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Death or Life: The Power of the Tongue

Updated on May 17, 2021
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I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

Our Words Hurt or Heal

Nitroglycerin is an oily colorless liquid explosive that has been used for many things. It has been utilized by the military. And it also has been put into service for peaceful purposes such as quarrying. However, nitroglycerin has one major disadvantage. Though it looks harmless enough, it is, nevertheless, extremely unstable. The slightest jolt, impact or friction can cause it to spontaneously detonate. And many people have lost their lives trying to use it.

We all have a nitroglycerin-like tool that is part of the God-given equipment in our bodies. Under control, it is quite useful for communication, as well as helping to manipulate food for chewing and swallowing. However, used in the wrong way, it can be a weapon of mass destruction. If allowed to get out of control, it can harm all that are in the path of the venomous words that it unleashes. I'm talking about the tongue. And in the book of Proverbs, we have a stern warning about what can take place when we don't use this instrument from God correctly. It tells us:

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits" (Proverbs 18:21).

Just like we can destroy people with our words, we can also encourage them and give them the motivation to go on in life. Words have been known to save a person from the brink of suicide. And our words can help people grow and achieve, and become all that they were meant to be. We must not be careless with them.

I. The Tongue is Small but Powerful

The book of James talks about the tongue. He gives several life illustrations to show us how we need to use this instrument with caution. For instance, the horse, though a large animal, can be manipulated by the use of a small bit in his mouth. And a giant ship is turned by a very small rudder (James 3:1-3). Even so, the tongue, though a very small part of the body, has the power to do great things.

When you think about it, the tongue is only about four inches long physically, on the average. But with it an Adolf Hitler manipulated thousands to bend to his will and to follow the Nazi party. Because of his words, 6 million Jews went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. And with that same instrument, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a Dream" speech and rallied a whole generation for civil rights.

And, each of us has the power to be equally as hurtful, or equally as helpful. It is up to us. God has given us a gift. That gift, like all of the Lord's gifts, can be used or misused.

II. The Tongue Can Be Destructive

James also sees the tongue as extremely destructive. We all know that a fire under control can be used to warm us, give light and cook our food. But out of control, it can destroy all in its path.

It is estimated that nine out of 10 forest fires are caused by human carelessness each year. The most common cause is the use of open flames and barbecue grills. And improperly extinguished cigarettes also cause many fires.

However, there are times when it is determined that a forest fire has been started on purpose by some arsonists. One of the largest in recent history happened in 2008 in Froland, in Aust-Agder County, Norway. The forest fire lasted for 13 days. And it took large crews from the fire service, civil defense, and armed forces to help put it out. There were also 15 helicopters in the air pouring water over the flames during that time. A total of 77 residents had to be evacuated from their homes. And by the time the fire was contained, 27,000 acres had been affected, including 19,000 acres of productive forests.

James talks about how a little fire can kindle a large forest fire (3:5-6). The tongue, like fire, can be very useful and helpful, or it can destroy people's lives, just as a forest fire can do.

III. The Tongue is Untameable

But beyond its destructive nature, the tongue is quite untameable as well. It's amazing how man has tamed various animals. l have seen trained lions and elephants for instance. Lion trainers sometimes stick their heads between the teeth of the lions that they work with. And people have tamed and trained elephants for thousands of years. The logging industry, in some Asian countries, has used them to pull heavy loads. And at circuses, trained elephants stand on their heads, lie down, roll over, dance and perform various other tricks.

That doesn't seem to be true of the tongue, however. According to James, "it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison" We use it to bless our God and curse our fellow human beings, created in God's image. (3:7-9). The untameable tongue can be quite hypocritical.

IV. The Tongue is Hypocritical

I used to live near someone who had a spring. You could always count on it, when you went there, to get fresh spring water. It never went dry. The owners used it to provide water for their home. But that wouldn't happen if someone were to put salt into the water. It would begin to produce salt water, at least until the salt had washed away. You couldn't get the fresh clean water from it and salt water at the same time. Likewise, if an apple tree is grown, it will not produce lemons. It will only produce apples.

However, out of the same mouth come both blessing and cursing (3:10-12). This should never happen, but it does more than any of us would care to admit.


Ultimately, God's people should be a source of grace, truth, and love to everyone with whom we come in contact. This, however, will never fully happen unless we can get our tongues under control. With the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, it is possible for the words of our mouths to become a force for good in this world. But we can never underestimate what could happen if we don't manage our tongues. Life and death are truly in the power of the tongue. It is up to us to see that this instrument produces life.

© 2012 Jeff Shirley


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