to ourselves…
  • that might be the understatement of the morning…
  • we’re not nearly as careful and prayerful as we ought to be…
  • because after all – stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me…so they can’t hurt anyone else, right…so why be careful about it – even if we are spewing bitter words from time to time on everyone in sight?...

We only have to look north to the city of Flint, MI to see a very unfortunate example of that truth…

Sounds like a nice place to go swimming, huh?...

Then in the 1980s hard economic times hit Flint.

Then the problems worsened

Almost immediately the residents began complaining that the water from their taps looked, and smelled, and tasted foul…

A study conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech revealed at least part of the problem…the new water source was contaminated by lead…

This doctor said – “lead is one of the most damning things you can do to a child in their entire life-course trajectory”

Friends, the Word of God uses the metaphor of safe and quality water to describe the way we should communicate with one another…

That’s what it is so important for you and I to learn how to tame our tongue…The title of our message is Taming a Bitter Tongue

With that in mind, please open your Bible to James chapter 3…page 179 of the back section of the Bible under the chair in front of you…

1. The presence of bitter conditions

These are the trials and difficulties we all face as a result of living in a sin-cursed world around sin-cursed people…

None of that is necessarily our responsibility and if we respond to it well, we can avoid crossing the line into willful sin…that is why we studied the issues of biblical lament and bitter tears…because it is possible to respond to bitter conditions well…

- but what happens when we do cross the line?....first, there’s…

2. The power of a bitter heart

At this stage your bitterness is internal. You are raging in your heart and mind about something you find unjust or unfair. If that’s not recognized and addressed in a timely fashion…there will be…

3. The poison of a bitter lifestyle

I once read (i.e., someone smarter than me, but also whose name escapes me) that bitterness is like drinking poison and thinking someone else will die. Wow! We need to avoid that.

Today we want to connect a bitter lifestyle (how we behave in light of the fact that there are those we think have harmed us or not given us our due) with the words that come out of our mouth.

The good news is that Jesus Christ is powerful enough to help us with that…Read James 3:1-18

- now, a couple of important ideas…

1. there passage is not just about bitter speech…but all sorts of speech that displeases the Lord…

- and admittedly, there is far more important truth than we can cover this am…

- the good news that we are scheduled to do a verse by verse study of James later this year…and we plan to spend a couple of weeks doing a more detailed treatment of what this important text says…

2. looking ahead – I’d like to give you a homework assignment for next Sunday…we have three more weeks left in this series after today…

- now, for our purposes this am, let’s look for 3 principles to help us avoid bitter speech

I. Understand the Challenge of Bitter Speech

Would it be fair to say that James is trying to help people like you and me take this topic seriously?...

and why might James care about that?...because some of us are lackadaisical about the way we speak…

- Solomon said it like this -- Proverbs 18:21 - Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Death and life? What more could be at stake? Our words are either bringing life into our relationships or they are bringing death.

A. It is a universal problem

James 3:2 - 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.

James 3:8 - But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

  • now, we would be making the text say more than it does if we insisted this proves every person struggles with bitter speech…because as we mentioned earlier, this passage is about all kinds of speech that dishonors the Lord…not just bitter words…but it is fascinating how prevalent the issue of bitterness is in this text…
  • If we looked at your social media posts the last 30 days – would there be any evidence of speech that the writer is bitter?...can you imagine if FB or Twitter had a “bitterness filter”…
  • What if our brains had a bitterness filter where something judged as bitter would shut down our vocal chords. What would be left?
  • You have this huge and powerful animal…but that small piece of metal can make the horse go wherever you want…
  • It’s incredible when you look at some of these large ships…and then this tiny rudder by comparison…but that’s all it takes to make it change direction…
  • The picture James is drawing here…of the impact words – including bitter words – can have on those around us is profound and sometimes hard to imagine.
  • Yet some people do that at home to their children every day by spewing out words laced with bitterness…
  • And worse, they don’t seem to recognize the devastating effect such words can have…
    • Life and death are in the power of the tongue
  • and we might want to pause on that one and say – do we?
  • he led off with a counseling case of a woman he fictionally named Eugena whose husband had left her and she was struggling with bitterness…
  • the more we recognize our blessed condition, the more likely we are to bless the Lord with our tongues…
    • The only thing worse than the inconsistency of blessing the Lord and cursing people is not blessing the Lord at all and only cursing people…
    • and conversely – the more often we bless the Lord the less likely it is that we will spew bitter words on others…
  • you don’t see it in fountains, or fig trees, or vines, or salt water…
  • the question for all of us would be is there a carefulness about the way we speak…including genuine caution to avoid all bitter words about others and our circumstances, and our past and our future…because we don’t want to poison our own souls and we certainly don’t want to poison the hearts and lives of those the Lord has placed around us?...
  • wouldn’t it be terrible to hear one of our grown children or grandchildren speaking in ways that were laced with bitterness…and then have the lyrics from Cat Steven’s famous oldie coursing through your mind – He’s grown up just like me…my boy is just like me?...
  • when you ask – where is this bitterness coming from…the answer in some cases is…jealousy…wishing you had what someone else had, or wishing they didn’t have what you crave…
  • so a man named Simon saw that and asked to but the power with money… Here was Peter’s response …
  • see – I want somebody else’s position, gifting, kids/family./marriage, material positions, health…
  • that’s why they gossip behind that person’s back – those bitter words are coming from a jealous heart…is there any way in which that is true of you?...
  • I want you to give me the red stuff I think I need and deserve right now…
    • I’m mad at you because you’re not giving me my red stuff as fast or as much as I think I deserve…
  • to be demanding
  • to be demeaning
  • to consider their desires as more important than others
  • to not care who they have to hurt, run over, or offend in order to accomplish their desire
  • Is it possible that any of the words that come out of your mouth or mine have this as its source?
  • In Paul Tripp’s book The War of Words there are only two types of words possible in the universe. It is the words associate with God and his kingdom and the words associated with Satan and his kingdom.
    • Then when you realize that our words originate in our heart it is not hard to see that either our hearts are concerned about the Lord and his ways or they are concerned about Satan and his ways.
  • you wonder how much James was thinking about the Lord when He penned those words?
    • And if you would say this am – too often my speech is far different than what verse 17 describes…is that an indication that you have a more fundamental decision to make about placing your faith and trust in Christ as Savior and Lord?...
      • you don’t first need communication strategies – your first need a Savior, a Lord, whose grace stands ready to transform your heart and life…

Remember that we have a definition for bitter …

- Bitter (OT – Marah, NT – pikros) – sour, brackish taste, the opposite of sweet. The poisonous, putrid bile from the gall bladder. An inner emotional feeling of deep sorrow, or an outwardly directed anger that cries out to the power that seems to be causing the problem (Theological Wordbook of the OT – p. 528-529).

James makes the point that all of us need to think about this.

- but worse than that…

B. It has incredible impact

For anyone who would say – well, sure, maybe a lot of my words [at least to/about certain people] are

bitter – but that doesn’t hurt anything…that’s not what James says…

1. like a bit in a horse’s mouth

- James 3:3 - Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.

2. like a rudder in a ship

- James 3:4 - 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.

When I was in college I had the chance to row on an intercollegiate club rowing team. There are different kinds of boats, but the most popular have 8 rowers and 1 coxswain. Each person had an oar about 12 feet long. The boat weighed about 200 lbs. with another 1300 or so for the rowers themselves. The boat was about 60 foot long.

So a boat 60 feet long, weighing 1500 lbs., carrying 9 people, with oars extending a total of 25 feet across and travelling between 10 and 20 miles per hour was steered by a rudder that weighed less than one pound. Yet that very small rudder drove those shells wherever the coxswain wanted.

The importance of that rudder hit home very clearly as a new coxswain (the person steering) accidently got too close to a pole marking the depth of the canal. The result is that one of my teammates’ oar hit the pole, took it out of his hands, and slammed it into his rib cage so hard that his rowing season was ended as his broken ribs healed.

When you went out for a race you hoped that someone checked the rudder.

A small thing like a bit in a horses’ mouth or a rudder on a boat can have an incredible impact.

How would you like to be the guy who authorized the switch to the Flint river and inadvertently poisoned little children with water tainted with lead?...

Think with me about a moment in your life where someone’s words were like refreshing water on a hot day. The kind of refreshment that can feel move from your mouth all the way down to your stomach. I remember an elementary teacher … I was two grade levels behind in English and two grade levels ahead in math. She looked at me and said I don’t understand how a person can be two grade levels ahead in math and cannot read. Then she gave me the English textbook of my peers. Her words were like ice water on a hot day.

Now, think with me about a moment in your life where someone’s words (or yours) pierced the soul. They cut your heart out and threw it on the floor. I did that to a girl in college. I don’t have time to tell the story, but it was not Stephanie. What I said hurt her. She was desperate for relief … and said, “I hope I never see you again in my life.” That was about 29 years ago and I have not ever seen her again. If I did I would need to ask her forgiveness.

Words have an incredible impact … they are the difference between life and death, they are like bits that control horses, rudders that steer boats, and fires that destroy property and possessions.

To make matters worse … as if it could be worse …

C. It is notoriously inconsistent

1. We use our tongues to bless God and curse people.

James 3:9 - With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;

- Last week my friend Jeff Forrey wrote a blog on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website entitled “Beating Bitterness with the Beatitudes”

Jeff’s point was that the beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 could be of help to her…it’s a solid article and I would encourage you to read it in its entirety…but in one section he said…

The Beatitudes are statements about the privileged status (blessedness) a relationship with Christ confers upon believers. Certainly, Eugena does not feel “blessed” right now. But then few modern Americans would use “blessed” to describe themselves if they saw themselves as “poor in spirit,” mournful,” “persecuted,” or “hungry.” All this suggests that a different way of looking at life is needed to truly appreciate what Jesus is saying with these Beatitudes. Although Eugena won’t resonate initially with these statements of blessedness, as a child of God, they are nevertheless true for her. And that reality can help her, over time, to recover from her divorce and redirect her new life as a single woman toward God’s glorious kingdom purposes for her (Jeff Forrey, “Beating Bitterness with the Beatitudes”, BCC blog post, July 10, 2019).

- and James says, this inconsistency…

2. Unlike other aspects of creation – vv. 10-12

It should not be that way on the tongue of a person who says he or she knows the Lord…

Let’s all admit that there are times that we have used hurtful bitter words. Let’s all admit that we need to grow in how we use our tongues. Let’s all admit that we do not want to hurt others nor do we want to set an example for the people in our circle of influence where they might end up doing that exact same thing.

Now that we understand the challenge of bitter speech lets …

II. Examine the Source of Bitter Speech

Jesus made it clear that our words simply reveal the condition of our hearts…

Matthew 12:34–37 - …For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

That’s what James is talking about here…so do what do we find in a heart struggling with bitterness?

A. Its characteristics

1. Jealousy

- James 3:14 – but if you heave bitter jealousy…

- James 3:16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist…

I don’t think I would have put these two ideas together in my mind were it not for juxtapositions like this one but also the way I’ve seen this played out in pastoral ministry over the years…

Do you remember this example early in the life of the church…where a man saw the apostles leading new people groups to Christ and then the legitimacy of men and women of their ethnicity being welcome in the church was signified when the apostles laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit…

Acts 8:20–22 - But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.

- wow – but then he went on to say…Acts 8:23 - For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.

Gall of bitterness – how so?...because he had cultivated a jealous heart…

2. Selfish ambition

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart…

James 3:16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist…

Those whose lives are based on and motivated by human, ungodly wisdom are inevitably self-centered, living in a world in which their own personal ideas, desires, and standards are the measure of everything. Whatever and whoever serves those ends is considered good and friendly; whatever and whoever threatens those ends is considered bad and an enemy. Those who are engulfed in self-serving worldly wisdom resent anyone or anything that comes between them and their own objectives (John MacArthur, Commentary on James, p. 171).

- this takes us back to the story of Esau, doesn’t it?...give me some of that red stuff…

- how many of your words are bitter for this very reason…

3. Pride

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant…

I realize that pride is a huge word. All of us have it. But what you find is that is a difference between a person who acts prideful in a moment but has an overall disposition toward humility and a person who has acts humble in a moment but has an overall disposition toward pride.

Those who have pride in their hearts use their tongues

What happens is their words are like the poisonous, putrid, bile from the gall bladder because they are flowing out of a heart that is crammed full of jealousy, selfish ambition, and pride… we need to add one more …

4. Falsehood

James 3:14 - But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.

- what was it that Esau proclaimed just prior to his father’s death…

- Jacob stole my birthright…

- we’ve made this observation several times the last few weeks because it is so important…

- bitterness will make a liar out of you…and what is…

B. Its origin

1. Earthly

2. Natural

3. Demonic

James 3:15 - This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.

...and what is…

C. Its result

James 3:16 - For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.

Life and death are in the power of the tongue. The tongue is a small part of the body like a fire, a rudder, and a bit … but oh the power that it has.

Friends, this connection between bitter lifestyle and bitter heart is so crucial. If you are destroying your marriage with your words, if you are friendless because your words make you an annoying person to be around, if your words are driving your children away from you as fast as they can … then please please see that there are some very serious issues. It is not a matter of you speak before you think (that is impossible) … Is that your heart, whether you want to admit it or not, is more concerned about jealousy, selfish ambition, pride, and lying then your heart is concerned about Christ and his kingdom.

- well, thankfully, we’re not left there…we can…

III. Seek an Alternative to Bitter Speech.

- none of us have to speak bitter words…

- Jesus Christ stands ready to provide an entirely different source of wisdom…to in order to inform and drive our communication.

When our hearts are committed to Christ … and when they are interested in exercising thankfulness for all Christ has done, accomplish the mission God has given us rather than our own selfish ambition, being humble following the example of our savior, and committed to the truth of God’s word then the wisdom we find in this passage is what leads to what we say.

Notice …

A. Its characteristics

1. pure

2. peaceable

3. reasonable

I need a healthy dose of reason from time to time. Don’t you? Keep it in perspective. Don’t be a drama king. Do not make a mountain out of a molehill.

4. full of mercy

Because I need mercy too.

5. unwavering

6. without hypocrisy

James 3:17 - But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

- you know that James was the half-brother of Jesus…

- Christian friend – what about this issue of bitter speech?...Is God’s Word pointing out areas in your life that need attention?...and are you able/willing not just to deal with the behavior…but the heart that is producing such words?...

- and where does this right approach lead?...

B. Its result

James 3:18 - And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Or in the words of Proverbs … LIFE is in the power of the tongue

Dr. Rob Green

B.S. - Engineering Physics, Ohio State University
M.Div. - Baptist Bible Seminary
Ph.D. - New Testament, Baptist Bible Seminary

Pastor Rob Green and his wife, Stephanie, joined the Faith staff in August, 2005.  Rob’s responsibilities include oversight of the Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry, Chair of the MABC program, and teaching New Testament at the Faith Bible Seminary. He serves on the council board of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and as a fellow at the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

Read Rob Green's Journey to Faith for the full account of how the Lord led Pastor Green to Faith Church.